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Punking the Victorians, Punking Pedagogy: Steampunk and Creative Assignments in the Composition Classroom

2012 September 6

Dr. Kathryn Crowther (Georgia Perimeter College)

As a Victorianist teaching primarily first-year English, I have to look for creative ways to bring my 19th-century interests into the classroom. A few semesters ago I was teaching freshman composition at Georgia Tech, and I began brainstorming for a way to design a course that combined Victorian texts with a focus on technology. I thought that 19th-century literature would be a hard sell in a class of engineers and programmers until conversations with my office mate (and JVC online editor), Lisa Hager, steered me in the direction of “Steampunk.” It was the perfect topic:  Victorian aesthetics and technology refigured in a fantasy/science-fiction/alternate-history setting. Using Steampunk as my end point, I designed a course entitled “Machines and Monsters:  Technology in Literature from Steam Engines to Steampunk” which began with 19th century literature like Frankenstein and The Time Machine and ended with the Steampunk novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. My intent was simply to assign texts that would open up the class discussion to the intersection of literature and technology; however, as the semester progressed, I realized that Steampunk actually speaks to deeper cultural issues related to technology and opens up a model for creativity and innovation that taps into some of the central concerns of the contemporary college classroom.

Picture 1:  The Time Machine

Picture 2:  The Difference Engine

I structured the course around learning objectives that focused on a variety of critical thinking, research, and multi-modal communication skills. Students used the texts as a springboard for in-class discussions, close-readings on their individual blogs, and for three major assignments:  a literary analysis essay, a research portfolio, and a multi-media final project.  At the beginning of the semester, the students read and analyzed19th– century texts and our discussions focused on how the conversations and early concerns about the potential of technology emerge in the literature of the period. Students used their blogs as a way to record their reactions to texts (“low-stakes writing”[1]) and as a way to consider their own relationship to contemporary media and text production.

Picture 3:  Student blog

Picture 4:  Student blog

After completing the first unit on 19th-century literature, we moved through a second unit focusing on technological developments in the Victorian era. At the end of this unit, students chose an idea, an invention, or an important historical figure to research and then created research projects which combined traditional bibliographies with digital portfolios. Finally, in the third unit of the course, we began our discussion of Steampunk.  For many students it was a new concept (though some had chosen the course precisely because they were already Steampunk fans).  For the uninitiated, Steampunk is a cyberpunk spin-off that began as a literary genre and has now transformed into a culture of conferences, cos-play, music groups, movies, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, Steampunk artisans. Despite its recent cultural popularity, it is strikingly hard to pin down a definition of what Steampunk actually is. Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall, the editors of the recent special “Steampunk” edition of Neo-Victorian Studies suggest “In literary culture, [Steampunk] can mean a narrative set in Victorian London; one set in a futuristic world that retains or reverts to the aesthetic hallmarks of the Victorian period; a piece of speculative historical fiction that deploys Victorian subjects; or a text that incorporates anachronistic versions of nineteenth-century technologies. In material culture, the Victorian-ness of Steampunk usually involves the incorporation of stylised Victorian-era objects or costumes.” [2]

The “punk” component of Steampunk fiction allows it to rewrite history, to transport contemporary technology back in time, or to revise the lives of real 19th-century people (such as making Lord Byron Prime Minister in The Difference Engine). It is the punk that allows the fantasies of Steampunk to run wild, and allows anachronism and history to sit side-by-side.  In this way Steampunk literature can be seen as fitting into the larger genre of “Neo-Victorian” literature, a genre that deploys post-modern concepts of historiography in rewriting and re-envisioning the Victorian era – either through novels set in the nineteenth-century with familiar Victorian characters, motifs and themes, or fiction that reworks Victorian aesthetics and tropes in contemporary settings.  It provides a useful way to discuss the history and culture of the 19th century while providing a critique of the desire to “read” history as a reliable or stable narrative.

As my class read examples of Steampunk literature and studied the culture that surrounds it, we realized that Steampunk as a genre does not simply describe the Victorian era; it strives to recreate it, both by imitating its aesthetics and by appropriating its methodologies. My students were fascinated by the Steampunk artisans who design, build, modify (“mod”), and use artifacts that look Victorian, and, in many cases, work using Victorian technologies.  From laptops that boot up with the turn of a key, to Steampunk guitars, iPod cases, and even cars, the production of Steampunk artifacts exemplifies that Steampunk is about creating, not consuming; about doing not describing. With an emphasis on cogs, springs, and sprockets, Steampunk artifacts not only look like Victorian technologies, but they represent an ethos of craftsmanship that values openness about how things work. Steampunk artisans encourage others to create versions of their work, often posting their plans and prototypes online and encouraging others to build, tinker, mod, and use their Victorian-styled inventions.

