Reading the creative works of famous science fiction writers was only half of the class requirements for Mary Gillespie’s English class students this fall semester at Western Nevada College. The other part of the class tapped into the artistic creativity of her students.
In some English classes, Gillespie’s students have related to their readings by creating short stories and poems, paintings, videos, meals and performances.
Her current English students are expressing their understanding of steampunk culture. Steampunk has a Victorian Era origin and was spawned by science fiction writers and the Industrial Revolution in Europe. More recently, it has evolved into a subculture of expression through fashion and festivals.
Constructing steampunk-style bricolage reflections, the students have been focused on creating a map of Frankenstein’s travels, a clock made of gears, and tracing the characters’ journeys in “Around the World in Eighty Days.” They are also building a time machine from H.G. Wells’ classic, “The Time Machine.”
“In the beginning of the semester, we started with some authors who helped lay the early foundation for steampunk literature, such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells,” she said. “While we were discussing these works, I realized that I wanted my students to engage on an artistic and material level as well, because of the role of art in steampunk culture,” Gillespie said.
For these bricolage projects, the class has been gathering a variety of supplies from thrift stores, old jewelry and toys, paints, yarn, paper, scrapbook materials, old electronics, and other items that pass the eye test.
“They seem to get more inspired as we continue in the semester, and I am hoping to continue to gather materials to be better prepared to integrate these projects into future courses,” Gillespie said.
“I wanted something that would interest students in terms of cultural movements and philosophies that they could relate to. There has been a growing culture of steampunk throughout the years, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to discover the art and philosophies surrounding the topic. It seemed like something that would speak to the students’ experiences and interests.”
For the “Frankenstein” project, students traced the protagonists’ journey through Europe with depictions of events that occurred at each place. Gillespie said that students illustrated the city where Victor makes his creation to be surrounded by mechanical gears, fake bloody gauze and images of Prometheus.
Following their reading of “The Time Machine,” the students’ creativity soared.
“The class brainstormed for this by starting with a Barbie car painted brown and powered through various motherboards taken from old cellphones, copper coils, USB plugs, and it even comes equipped with a Victorian gentleman driver and chandelier,” Gillespie said.
The time machine car sits atop a board separated into sections of the novel — from Victorian era London to the paradise of Eloi and the underground Morlocks who eat them in the year 802,701, and finally to the end of all existence, in a land of ocean and giant crabs.
Gillespie originally planned to assign the creative projects individually, but reconsidered and formed groups to “stimulate critical thinking and creative connections to the literature.”
To conclude the semester, Gillespie’s class is reading a pair of modern steampunk novels: “The Difference Engine” and “The Boneshaker.” Gillespie can hardly wait to see what her students will create after completing the novels. And she hopes their interest in the steampunk culture continues.
“Several of the students have shown some very creative and inspiring approaches, and will hopefully feel encouraged to try out a steampunk-themed event or dance,” Gillespie said. “It’s definitely opened some eyes to the diversity of people interested in steampunk culture.”
Gillespie is planning to offer the same course — Themes of Literature (ENG 223) — during the spring semester. Registration opens Nov. 7.