Indiana Humanities is sponsoring Frankenstein-themed courses, panels, film festivals and more at a dozen Indiana colleges as part of One State / One Story: Frankenstein. Today we’re taking a closer look at two courses being offered this spring. At IUPUI, Dr. Jason Kelly is teaching a history course called “Machines and the Age of Invention.” At Trine University, Dr. Cassandra Bausman is teaching an English course titled “Science Fiction: Frankenstein and the Mad Scientist in Literature.” Lucky students at each university have an opportunity to dive deep into the context and legacy of this ground-breaking novel in its bicentennial year.
“Machines and the Age of Invention” invites students to investigate the world in which Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, focusing on the societal changes that the Industrial Revolution wrought as well as the shifting landscape of medical ethics through the last two and a half centuries. The main project is an ambitious undertaking—a deep map of the book which uses historical geographic information systems (GIS) to track a variety of schema. By the end of the semester, students will have compiled data of Frankenstein’s contents, tracking every location mentioned, characters, emotions, the weather, topography, and more. This collaborative project presents a new challenge for history students, many of whom are getting to use GIS for the first time. In the last weeks of the semester, Dr. Kelly is planning on taking textual analysis one step further to bring popular culture productions (think movies, memes and other media) inspired by Frankenstein into conversation with historical documents.
Victor Frankenstein is the inspiration for Dr. Bausman’s course, “Science Fiction: Frankenstein and the Mad Scientist in Literature.” The ubiquitous notion of a mad scientist is a familiar trope in the science fiction genre. In fact, mad often stands in for bad in the depiction of these characters. Audiences are meant to question the ethical choices of these scientists. Ultimately the trope tells us again and again that scientists are too caught up in their obsessive visions and experiments, never stopping to consider whether the end they pursue is the right thing to do or something that should be done. Dr. Bausman uses Frankenstein as a jumping off point for exploring the mad scientist sub-genre of science fiction before moving on to analyzing other works including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” just to name a few. These science fiction works include not only the mad scientist trope, but also the underlying message that responsible science must be informed by the humanities.
In inventing the genre of science fiction, Mary Shelley announced with her creation the questions that have fueled Frankenstein’s enduring relevance: What does it mean to be alive? To be human? What are the limits of science? Courses at IUPUI, Trine University and elsewhere are taking the leap to explore these questions. The advent of the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new age of scientific inquiry and possibility; Shelley’s Frankenstein inaugurated the ongoing corollary discussion about the ethical boundaries of scientific pursuits. The novel’s continued popularity 200 years after its original publication is a testament to, as Dr. Bausman put it, “science and science fiction’s shared centrality of vision” to create, question and problem-solve.
One State / One Story: Frankenstein is an Indiana Humanities program and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in partnership with the Indiana State Library and Indiana Center for the Book. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.