Major English XII Notes for Major English Notes

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Zeroing in on Science Friction

Background: From Physics to Fiction

As a physics major in the 1960s, Goshgarian and a few friends were drawn to their English professor, the late James Hensel, whom he calls “the teacher of all teachers.” Goshgarian named a character in Elixir for Hensel, and another is named for former WPI president Harry P. Storke.

“We were literature geeks in an otherwise science geeky kind of place,” Goshgarian says. “In the afternoon, after classes were out, we would meet up in Jim Hensel’s office to talk about everything from Charles Dickens to Tolstoy to Albert Einstein.” The young Goshgarian put his writing talents to use as an editor of Tech News and the Peddler, and started an offbeat humor magazine called Absolute Zero.

“I was reading science fiction by the pound,” he says. By his sophomore year, Goshgarian knew that he would work with words rather than atoms. “I liked words. I could see them and manipulate them. I could not see atoms, didn’t quite believe in them.” After earning a master’s degree and doctorate in English, he joined the English faculty at Northeastern University.

In the early 1970s Goshgarian’s department head challenged him to create a new elective to boost enrollment. He saw his chance to teach quality science fiction as a reputable literary form. Some 30 years later, his courses are popular and well-respected, although parents occasionally balk, “My child is taking what?” In addition to science fiction, Goshgarian teaches a detective fiction class and has developed courses in horror fiction and modern bestsellers. He also offers a graduate-level creative writing seminar.

Required reading for Goshgarian’s classes ranges from Edgar Allen Poe to Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark and Dean Koontz. A centerpiece of the science fiction curriculum is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Discussions are supplemented with movies and guest speakers, which have included best-selling authors Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, Robert B. Parker and Michael Palmer.

Goshgarian wants his writing students to learn “the ability to look at another person’s writing the way a carpenter looks at a house–to study the architecture of it, the freshness of the language, the narrative thrust that keeps the story going. And to see that the bones have flesh on them, that you have characters who are interesting and aren’t cardboard cut-outs.

“My goal is to make them better readers, too. That’s the secret of good writing. We do a lot of close reading. That’s what Jim Hensel taught me, way back at Worcester Tech.”

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