Approaches to Teaching the Works of Octavia Butler
Matthew Mullins, Assistant Professor of English and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses Butler’s concept of the future as bound to the past. He posits that Butler’s work represents a key contribution to the history of American literature by making her readers aware of two central conflicts that plague African American literature: the need to recreate a systematically obliterated history and simultaneously imagine a possible future. Mullins’s essay focuses on practical strategies for helping students become aware of the historical expectations they bring to African American literature and for helping instructors situate the results of a student designed in-class activity exploring the narrative structure of Kindred in an American fiction class. Butler’s fiction spurs serious consideration of the relationship between past and future and challenges a variety of assumptions about how history works and how it is represented.
Assistant Professor of English at SUNY, Albany Sami Schalk’s work contends that rather than being merely a medical concern, disability is a phenomenon socially constructed by the physical and attitudinal environments which can vary by time and place. Often instructors approach the concept of disability with examples about the architectural environment. While this explanation helps students understand how physical structures limit the abilities of certain people, it does little to explain how disability is socially constructed in terms of the attitudinal social environment. In Schalk’s essay “Teaching the Social Construction of Disability through the Parable series, Lilith’s Brood, and Seed to Harvest,” she demonstrates how Octavia E. Butler creates worlds in which the expectations and possibilities for bodyminds are different from the world we inhabit. She discusses how disability is socially constructed in Butler’s Parable series, Lilith’s Brood, and Seed to Harvest. By discussing how Butler’s worlds contain not only different kinds of bodyminds, but also different valuations and expectations of bodyminds, instructors can help students develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of the social construction of disability in order to identify and deconstruct it in their own real world(s).
In “Teaching Afrofuturistic Thought Leadership in Octavia E. Butler’s Fiction,” Tarshia Stanley, Associate Professor of English at Spelman College, discusses the strategies used to introduce students to the topics of speculative fiction, Black speculative fiction, and Afrofuturism. The Black female protagonists in Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) were the primary means of exploring Butler’s practice of Afrofuturism and denoting how such an observation might serve those in search of progressive models of leadership that extend across family, community, and culture. She writes that this kind of discussion is particularly pressing for students whose motto requires a commitment to being leaders and change agents, but does not necessarily address the real-world challenges of doing so in uniquely female bodies and for communities in deep and systemic crisis. Mary, Anyanwu, and Alanna are mothers, daughters, lovers, and warriors as well as leaders. Afrofuturism provides a lens through which to think of those positions as complementary rather than oppositional. The course content and format allowed experimentation with multi-modal writing by including assignments which were presented as humanities poster presentations, critical and creative essays, and free-writing responses formulated for the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society blog.