Using SF Podcasts to teach Business and Economics

written by Moritz Botts

Who wouldn’t have liked to have studied their university subject using their favorite science fiction or fantasy stories? I missed a crossover between my favorite genre fiction and the subject he was studying, so when I became a PhD student and lecturer at a German university, I decided to take matters into my own hands and asked my professor if I could teach a business course using Escape Pod as the main source. I might have understated the fact that Escape Pod is a science fiction podcast thoughâ€

The first question of course is, whether science fiction or fantasy stories lend themselves to the subject that is taught. Accounting would be a difficult subject to teach with a Robert E. Heinlein story, and human anatomy courses should probably stick to the regular, human based textbooks. There are certainly fields which are much more open to genre fiction, like anthropology, which Julianna Beaudoin of Western University in London, Canada, teaches via science fiction and fantasy classics. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, a daughter of anthropologists, immediately come to mind in this field. Ram Mudambi of Temple University, PA, uses the fantasy novel The Empire of the Zon as a source for his undergrad international business classes. If a manager has to study foreign cultures and their ways of doing business, why not go for a totally foreign, a fantasy culture? I decided to not rely on my students’ motivation to read though, but rather thought that podcasts would be a solution that make it more likely that students could listen to the “required listening of the week” during their commute, while exercising, or while shopping. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all podcasts offered by Escape Artists are available free of charge.

Before the course began, I asked myself a couple of questions: Were Escape Pod, Podcastle, or even Pseudopod, podcasts I have been following since 2010, suitable for a university course? Would the young generation of students be open to genre fiction? Could podcasts make it easier for students to follow the course? There was only one way to find out!

In the summer of 2014, the course “Business and Economics in Fiction Podcasts” was offered to undergraduate students of international business at a German public university. The university has a strong international focus, and more than 50% of the students who eventually signed up for this course were exchange students from the European Erasmus program, coming from countries such as Poland, Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, or Greece.

Students picked a podcast from a selection of science fiction and some fantasy podcasts, mostly from Escape Pod and Podcastle. I had preselected these podcasts to include some economics or business related topic, often following suggestions from Escape Artists’ forums. These included totally new takes on supply and demand with Nancy Kress’ “Nano comes to Clifford Falls” (EP 075), the meaning of value with Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (PC 051), or intercultural communication with David D. Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk” (EP 045). You can see the complete list of stories at the end of this article. In many cases, this meant near future stories with social criticism by authors such as Nancy Kress or Cory Doctorow. Even though students would usually be 21 years old or older, no Pseudopod stories were selected.

The course was offered as a “soft skills” course with credits but no grade, to make it easier to experiment a bit. A typical week would include two presentations by student groups and a section on different academic skills, such as presenting, citation, editing podcasts, or creating a wiki. Therefore, even if the idea of using the podcasts terribly backfired, the students would have still taken something useful with them.

The results of the course were somewhat mixed. On the one hand, all stories were suitable to be used as case studies in economics or business on an undergraduate level. One German student mentioned that he had been very skeptical about using science fiction stories at first, but when he listened to his story – Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” (EP 384) , he immediately “got it”. A group of Turkish students presented Tobias Buckell’s “Anakoinosis” and expressed a deep concern for the ethical issues discussed in the story. For me, it was initially a bit weird to hear my students present genre fiction authors and talk about the awards they got, but why should a story concerning aliens and spaceships be any weirder than a business case?

The lack of a grade for the course led to a couple of rather lackluster presentations though, and not all students would listen to the podcasts regularly. For future iterations of this course, incentives for a stronger engagement of the students should be given. Also, as the stories seem to “work” in an academic setting, grades could certainly be given, which should raise the quality of the students’ presentations.

To evaluate the course, I handed out a questionnaire during the last class. This survey is not really representative, because of the small class size. Nevertheless, there are a couple of trends that can be seen. Most students hadn’t really heard of podcasts before the start of the course. They usually listened to the course’s story on their computer while not doing anything else. There was only one native speaker of English in the course, and most students found it easier to follow the stories in a written format alongside the audio file.

