How the Novel Fahrenheit 451 has Shaped my Composition Pedagogy

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Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.

I first met Ray Bradbury in 1995, after joining The Southwest Manuscripters (a writing club based in Southern California). The prolific science fiction writer (who preferred to be called a “fantasist”) delivered yearly addresses to the Manuscripters, because they were the first club to invite him to speak, in the days when he was an obscure wordsmith, making a penny per word for his stories.

Based on the content of Bradbury’s presentations, I knew he hated the idea of college professors pontificating on the “hidden meanings” of his written work. Nevertheless, I wanted to ensure that future generations would continue to read his work, so I started teaching Bradbury ten years ago. I am careful to allow students to explore Bradbury’s themes without interfering with their critical reading process by interjecting my own ideas. I like to think Ray would approve.

I first taught Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in English 28 (a developmental course designed to prepare students for first-year composition) at East Los Angeles College. Although I have read science fiction since grammar school, I did not read Bradbury’s novel until after I began teaching composition. When I did read it, I was struck by the timeliness of its themes. In the era of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, Bradbury’s focus on censorship, political paranoia, and human rights seemed eerily relevant.

For my developmental English course, I asked my students to write a three- to four-page review of Fahrenheit 451. I gave my students the option to answer a variety of optional questions, including the following: “Which social trends do you observe in our society that are also present in Bradbury’s novel?” This question gives students the opportunity to explore Bradbury’s 21st-century dystopian setting without falling back on the novel’s major theme (censorship). My students have taken me up on this challenge over the years, and have addressed everything from online education to the “dumbing-down” of America in their reviews of Fahrenheit 451.

After teaching Fahrenheit 451 for several semesters, I began to use the novel in English 102, a second-year composition course. Instead of requiring my second-year composition students to write a review of the novel, I asked them to address the positive and negative effects of technology by analyzing Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1950. The story depicts a “house of the future” that does everything from making its owners’ breakfasts to singing them to sleep. There is only one problem: the house’s occupants are gone. Bradbury strongly suggests their absence is due to the fact that a Neutron bomb or ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) has been detonated; such a weapon kills people but leaves structures intact. Both Fahrenheit 451 and “There Will Come Soft Rains” teach a similar lesson: technology is a double-edged sword; its benefits depend upon the intentions of those who use it.

Eight years ago, I began teaching Literature 201, an online literature survey course, for Colorado Technical University. For the first few sessions, I used Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When the class was revised to focus more heavily on short fiction, poetry, drama, and emerging literary genres (such as blogs), I decided to introduce Fahrenheit 451 into the course. I believe Fahrenheit 451 demonstrated to my online Literature students the kind of far-reaching accomplishments an author could achieve in a novel: Bradbury addresses contemporary issues (such as nuclear war) as well as enduring questions (such as the quality of education and the effects of the media on public opinion) in fewer than two hundred pages.

I currently teach six English courses at three institutions. I use Fahrenheit 451 in four of my classes. Ray Bradbury did not write Fahrenheit 451 as an attempt to predict the future, but instead to ask the question all speculative fiction authors should ask: “what if?” I believe his prediction of such technological marvels as the drone and virtual reality are incidental to his core themes of censorship and the importance of human individuality. These themes are not only timely, but timeless.

Which works or authors have helped to shape your composition pedagogy? I look forward to your comments.