Classes influenced by events in popular culture have become a fixture in course offerings at colleges across the nation. Schools offer interesting courses on musical artists, films, and television shows that draw the attention of students while discussing current issues and events in the world.
Spelman College in Atlanta offers a course within the English major that focuses on the work of speculative fiction author Octavia E. Butler, taught by Dr. Tarshia Stanley.
“I think that it’s important to bring elements of popular culture into the classroom. You have to meet students where they are and take them to where you want them to be,” says Stanley, but she cautions, “I do think that we have to be careful not to address and assess popular culture the same way cultural pundits would. We are studying it for a particular reason and we need to make those reasons clear to our students. So, it’s not for entertainment, this is really deep study.”
“Butler’s Daughters: Imagining Leadership In Black Speculative Fiction” is taught by Stanley, the chair of Spelman’s English department, founding president of the Octavia Butler Society and the recipient of the one-year $15,000 Henry C. McBay Research Fellowship. The fellowship will support her summer studies at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where she will be reviewing Butler’s papers.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to the place you need to get to, to study papers or do interviews,” Stanley says. “I’m just really grateful to have been awarded it.”
The course was officially added to the course listing in spring 2014.
Stanley, who has been a part of Spelman College’s faculty since 1999, says the course was inspired simply through her love for Butler, as well as the fact that many of her students weren’t familiar with the trailblazing author.
“I wanted to remedy that situation,” says Stanley. “I wanted to make sure that young African-American women knew who she was and the power of her work.”
Butler is the first woman of color to be highly recognized as a speculative fiction writer, a genre that covers futuristic, supernatural, imaginative stories. A few of her popular novels include Dawn, Fledgling and Kindred, which Stanley says was the only text that had been taught in the academy.
“She’d been taught for a long time in English courses, but all her other work hadn’t been embraced because it was very speculative,” she says. “That’s one of the things that I wanted to get us thinking about in literature programs. We need to embrace all of her work, which meant, embrace speculative fiction.”
She believes the grant will give her the opportunity continue working on the idea of leadership in Butler’s fiction, which will, in turn, enhance the Butler’s Daughters course so that students will understand the many ways that Butler influences social activism and community outreach.
“That’s really what I’m interested in and it’s the concept that I want to introduce further to my students, so that they can look at the ways in which fiction, in general, and in this case, Octavia Butler, can be used to bridge gaps and make connections with the community.”