About half of the students actually like science fiction stories. While most students only listened to a couple of the podcasts, they usually listened to more than one, the most popular being “Tk’tk’tk”.

I am sure that I will offer this course again in an upcoming semester. New and engaging Escape Pod (and Podcastle and Pseudopod) stories will certainly enhance the next course, so keep them coming!

 

Short stories included in the Curriculum

Week 1: From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… (Michael Swanwick), Escape Pod
Week 2: Accounting for Dragons (Eric James Stone), Podcastle
Week 3: Nano Comes to Clifford Falls (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 3: The Tamarisk Hunter (Paolo Bacigalupi), Escape Pod
Week 4: Dragonomics (Lance Shonberg), Cast of Wonders
Week 4: The Cambist and Lord Iron (Daniel Abraham), Podcastle
Week 5: Anakoinosis (Tobias Buckell); Dunesteef
Week 5: Special Economics (Maureen F. McHugh), Clarkesworld
Week 6: Anda’s Game (Cores Doctorow), Podiobooks
Week 6: Patent Infringement (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 7: Just Do It (Heather Lindsley), Escape Pod
Week 7: Tk’tk’tk (David D. Levine), Escape Pod


MoritzBottsMoritz Botts is a research and teaching assistant at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. His research focuses on intercultural differences in management, while his teaching includes international management and innovation management. He is also an intercultural trainer and interested in innovative teaching methods with diverse media. He has written a horror short story in German published in an anthology and various academic articles. You can contact Moritz at botts@europa-uni.de

 

The Best of Journey Into…

written by David Steffen

Journey Into… is one of the newer fiction podcasts out there, its first episode running in June 2011. It is the brainchild of Marshal Latham, who I’d mostly known as one of the staff members over at Escape Pod (a forum moderator, among other things). But just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it isn’t quality. He’s had prior production experience as one of the volunteer episode producers for the Dunesteef podcast.

Journey Into… is a little different from the other podcasts I listen to in that mixed in with newly produced fiction, he also mixes in episodes from old time radio fiction like X Minus One and Suspense. Part of the reason he does it is to help with time budgeting so that he doesn’t have so many stories to produce from scratch, but it gives the podcast a unique feel and gives me a chance to listen to some of those old shows that were before my time.

Good work, Marshal, and keep it up!

1. Red Road by David Barr Kirtley
Usually I’m not a big fan of stories with talking animals taking human-like roles. At least not in adult stories–in kid stories they’re fine. I just find them very hard to take seriously. But this story is a strong exception. I first read this in Intergalactic Medicine Show some years ago, and it is very powerful. A good quest with a solid emotional core and solid characters. Parts of this leave me with chills.

2. The Machine Stops (Part 1 and Part 2) by E.M. Forster
A very interesting story of a future world where we have become over-dependent on a network of machines that has joined together into one massive world-spanning machine that makes all of our decisions for us. The world society all but treats it as a deity, but without saying so. But some members of the society are bothered by this.

3. Dream Engine (Part 1 and Part 2) by Tim Pratt
Tim Pratt is my favorite short story author, so it’s no surprise that his story would end up here. This story takes place in the Nex, a city that exists in a hub of parallel worlds, with other worlds constantly rotating around it in near reach. The economy and well-being of this world depends on the engines that grab goods from these nearby worlds, but now a monster threatens the Nex and everyone in it.

4. The Trial of Thomas Jefferson by David Barr Kirtley
Time travel is possible, but you can’t change history because it takes huge amounts of energy to keep the reality on the other side in existence. What you can do is open a portal to the past and pull something back through to your time. In this story, prominent figures from history are pulled through to stand trial for their crimes. No one balks when this is Adolf Hitler, but what about those members of history that most see in a more positive light?

5. Zero Hour by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury does creepy children stories extremely well, as in this story where children claim that invisible aliens are communicating with them.

