My Father's Class

By Lawrence Watt-Evans

My father, Gordon Evans, taught organic chemistry at Tufts University from 1949 until his death in 1980. Most of the time this just meant teaching med students what they needed to know to keep from poisoning patients, or teaching basic chemistry to hordes of freshmen who were in the process of discovering that they didn't want to be chemists after all, but in the intellectual tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s it got more varied and interesting for awhile.

One of the shibboleths of the 1960s was breaking down artificial barriers. In academia this often transformed into "interdisciplinary studies" of various sorts, and at Tufts it resulted in various experimental programs that used the existing faculty in new and interesting ways. For one example, at one point my father wound up teamed with an art professor to teach a course on experimental photography.

One of the experiments was letting faculty teach electives outside their own departments, in fields where they'd acquired expertise on their own. My father, who had been a science fiction reader since 1938, got to teach his dream course -- "Ethical Issues in Science Fiction."

I was in high school at the time. I helped him grade papers. He only taught the course once, and after reading those papers it was obvious why. What apparently happened was that scads of students saw the listing for an English course taught by a chemistry professor and immediately assumed it would be easy -- what we called a "gut," in my college days, as in you can get through on sheer gut instinct, you don't need to work.

These people didn't know my father, who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, went from there to the Manhattan Project, got his doctorate from Harvard after the war, courted my mother in three languages (they both knew more than that, but only three overlapped), translated Latin poetry for fun, and was once in danger of losing his job over flunking too high a percentage of his students. The actual course content seems to have come as a nasty shock to the students.

I don't remember all the details now; I do remember that the reading list included "The Cold Equations" and GLORY ROAD, because those were the two stories covered in the papers I read.

Now, those two stories are perfect for discussions of ethics -- after all, in "The Cold Equations" the protagonist finds himself in a situation where he must decide whether or not to commit murder for the greater good, and in GLORY ROAD Heinlein throws any number of ethical issues at Scar Gordon. The obvious questions to ask in each case are, "Did the protagonist do the right thing?" and, "Why do you think so?"

And the reason my father never taught the course again was that far too many of the students answered those two questions over and over with, "Yes," and "Because the author said so." It became very clear that most of them never thought about what they read; they read SF purely for the adventure aspect. If they noticed the ethical elements at all -- as some did, especially in the Heinlein -- it was usually as models of the ideal, rather than as something to think for themselves about.

I haven't seen anything in the twenty-some years since to convince me that anything's changed; I think that writers do their damnedest to put stuff in their stories that deserves to be thought about and debated, and readers do their damnedest not to notice any of it.

Or in those cases where the readers notice, as with many Heinlein fans, they read the author's questions as if they were answers.

Lawrence Watt-Evan's Web page is at uthors/LWE/
The Horror Writers of America page is at