When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

invasion books

Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

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Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

invasion pod

Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

miles and becky 2.jpg

Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

donald sutherland duplicate

 

Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.

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How to Organize a Teach-In

 

As teachers of American literature and culture, we are well positioned to bring our academic training and insight to bear on the social justice concerns of our political moment, such as women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, and anti-racist activism. Yet we may not know the best ways to discuss these issues with students and may wonder if it is appropriate to do so in the context of the classroom. Headlines about the weaponizing of free speech and attacks on faculty academic freedom may inhibit us from raising these concerns in our classes or on our campuses, especially those of us who are graduate student, pre-tenure, or contingent instructors. Some faculty who embrace social justice commitments may have pedagogical reasons for not addressing political issues in the classroom, particularly if the issues are not related to course content or learning outcomes.

How can we deploy our knowledge and expertise in support of our social justice investments if traditional protests, petitions, and demonstrations do not appeal to us or are not suitable for our role on campus? The “teach-in” format of the 1960s is an overlooked activist option for teacher-scholars who want to awaken their students and campuses to the urgency of the political moment. Through structured, organized educational events on campus but outside the classroom, teach-ins are an effective strategy for American literature instructors to use when the need arises to facilitate informed dialogue around social justice issues.

What is a teach-in?

http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86
University of Michigan students at the first teach-in. Source: http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86

At traditional teach-ins, a series of scholars speak on their areas of expertise in relation to a specific political or social justice concern. The first “teach-ins” on college and university campuses were organized in response to the Vietnam War draft. Professors at the University of Michigan planned a teaching strike and an off-campus “teach-out” in the style of labor movement “walkouts.” Faced with threats of retaliation, the faculty members reconsidered. Rather than strike or walk out, the educators chose to “teach in,” or “occupy” (to use the 21st-century term) the campus with their academic knowledge and pedagogical expertise. Along with lectures and discussions related to the war draft, the teach-in also included debates, movies, and musical performances. Similar campus-wide teach-ins soon followed at institutions such as Columbia and Berkeley.

Later on, teach-ins were used by the “environmental, women’s, anti-Apartheid, and anti-nuclear movements, into the 1990s and 2000s [by] the Democracy Teach-Ins . . . and most recently [by] Occupy and Black Lives Matter.” A teach-in is an opportunity to promote dialogue about current political affairs outside the classroom and regular curriculum, but still within an academic setting. Teach-ins are an occasion for faculty to model civil discourse and to demonstrate the academic relevance of social justice concerns by connecting social justice issues to the content and methods of our discipline. Teach-ins are designed to be participatory, with discussion and questions from the audience. Although the earlier teach-ins of the 1960s were sometimes disruptive, teach-ins are part of the tradition of peaceful protest and activism.

Some teach-ins may have the overt political goal of “producing knowledge for use by participants as members of an organized, politicized campus community.” Others may simply aim to raise an issue. For example, a colleague who organized a teach-in in response to the 2003 Iraq War explains that faculty did not want students to “walk out of class” in protest, yet wanted to send the message that a declaration of war “was momentous and needed to be thought about and processed” as a campus community. Faculty from across campus provided historical, artistic, political, feminist, ethical, and military history lenses to deepen the campus’s thinking “about Iraq, about war, and about the implications of U.S. actions.” By considering the issue from so many perspectives, students were empowered to come to their conclusions.

“Day Without a Woman” teach-in

day without a womanI helped organize a teach-in in conjunction with the “Day Without a Woman” strike sponsored by the Women’s March on March 8, 2017. Although many faculty at my institution were concerned about the matters related to the strike—women’s issues, labor issues, and anti-immigrant policies—we did not believe it would serve our students or the educational mission of our small, teaching-focused institution to “walk out” and not teach that day. Many of our students care deeply about social justice issues, but generally speaking, our student body is not “political.” Our students look to faculty for leadership on political activism, and we decided that a teach-in would provide a productive model of engaged citizenship and democracy in action.

We held our teach-in in the atrium of our library, a visible locale in the center of campus. Faculty from our Gender Studies program gave lectures on topics such as “Women, Science, and Feminism,” “Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist, Intersectional Feminist, Bad Ass,” and “The Value of Women’s Labor.” We also held a community reading and discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Our teach-in ended with a bilingual reading by two Mexican poets visiting campus that day, Marcia Trejo and Aurora Velasco.

