Teaching Dune

Speculative fiction makes for an excellent teaching tool, in particular with how it requires our minds to be flexible when reading. In stretching the bounds of our every day realities, fantasy and science fiction writers are still exploring themes common to the human experience (to the best of my understanding, most authors are writing for a human audience). The changes in perspective, the hypothetical realities, the extrapolation of ideas, all allow for a unique and valuable approach to teaching.

A few years ago, I convinced my school to let me add Frank Herbert’s Dune to my AP Literature curriculum. As it’s a longer text, I have students read it over the summer and then it’s the first text we study together. Some students love it, some struggle with it, and a certain number don’t quite get it until we start our discussions in class. It makes for a powerful beginning to our year together, setting the groundwork for much that is to come.

1. It helps to break the notion that there is a massive disparity between ‘genre fiction’ like SF and what we study in school: ‘literature’. Literary quality can be found in all manner of books, and it meets many students where they are. For so much of their schooling, they’ve differentiated between the stuff they’ve had to read for English class and what they read for fun. Numerous students, after reading Dune, mention that they appreciate being able to study a different type of text, something they might have picked up for fun, and that it has changed how they approach all their reading.

2. Structurally, it taps into a number of common narrative patterns, though without being too obvious. Yes, it’s a bildungsroman; yes, we can trace the hero’s journey; some of the non-linear components to the storytelling allow for really in-depth discussions about narrative purpose. What’s up with Princess Irulan’s epigraphs? Why do we get to know who the traitor is way before the protagonist does? These structural insights set the stage for many conversations to come about other texts.

3. Once students adjust to all the weird names of places, characters, and objects, it’s an incredibly vibrant and well-crafted sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s word). It lets me introduce setting as a significant component of the story; too often when we discuss setting in other classes and about other books, students can explain the times and places but have a much harder time actually showing the significance it brings to the text. And the planet of Arrakis, painfully forced into the position as a volatile nexus in an interplanetary conflict, readily provides lots of analytical opportunities; students see the role of the Spice not just for the Empire, but for the characters. The lack of water on a desert planet is closely tied both to the threat of death and the hope for an ecologically flourishing future.

4. Dune provides us with a shared text that we keep referring back to. I quickly lost count of the number of times it would show back up in our discussions last year as students made connections and saw similarities. When introducing new concepts or when I needed a ready example, it was easy to relate it back to Dune and I knew the student would be familiar with it. Christ-figures, symbols, passage of time, plot vs. story vs. narrative, contrasting characters, foreshadowing, and plenty of others. It was also an excellent book for teaching students how to discuss themes in a knowledgeable way, setting them up for seeing the topics that they’ve been taught to recognize in works of literature and having them grapple with how they introduce meaning into the text.

5. Much later in the year, when we get to post-colonial criticism, we’ve got other texts we focus our analysis on (Things Fall Apart & Heart of Darkness), but even here, students keep coming back to Dune. They may not have recognized the colonial impact on Arrakis by the Empire when they first read it, but they do later; it helps them to see the pattern of how these questions and a lens like post-colonial criticism can be applied to multiple works, yield different answers, and yet still be bound around a similar topic or concern.

6. It allows me to readily introduce a running theme of my class that is vital to being successful in AP Literature: oftentimes, to make sense of something, we must be willing and able to hold different—even contradictory—ideas simultaneously and muddle our way through the complexity between them. Many of the questions posed by literature are not about finding the ‘right’ answer, but about identifying the areas of complexity and dancing in the tension, reveling in the ambiguity, and learning to articulate nuanced thoughts in areas where there is no simple solution. In Dune, the topic that most easily lets us begin talking about this is whether Paul Atreides is bound by the prophecies that surround him, by his own prophetic visions, or whether he is in fact free to choose and chart his own course. Questions of fate vs. free will, of determinism vs. choice, are never simple. By engaging with what Herbert has to say on the topic, students can take a step into the treacherous realm of literary analysis, where there is not the comfort of turning to the back of the textbook to check for the ‘right’ answer.

I love Dune. I really enjoyed it when I first read it back in high school (not so much the ones Herbert wrote after) and have found new details and ideas to appreciate with each rereading. I’m excited to share this experience with my students each year, and based on their responses, the discussions in class, the papers I get to read, they’re finding it as engaging as I do. This year, as we completed our final discussion on the text, a student said, “Thanks for having us read this.” I call that a success.

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