Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.
In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology—Ann Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding et al.
While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.
I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)
While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.
Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists. Any non-literature list would be interesting.)
9 thoughts on “Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists”
I adore Science Fiction, and am very glad that you found value in Ms. Le Guin’s work. I encourage you to also consider incorporating theater into your philosophy classes. I can’t imagine a better explication of Existentialism than “Waiting for Godot” or “No Exit.” Man other important philosophical questions are also vividly portrayed in plays.
Thanks for the comments. Good suggestions re: plays!
Is there a specific feminist essay you would recommend that would go well with LHOD as a primary text? I am teaching a literature class and trying to pick a feminist essay to introduce gender theory but having trouble settling on the best essay for college freshman which would also directly relate to the thought experiments in LHOD
LHOD is misogynist. Carefully examine each time that Ai refers to women, or the feminine side of the Ekumen. In almost every example, he references his negative impressions of women: “lack of substance”, “specious”, they lack the capacity to mobilize… “I was surrounded by great gaping pits with ragged lips, vaginas, wounds, hellmouths..” LeGuin is the same in Earthsea – how she carries on about women not being able to be real wizards is beyond the pale. I have never understood how anyone who’s ever actually read her would consider her a viable feminist. I hope none of your female students have internalized her side commentary about vaginas, old women being addicted to comfort etc.
Thanks for that comment; I’ll certainly reread LHOD with your reading in mind.