Picture 5:  Steampunk laptop Picture 6:  Steampunk guitar Picture 7:  Steampunk watch

Steampunk’s focus on invention and craft led to great conversations with my students (themselves budding designers, architects, engineers etc.) about the ways that the openness of Steampunk rejects the closed-off, impenetrable surfaces of contemporary technology which, as Bowser and Croxall note, represent a “drive toward an aesthetic of technological invisibility.” [3] Rather than encouraging us to open it up and see, today’s technology forbids us from looking and touching, thereby prohibiting us from learning and reinventing. The appeal of Steampunk, then, points us back to the Victorian age from which it takes its inspiration:  a unique moment in time when technology was rapidly developing, yet it was still open and available to anyone who wanted to tinker, build, or transform existing models into new inventions.

As my students debated the ideological challenge that Steampunk mounts against contemporary technology, they became inspired by the manifesto that Steampunk presents:  how can we continue to create, to innovate, and to invent in a world in which technology is becoming sealed off and unknowable?  The more we engaged with the ideologies of Steampunk, with the notion of “punking” or revising in the sense of re-envisioning and recreating, and with an emphasis on building and craft, the more the class dynamic pushed in the direction of free creativity. Students talked about ways to “punk” other traditional narratives, and it led us to broader discussions of “thinking outside the box,” and “pushing the limits,” innovation, and revolution. This led in turn to somewhat of a pedagogical epiphany:  how could I, as a teacher, expect my students to transform their worlds if they are not free to create and innovate during the learning process?  I decide to punk my own pedagogy:  as I planned the final project I decided to make creativity one of the central objectives of the assignment:  rather than dictating what the students should produce, I gave them free rein to write, draw, film, program, or build whatever they chose as long as it met the assignment criteria.  The instructions for the assignment were:

For your last major assignment, you will work in a group to develop a multimedia presentation on your own interpretation of the Steampunk genre.  Your project should either explore and explicate some feature of Steampunk or create a new artifact that embodies the characteristics of the genre.  Examples could include:

• A website showing examples of the fiction, film, periodicals, and artifacts generated within the genre.

• A video enacting a Steampunk scenario or staging a scene from a key piece of Steampunk literature

• An artifact in the Steampunk style (ex. a Steampunk keyboard or cellphone)

• A 3-D model of a place or an artifact associated with Steampunk

• A short story following the generic conventions accompanied by a slide show

As part of the project, students had to complete a detailed proposal and plan, weekly progress reports, a presentation, and a final 2-page reflection paper that justified why their artifact fulfilled the assignment criteria. The resulting creations were amazing: a flying airship that produced steam, a working Gatling gun that shot paper pellets, a Steampunk-inspired episode of “The Office,” a Victorian satirical newspaper, a Steampunk E-magazine with interviews of local Steampunk performers, a remote controlled copy of the Zephyr (the innovative steam car in the novel The Difference Engine), several Steampunk movies, and even a Steampunk cake!

Picture 8:  Steampunk Gatling Gun

Picture 9: Steampunk Airship

Picture 10:  Steampunk E-Magazine

I was so inspired by how enthusiastically and with what hands-on innovation the students responded to the assignment that it led me re-think a lot of my traditional assignments. I started examining the ways that more innovative pedagogy – pushing the boundaries of my own knowledge and comfort – could inspire students to do the same in their own work.  As a result, I now make an effort to include a creative and relatively open assignment in every class I teach, encouraging students to think for themselves, to tap into their own interests, and to focus on what they can design or create.  Thus, Steampunk – and the Victorian legacy it draws from – has brought creativity and inspiration to my English classes and challenged me to put more “punk” in my pedagogy.

Dr. Kathryn Crowther is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia.  Her research interests include the Victorian novel, the neo-Victorian novel and Steampunk, digital pedagogy, and intersections of material culture and technology.  Her article “Charlotte Brontë’s Textual Relics” was published in Brontë Studies and she has a “Digital Mapping Assignment” forthcoming in a collection on Digital Pedagogy.  You can read more about Kathryn’s work at http://www.kathryncrowther.com/


[1] See “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” by Peter Elbow. In Assigning and Responding to Writing in the Disciplines, edited by Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997

[2] Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall.  “Introduction: Industrial Evolution.”  Neo-Victorian Studies. 3.1 (2010): 1-45. 1

[3] Bowser and Croxall, 16.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. September 25, 2012

    I blog about museums, so I found your ideas for encouraging creativity in your students to be very interesting. The “retro” approach to thinking about technology and the motivation you give to students to use their engineering knowledge to create a working Victorian artifact is amazing. It reminds of a great old TV series that I watched when I was a kid. It is called, “The Wild Wild West.”

    As I write this, I am at the libray to check out some “Steampunk” novels.

    I have not read fiction in awhile, so I think doing so may help to improve my writing style. Thanks for the online publication of this terrific article.

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  2. February 24, 2013

    Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished
    to mention that I’ve really loved surfing around your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing on your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  3. Sandy Kashmar permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Hello, Dr. Crowther. I would love to borrow from these fabulous ideas for my Dual Level classes! Any objections?

    Sandy Kashmar, Adjunct
    TCCD, Fort Worth, TX

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Victorian studies | Pearltrees
  2. Katy Crowther Punks the Victorians - TECHStyle
  3. Jonathan Potter, ‘A Box From Another Time’: Reading Steampunk Objects | Journal of Victorian Culture Online

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