Dystopia in Scott’s Blade Runner, Wright’s A Short History of Progress, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake


Location: 345/ 207
Hours: Tu; Th 2:30-4:00
Office Hours: Tu; Th 10:15 am-12:15am (or by appointment)
Email: paul.watkins@viu.ca
Phone: Local 2118
Office: 359/ 101

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Given the fears around the destruction of our current civilization, including the various local and global cultural groups under threat therein, rapid developments in technology, and untenable rises in population, it is perhaps unsurprising that dystopian literature is more popular now than ever. For many, dystopian literature and film (from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy to cinematic representations ranging from The Hunger Games series to The Walking Dead) provide an outlet to understand and contextualize the current tide of civil unrest and technological trends. Of course, technology can also be a way to change and manipulate our circumstances for the better. In this course we will examine three works (and a documentary) that converge around the theme of progress. We will examine what defines progress, relating questions of rapid population growth and technological development to the practice of university reading and writing. We will watch and discuss Ridley Scott’s neo-noir dystopian film, Blade Runner, read and discuss Ronald Wright’s Massey Lecture Series, A Short History of Progress, and end the course with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)which focuses on biotechnology, and asks the useful question, “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” Equally vexing, is the question we must ask ourselves: What can we do? Dealing with the periodic crises of our time, we will venture to ask the difficult questions, using the vantage points of the three selected texts. In this course students will develop a critical voice, analyze discourse, learn how to write a research paper and properly cite material, engage with pertinent social issues, and learn how various rhetorical strategies, particularly juxtaposition and point of view, are essential to university writing. As dark as this course sounds, we will also have a lot of fun!

Required Texts:

    • Diana Hacker, A Canadian Writer’s Reference (5th, Bedford Books)
    • Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner (BFI Film Classics, 2nd)
    • Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Anansi)
    • Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (Vintage Canada)


Participation 5%
Writing Prompts 10%
Short Essay (600-750 words) 15%
Open Book Midterm 15%
Research Essay
*Annotated Bibliography 5%
*Essay Workshop 5%
*Final Paper (1500-1800 words) 25%
Final Exam 20%

Assignment Breakdown:

1. Participation (5%)

Since discussion is an important part of this class, active participation and critical thinking about the assigned reading is fundamental to the course. Careful and engaged reading will allow you to achieve success and will prepare you to pose questions, raise problems, and engage with your peers during class discussions. I am an ardent advocate for the dialogical process of pedagogy, and believe that my students should have an equal opportunity to express their opinions with their peers and instructors.

2. Writing Prompts (10%): Due Periodically

There will be four in-class writing prompts, but only the top three marks will count. See the syllabus for when these writing assignments take place. We will spend around 12-15 minutes of a given class on these and they are intended as prompts to test students’ ability to critically engage with the text or texts assigned for that day (prompts for days on which secondary and primary materials are assigned will ask you to think about intersections between these texts). Each assignment is marked out of 10. Please note that your grade is based on quality rather than quantity. Please take time to formulate your ideas rather than writing for the sake of writing. All in-class writings are open book unless otherwise specified by the professor.

3. Short Diagnostic Essay (15%): Due Sept 29th

The short research essay (600-750 words) asks you to research and write about a specific aspect of the film Blade Runner. You are to include three sources using proper MLA or APA citation, including the film, the Scott Bukatman book, and one additional academic source. This assignment will teach you the value of summary, how to formulate a thesis, and incorporate evidence from multiple sources.

More details, as well as short essay questions, will be provided during our second meeting together.

4. Open Book Midterm (15%): Oct 22nd 

There will be an open book in-class essay on Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. Details will be provided in class closer to the date.

5. Annotated Bibliography (5%): Due Nov 10th

In preparation of your final paper, you will create three entries for an annotated bibliography. You are to choose three critical texts—articles, books, films, recordings—but two must be academic and one must be a book (digital books are fine). Each entry must consist of a bibliographic citation, in MLA format, for the text you’ve chosen, and a one (max two) paragraph annotation, in which you explain the relevance of this text to your chosen essay topic, defining its theoretical position(s). How would this text be useful to you in the critical project you have undertaken for this course? What are its key points? Going back to our discussion on being engaged close readers, what do you take from it?

For a useful resource on Annotated Bibliographies please visit the VIU Library guide on Annotated Bibliographies: http://libguides.viu.ca/annotated

6. Long Essay Workshop (5%): Due Nov 19th

You will come to class with the introductory paragraph that will provide your essay’s projected argument (with a thesis). You will also include an outline (in point form with topic sentences) that shows a critical engagement with secondary criticism. Please see page 12-14 of A Canadian Writer’s Reference for the format of an essay outline. You must also provide a works cited list of four to five sources that extend beyond the assigned readings for the course. You do not need to include any of these sources in your final essay, but they should clearly pertain to your argument and/or focus. You will take this outline to class for a workshop in which you will give and receive feedback and advice from fellow students. We will cover best practices in class leading up this assignment. An unmarked version of your essay’s argument (essentially a proposal) will be handed in to me at the beginning of class. More detailed instructions will be provided.