6. The Last Days of the Kelly Gang by David D Levine
Australian steampunk with a steam-powered armor suit coming into the hands of a legendary outlaw.

 

Honorable Mentions

Hop Frog by Edgar Allen Poe
Never heard of this one by Poe, but it is very good, very dark.

The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury
You’ve got to love a story that makes you sympathize with a monster.

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein
Instead of developing a highway system for transport, this world creates moving conveyor belt network that covers the country.


 

 

The Importance of a Thick Skin

written by David Steffen

This post was originally written up in response to after-story discussion on Dunesteef Episode 108 on their forum, speaking about how to take rejection.

A thick skin doesn’t come naturally. You have to cultivate it. One of the biggest ways that I did this when I started writing fiction is critique forums. My particular favorite is Baen’s Bar. Post some stuff there in the Baen’s Bar Slush, get some feedback, post feedback on other people’s stories. Yeah, the negative comments can be hard to take at first, but you learn to extract the useful parts of them. If you critique enough stuff from other people you can learn to take that cold critical eye and apply it to your own writing, and then when someone comments on your stuff, even when they don’t like it you can decide objectively “Yeah, that makes sense” or “No, that advice is absolute crap”. I wrote up an article a while back suggesting some rules for critiquing and receiving critiques. Some of it has to do with this subject, especially the rule “This Is Your Story”.

I don’t follow Dean Wesley Smith a great deal, but one concept he has that I really found useful is The Race. In that, you keep a score for all the stories you have submitted. 1 point for each short. 3 points for a partial novel manuscript, 8 points for a full manuscript. I mostly submit short stories, but I do have one old dog of a novel I occasionally send out. I have one children’s book going out occasionally that I count for 3 points, on the grounds that it has more monetary potential than a short story but is not as bulky as a novel. I have about 50 stories completed by this time, and I typically keep about 30 of them in submission at any given time, rotating the other ones in as I get rejections. With that and the children’s book, my Score’s hovered around 33 for quite a while, not too bad of a score.

One thing that helps is if you can find a way to not put too much anxiety into any single submission. Submitting in bulk really helps this a lot, because if you have only ONE submission out, it’s hard not to obsess over it. You send out one submission, and then when you get one rejection you are back at square one. If you have 30 stories submitted though, a rejection for one is just a scratch on the surface, not that big of a deal. I assume any given submission is a certain rejection, but that I have some chance across the board. Pessimism in specific, optimism in general. :)

And for tracking submissions, I keep an Excel spreadsheet for now. In which I do happen to do some obsessive stats tracking. The way I have it set up the file has gotten ridiculously large and it’s hard to update with new markets. I’m trying to work my way to a database system. I’ve got the basic database tables set up along with some forms to fill them and get simple reports, but I want more complicated stats reports and haven’t figured out how to do those yet in OpenOffice. If anyone wants it you can download a free copy of it at.

And, after that, just perseverence is the only advice I have. When I get one back i just send it out to the next available market I haven’t sent it to and work my way down the line. And just because it’s been around the block a few times doesn’t mean it’s doomed. 1 of my recent stories that I sold for pro rates had been on its 20th submission. And then finally it found that editor for which it was just right.

As part of those obsessive stats, I keep a count of my submission responses, and the number at which I receive rejections. I started submitting in June of 2008. In that time I have had 675 resolved submissions:
489 negative/neutral rejections
167 positive rejections
5 rewrite requests
14 purchase at normal rate (for 8 different stories).

To show how long the stretches were between selling those eight different stories, of those 675 submissions those were numbered #s 126, 129, 210, 232, 572, 591, 599, 626, 637. That gap between 232 and 572 was soooooo long for me!! But I made it, and now have had pretty good luck for the last few months! Here’s hoping my luck continues. As it is, with the sales I’ve made this year, and if the neo-pro markets I’ve sold to get listed by SFWA as pro markets, then I could be eligible to apply for SFWA’s “Active” status around June 2012, which is one of my major milestones I’ve set for myself.