To create a welcoming and fun setting for students and the entire campus, we provided catered refreshments and hot chocolate throughout the day. We publicized the teach-in to students, staff, and faculty over campus email listserves; we also posted flyers and announced it in our Gender Studies classes. Many students came to the teach-in on their own, and several faculty encouraged students and entire classes to attend the various lectures, readings, and discussions.

Once we had the idea, we were able to organize our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in in just a few days. My campus is small with few bureaucratic barriers, so we were able to find faculty speakers, schedule rooms, order food, and publicize the event on short notice. We had the support of key campus leaders who viewed the teach-in as a positive demonstration of civil discourse.

Other teach-in formats: Tours, panels, syallabi, Twitter

learningisresistance.jpg-largeWhen I recently posted a query about teach-ins on Twitter, I discovered that instructors in the broader field of American cultural studies are embracing some creative and unexpected teach-in formats. Trish Kahle organizes socialist walking tours of her university’s campus that “re-narrate” the typical college admissions tour. Guy Emerson Mount has organized teach-in panels (rather than using the traditional lecture format) on his institution’s ties to slavery, a shooting by campus police, and hate speech on campus.

Rhonda Ragsdale, a history professor at Lone Star College, began tweeting about “social justice from a historian’s perspective” every Saturday morning under the hashtag “#SaturdaySchool.” She now has more than 8,500 followers and co-hosts Twitter teach-ins on issues as diverse as the present-day legacies of slavery to the importance of art. Online teach-ins and podcasts may be an option for those concerned about adversarial relationships between activists and academia or those who want to eschew their “universities’ ideological traps” and perpetuations of injustice.

Peter Sahlins at UC-Berkeley designed a semester-long teach-in on “The US Election of 2016 in Global Context.” Designed as a pass/fail course that met every Tuesday night in spring 2017, this teach-in featured faculty speakers from a variety of disciplines who discussed scholarly questions surrounding the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Similarly, crowd-sourced syllabi organized around social justice and political issues such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus have been designed and circulated in the activist and pedagogical spirit of the teach-in.

Considerations and recommendations for organizing a teach-in

recommendationsGiven the chaotic political news cycle, you may find that your campus needs to organize a teach-in on short notice. Consider the institutional structures and relationships that can aid you. For example, our Gender Studies program was able to provide the staff, resources, and budget for our teach-in. Individual faculty members’ rapport with campus staff made it possible for us to schedule rooms, publicize the event, and regroup when the inevitable planning complications occurred. However, if institutional logistics, bureaucracy, and politics make it difficult to move quickly and efficiently, perhaps the creative, alternative formats suggested above might be useful to you. At large institutions, organizing a teach-in for students and faculty in a single department or program, rather than an entire campus, may be more logistically feasible and effective.

Keep the education and empowerment of your students at the center of your teach-in. With students in mind, our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in was designed to be fun and interactive. My only regret was that we didn’t provide our students with opportunities for action. Voter registration or a letter writing event would have been action steps in-line with my institution’s mission of promoting engaged, democratic citizenship. There are some who argue that it is pedagogically irresponsible to bring matters of social justice to students’ attention without empowering them to do something. But other educators maintain that it is enough to raise the issue and let students come to their own conclusions and determine their own next steps.

Although the teach-in format is an alternative to more disruptive forms of campus activism and protest, it does not come without professional risk. Each instructor will need to identify and evaluate possible perils. Depending on your institutional context and your status within your institution or department, you may not feel professionally protected if you organize or participate in a teach-in. In such cases, those of us with tenure need to defend our colleagues’ academic freedom and promote free speech, the very pillar of our precious democratic institutions. We have a responsibility to wield our tenured status to amplify vulnerable voices and perspectives on our campuses and within the profession.

Teach-ins today can take many forms and are an established and pedagogically sound option for peaceful political resistance for teacher-scholars of American literature. For me, organizing a teach-in was a rewarding experience that aligned my personal values, professional ethics, and my social justice investments.

Questions:

Share your ideas, thoughts, and experiences in the “comments” section. I would love to hear from you!

  1. Have you ever organized or participated in a teach-in? What was the topic and format?
  2. Should a teach-in have an action-based outcome or is raising the issue enough?
  3. If you were to organize a teach-in on your campus tomorrow, what would the topic be?
  4. What is the relationship between tenure and academic freedom? What should the responsibilities of tenure entail in our perilous political climate?