7. Final Paper (25%): Due Dec 3rd 

The final research essay will be around 5 pages in length (1500-1800 words), not including a works cited list. You are required to actively engage with three academic secondary sources in the body of this research paper—course material does not count. Please note that although secondary research is a necessary component of this assignment, your own ideas and engagement with these resources, rather than your ability to perform and incorporate research, will be graded. I will be grading this assignment based on well-formulated and focused arguments. More detailed instructions, including a list of possible topics, will be provided and uploaded to D2L. You are encouraged to write an essay on a topic of your own choosing.

8. Final Exam (20%): TBA

Part passage analysis/ essay (focused primarily on Atwood’s Oryx and Crake).

Bonus Assignment 2% (Due by Oct. 27th)

You have the opportunity to attend a presentation or public lecture on campus and provide a 1-2 paragraph précis of that talk.

How did the presenter organize their material? What techniques did they use for gaining audience rapport, including imagery, verbal signposts, and appropriate non-verbal messages? Did the presenter respond to audience questions effectively?  Were there aspects of the talk that could have been more successfully presented, and if so, why? You may attend the Gustafson Poetry Lecture on the evening of October 22nd, or you may attend an Arts and Humanities Colloquium talk (https://www2.viu.ca/artsandhumanities/Arts_Humanities_Colloquium.asp). All talks are free and open to the public. Your assignment is due by noon via email by Oct. 27th.

Class Schedule:

Please note that this schedule is subject to change as the term progresses.

Sept 8
Introduction; Course Outline; Standards and expectations; departmental grading policies; A Canadian Writer’s Reference (CWR) “Planning” 3-6; Reading to form an interpretation (541-547).

Welcome to Dismaland

Sept 10
Approaching an essay assignment; Begin discussion of short essay assignment due Sept 24th; Intro to critical thinking, reading, and writing; A Canadian Writer’s Reference (CWR) “Academic Writing: Writing About Texts” (67-77)
Discuss: Thomas King, “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” (online)
Writing Prompt (WP) #1

Sept 15
Using appropriate language: CWR 159-62; Inclusive language: CWR 162-64; Summary versus synthesis
Watch: Blade Runner (first half)

A short analysis of Blade Runner by Steven Benedict:

Sept 17
Constructing reasonable arguments CWR 78-91; Introduction to using and evaluating sources: CWR 346-57
Watch: Blade Runner (second half)

Sept 22
What is plagiarism? CWR 357-65 and 376-79; Integrating sources using MLA-style documentation: CWR 379-98 (and skim CWR 398-428) in-class exercise
Finish/ Final Discussion on Blade Runner

Sept 24
Discuss: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Chapter 1)
WP #2

Audio of A Short History.

Sep 29
Short formal five-paragraph essay due in Dropbox or in class (600-750 words)

Evaluating arguments: CWR 92-100 (Logical fallacies)
Discuss: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Chapter 2)
Bill Nye on GMOs

Oct 1
Avoiding fragments and run-ons: CWR 212-22
Discuss: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Chapter 3)
Brinkman, “Gilgamesh

Oct 6
Wordy Sentences CWR 153-58
Discuss: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Chapter 4)

Oct 8
Exact Language: 165-69
Discuss: Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Chapter 5)
WP #3

Oct 13
Surviving Progress (documentary film)

Oct 15
Read sample student research paper: CWR 435-40; Exam Prep.
Discuss: Surviving Progress

Oct 20
Exam Prep; George Elliott Clarke Poetry (“Antiphony” and “Blank Sonnet“)

Oct 22
Open Book Midterm

Oct 27
Library orientation with VIU research librarian in Lab (Bld 305, Rm 508, 2:30 pm-3:50 pm)

Oct 29
Paragraphing: CWR 32-45;
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 1-46, Chapters 1-3)

Atwood on Q.

Oryx and Crake video animation.

Nov 2nd: Last day for academic penalty-free withdrawal

Nov 3
CWR “Revising” 20-28
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 49-92, Chapter 4)
WP #4

Nov 5
Review apostrophe usage (CWR) 278-81
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 95-144 Chapters 5 & 6)

Nov 10
Review comma usage (259-269)
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 147-169, Chapter 7)
Annotated Bibliography Due.

Nov 12
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 173-238, Chapters 8 & 9) 

Nov 17
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 241-280, Chapters 10 & 11)

Nov 19
Peer-Review Workshop for Research Paper (Outline Due)

Nov 24
Discuss: Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (pgs. 283-354, Chapters 12 & 13)

AquAdvantage Salmon


Nov 26
Finish discussion on Oryx & Crake (pgs. 357-374, Chapters 14 & 15)
Atwood on the Hunger for God.


Dec 1      

Thomas King, “Epilogue.”
Louis CK.

Dec 3
Exam Review; Final Paper Due

Featured Image by Zina Saunders, from here.

Drop a line / or spit a rhyme

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s