Since 2001, Claire Curtis has been pushing her students to better understand the world around them. College of Charleston Magazine caught up with the gifted and thoroughly entertaining political science professor to find out more about her research on dystopian literature, her brush with fame and her passion for softball.
Q: Where did you grow up and what do you miss about it?
A: I grew up in Upstate New York – Rochester. I miss snow (the nice late November snow, not the icy, dirty piles left in March), and I miss the lilacs.
Q: You are well known for your Introduction to Political Thought (POLS 150) course. What do you hope students take away from this class?
A: I love to teach this class! The question the course is built around is: How can a group of people with disparate aims and interests live together peacefully? We read Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Rawls and others. My hope is that students will both gain an appreciation for the time, energy, effort and care that political philosophers for the last 2,500 years have put into thinking about that question, and that students will have a better understanding about what they might think about why and how we do and should live together.
Q: Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?
A: Well, I should say Barack Obama, because we brought him to speak for the Political Science Convocation in 2002 with a theme of community organizing. But, at that point, he was simply a state senator, and so he was not famous when I met him. I moved to Seattle after college in part because I loved the dancer/choreographer Mark Morris. I was volunteering as an usher in a theater one night, and Mark Morris came to the show and I got to take him to his seat. Unfortunately, I burst out laughing upon seeing him, and I think he might have been offended.
Q: Your research into post-apocalyptic works seems to make you an expert on a lot of things currently hip in pop culture. What do you think is our fascination with these dystopian worlds?
A: I’m going to answer your question – but I would like to pose a different one: Why are we not fascinated by utopian texts? We’ve had heydays in the production of imagination feeding utopian texts: at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for example, Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland”). Likewise in the 1970s, there was another burst of utopian creativity (including le Guin’s “The Dispossessed,” but also including Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia,” among many others). What has happened to our utopian energies?
Our fascination with dystopia is twofold, I think. First, every dystopia is a critique of the world in which the author lives. And so, insofar as we read these dystopias as critiquing our world, then the fascination speaks to authentic feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Second, dystopias involve resistant protagonists. And there is something hopeful for a reader in the resistance of the protagonist (even when that resistance fails spectacularly [e.g., Winston Smith in "1984" – but even there, there is still hope for the reader]). I will say that we’re in a time when it’s important to perhaps distinguish between dystopia and the current marketing trend of dystopian trilogies produced for young adult readers, some of which are not particularly good examples of the genre of dystopia.
Q: So what’s one post-apocalyptic work that everyone should read?
A: Just one? I’ll give two: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” (and its sequel, “Parable of the Talents,” is even more important in terms of pointing out where we might be going wrong). And then Margaret Atwood’s” Oryx and Crake” (the first in the MaddAddam trilogy). Butler’s work imagines a quiet end to what we have known through a combination of environmental, political, economic and social forces. Atwood focuses more directly on the combination of environmental collapse and corporations run amok.
RELATED: Check out Claire’s take on The Giver
Q: What’s the toughest part of being a professor?
A: No one likes grading very much – or, at least, not the amount of grading that seems to all happen simultaneously. But that’s not “tough.” I think the toughest part is knowing that students are in my class but also living whole lives, and sometimes the stuff of their lives is going to collide with classroom success, and there are definitely things I can do about that as a faculty member – but there are real limits.
Q: What’s your biggest pet peeve in the classroom? Students texting as if I cannot see what they’re doing with both hands under the desk!
A: What kind of music do you listen to? In my office, I listen to the radio station at Fordham University: WFUV – they play a lot of alternative music. I think I’m dyslexic about music – I know what I like, but can almost never remember who the artist is (unless it’s the Talking Heads).
Q: What’s your most prized possession in your office?
A: The art made – throughout the years – by my children.
Q: Tell us about your favorite spot on campus.
A: I spend most of my time either in a classroom in Maybank Hall or in my office. But I shouldn’t say that my office is my favorite place on campus, should I? I like the benches along the inside edge of the Cistern Yard – the ones that are tucked away under the azaleas. You can have a good conversation there and observe people without their noticing you.
Q: Tell us about the all-faculty softball team, The Hacks.
A: I enjoy softball – but I love playing with the Hacks! Having a fun, outdoor, adult pastime is an excellent outlet in my largely indoor job and kid-centered family life. I play catcher and have successfully tagged out two people at home plate (in over seven years of fall and spring play), so my enjoyment may not actually be based on my excellent ball-handling skills (although my hitting has definitely improved over the years).
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of College of Charleston Magazine.