ENGL 391 (Section 901, Schedule #31862)
Virginia Commonwealth University
Fall 2014
TR 4:00-5:15pm :: 427 Hibbs
Prof. David Golumbia
Office: 324D Hibbs Hall
Fall 2014 Office Hours: TR 2-3:30pm


Many thinkers predict human beings will change radically in the relatively near future, or even that humanity itself will vanish entirely, to be replaced by some new species of cyborg or a being of "pure" intelligence. Such predictions are by definition fictional, even if they turn out to be true some day in the future; they are also frequently the subject of work that is overtly fictional, whether or not it is intended as a "realistic" prediction of what our future holds. In this class we'll read and watch contemporary texts and media that portrays different versions of the human future, especially where it focuses on the interplay between biological humans and digital machines; we'll also briefly look at some apparently "non-fictional" writing on the same topic. Authors will include Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ray Kurzweil, and Eric Drexler; and movies and television programs including most of the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse, and the recent films Her and Transcendence. Taught mostly by discussion, with some brief student presentations and two essays or essay-length projects.

Required Texts to Purchase (available at bookstore and online booksellers; one copy is also on reserve)

  1. Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969; reprinted Mariner Books, 2012); amazon.com page;
    this Mariner Books 2012 edition required
  2. Octavia Butler, Dawn (1987); amazon.com page
    any paperback, hardback, or electronic edition of this text is acceptable
  3. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2004); amazon.com page;
    any paperback, hardback, or electronic edition of this text is acceptable
  4. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2010); amazon.com page;
    any paperback, hardback, or electronic edition of this text is acceptable
  5. Max More and Natasha Vita-Moore, eds., The Transhumanist Reader (2013); amazon.com page;
    any paperback, hardback, or electronic edition of this text is acceptable; NOTE: the VCU library owns paper (on reserve for this course) and electronic (e-book) copies of this collection of essays, and you are welcome to rely on these rather than purchasing your own copy of this text
  6. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds., Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology (2012); amazon.com page;
    any paperback, hardback, or electronic edition of this text is acceptable

Films and Video (on reserve at Cabell Library)

  1. Joss Whedon, dir., Dollhouse, Seasons 1 and 2 (2009-10)
  2. Spike Jonze, dir., Her (2013)
  3. Wally Pfister, dir., Transcendence (2014)

Assignments and Evaluation

Evaluation will be based on written exercises and course participation as follows:

Course-Specific Policies


VCU Email Policy

Email is considered an official method for communication at VCU because it delivers information in a convenient, timely, cost-effective, and environmentally aware manner. Students are expected to check their official VCU email on a frequent and consistent basis in order to remain informed of university-related communications. The university recommends checking email daily. Students are responsible for the consequences of not reading, in a timely fashion, university-related communications sent to their official VCU student email account. This policy ensures that all students have access to this important form of communication. It ensures students can be reached through a standardized channel by faculty and other staff of the university as needed. Mail sent to the VCU email address may include notification of university-related actions, including disciplinary action. Please read the policy in its entirety.

VCU Honor System: Upholding Academic Integrity

The VCU Honor System policy describes the responsibilities of students, faculty and administration in upholding academic integrity, while at the same time respecting the rights of individuals to the due process offered by administrative hearings and appeals. According to this policy, "Members of the academic community are required to conduct themselves in accordance with the highest standards of academic honesty and integrity." In addition, "All members of the VCU community are presumed to have an understanding of the VCU Honor System and are required to: 

More information can be found at in the VCU policy library.

Student Conduct in the Classroom

According to the Faculty Guide to Student Conduct in Instructional Settings, "The university is a community of learners. Students, as well as faculty, have a responsibility for creating and maintaining an environment that supports effective instruction. In order for faculty members (including graduate teaching assistants) to provide and students to receive effective instruction in classrooms, laboratories, studios, online courses, and other learning areas, the university expects students to conduct themselves in an orderly and cooperative manner." Among other things, cell phones and beepers should be turned off while in the classroom. The Student Code of Conduct also prohibits the possession of or carrying of any weapon. For more information see http://register.dls.virginia.gov/details.aspx?id=3436.

Students with Disabilities

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, require that VCU provide "academic adjustments" or "reasonable accommodations" to any student who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. To receive accommodations, students must request them by contacting the Disability Support Services Office on the Monroe Park Campus (828-2253) or the Division for Academic Success on the MCV campus (828-9782). Please also visit the Disability Support Services website and/or the Division for Academic Success website for additional information.

Any student who has a disability that requires an accommodation should schedule a meeting with the instructor at the student's earliest convenience. Additionally, if coursework requires the student to work in a lab environment, the student should advise the instructor or a department chairperson of any concerns that the student may have regarding safety issues related to a disability. Students should follow this procedure for all courses in the academic semester.

Statement on Military Short-Term Training or Deployment

If military students receive orders for short-term training or for deployment/mobilization, they should inform and present their orders to Military Student Services and to their professor(s). For further information on policies and procedures contact Military Services at 828-5993 or access the corresponding policies.

Excused Absences for Students Representing the University

Students who represent the university (athletes and others) do not choose their schedules. Student athletes are required to attend games and/or meets. All student athletes should provide their schedules to their instructors at the beginning of the semester. The Intercollegiate Athletic Council strongly encourages faculty to treat missed classes or exams (because of a scheduling conflict) as excused absences and urges faculty to work with the students to make up the work or exam.

Campus Emergency Information

What to Know and Do to Be Prepared for Emergencies at VCU:

Important Dates

You can view important dates for the Fall 2014 semester in the university calendar.

VCU Mobile

The VCU Mobile application is a valuable tool to get the latest VCU information on the go. The application contains helpful information including the VCU directory, events, course schedules, campus maps, athletics and general VCU news, emergency information, library resources, Blackboard and more. To download the application on your smart phone or for more information, please visit http://m.vcu.edu.

Class Registration Required for Attendance

Students may attend only those classes for which they have registered. Faculty may not add students to class rosters or Blackboard. Therefore, if students are attending a class for which they have not registered, they must stop attending.

Withdrawal from Classes

Before withdrawing from classes, students should consult their instructor as well as other appropriate university offices. Withdrawing from classes may negatively impact a student’s financial aid award and his or her semester charges. To discuss financial aid and the student bill, visit the Student Services Center at 1015 Floyd Avenue (Harris Hall) and/or contact your financial aid counselor regarding the impact on your financial aid. Contact information for the University Financial Aid Office is available online.

Student Financial Responsibility

Students assume the responsibility of full payment of tuition and fees generated from their registration and all charges for housing and dining services, and other applicable miscellaneous charges. Students are ultimately responsible for any unpaid balance on their account as a result of the University Financial Aid Office or their third party sponsor canceling or reducing their award(s).

Week-by-Week Syllabus

Week One. Introduction

Week Two. Transhumanism

Week Three. The Singularity; The Mind According to Ray Kurzweil

Week Four. Dollhouse

Week Five. Ubik

Week Six. Windup Girl

Week Seven. Windup Girl

Week Eight. Dollhouse

Week Nine. Digital Rapture

Week Ten. Digital Rapture

Week Eleven. Dawn

Week Twelve. Oryx and Crake

Week Thirteen. Transcendence

Week Fourteen. Her

Week Fifteen. Dollhouse

Week Sixteen. Open discussion

Second paper/project is due by the end of the final exam date, 6:50pm, Tuesday, Dec 9, 2014, per the registrar's exam schedule. The paper or project should be emailed to me at dgolumbia-at-vcu.edu. There is no other final exam for the course.

Last updated November 20, 2014.