Meet the Future: An Interview with Nichole Nomura
PhD Candidate, Stanford University
SFRA Review: Hi, Nichole, could you tell us a bit about yourself? As much (or as little) as you’d like!
Hello! I’m currently a PhD candidate at Stanford English, and I’ve just wrapped up my M.A. in Education from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. I grew up in and did all my schooling in California, and somewhat stereotypically love the beach, the desert, swimming, and any form of being on the water (in all seasons). I collect (not hoard) books, tools, and blazers.
Review: How do you describe yourself professionally?
N: I work and teach in the digital humanities, education, and literary studies in order to study the way science fiction teaches and is taught. I’m a researcher in Stanford’s Literary Lab, a digital humanities (DH) research collective. Being a part of the Lab is such an incredible experience—I love the collaborative structure of project-based inquiry, the chance to explore questions outside my area of expertise, and the way DH methods estrange me from my own work and assumptions—it’s a science-fictional way to work on SF, but that’s not the only reason I use DH methods. DH’s ability to move to different scales is really useful when working on something as massive as science fiction or something as small as syntagmatic spaces between words. My research and teaching in the school of Education gives me the critical tools to see the lesson plans and curricula embedded in SF, and to analyze SF as embedded in lesson plans and curricula. The sociological methods I use, such as qualitative coding, come from my training in the Ed school, and help me approach questions that deal with real readers in ways that I choose for their respect and rigor. And literary studies, perhaps the most traditional home of the SF scholar, provides the theories that are at the core of my research and are the foundation of my personal reading habits and inclinations.
Review: Why does sf matter to you?
N: SF matters to me because people read it. People watch it. People write it and dress up in it and live in it. A lot of people. We would be fools not to study it.
That’s the short version of the manifesto. The longer version is built on a collection of anecdotes—students who have told me my class was the first one where they read books they liked; an engineering student who made his career decision as a kid watching Iron Man suit up for the first time; the way either Picard, Janeway, or Sisko seems to have a quote for any difficult occasion; or the time I watched a 6th -grader carefully hide a copy of The Hunger Games under his desk while we were watching a documentary. SF matters to me not only because people read it, but because people love it. These stories shape our lives because we choose to let them.
Review: What brought you to sf studies?
N: I got my first dose of SF theory in a creative writing class (specifically, for all you teachers out there, Langer’s “Case Studies in Reading 2: Key Theoretical and Critical Texts in Science Fiction Studies” from The Science Fiction Handbook), and while I had been exposed to some theory elsewhere in my undergraduate program, it had never clicked. For the first time, I understood what other people saw in theory. Somebody had tools for thinking about texts I cared about, in ways that changed how I thought about them—and I could use them as tools, choosing between them, refining them, setting them aside when they didn’t serve me anymore. The clichéd lightbulb turned on, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was the science fiction theory that excited me—there’s something special about it. I probably bored all my friends and professors with endless papers and discussion posts on cognitive estrangement, but they were supportive, excellent educators and collaborators who pushed me to read more, deeper, and better.
Review: What project(s) are you working on now, and how did you get there?What question(s) really drive your work?
N: I’m fascinated by the explicitly didactic—by the attempt to convey theoretical information directly in the context of a largely experiential narrative. Much of my work is driven by a desire to account for the giant lecture, the book within a book, or the equations that we commonly dismiss as sloppy worldbuilding or too heavy-handed. This interest in the explicitly didactic comes from a deeper pedagogical interest in what “theory” is and how we distribute it.
My dissertation examines the relationship between didacticism and science fiction. I argue that science fiction has an outsized pedagogical potential compared to that of traditional realist fiction, as a result of its more frequent movement between model and simulation and its investment in models as such. The model, in fiction, is a claim about how a system works—a theory of capitalism, family, physics, politics, biology, school, class, etc.—that the simulation then enacts over narrative time. Taking an interdisciplinary approach—combining traditional literary criticism, digital humanities methods, and qualitative social-science methods—the project seeks to understand how and what science fiction can and does teach.
In the Literary Lab, I’ve been working on a project called “Novel Worldbuilding” with Mark Algee-Hewitt that investigates science-fictional worldbuilding using computational methods. We’re able to detect passages that grammatically resemble scientific writing, using methods developed for the Microgenres project, as well as compare the probabilities of syntagmatic word combinations in SF novels against “real-world” scientific discourses, like that found in Scientific American and medical journals. These two methods proxy very different kinds of worldbuilding—and so the project’s next steps are to explore the relationships between them, as well as their relationship to the relative prestige, award-status, and scientific domain of novels that use them.
Review: What do you envision for the future of sf studies and sf scholars? What do you want to see us accomplish?
N: We’ve spent the last however-many years fighting for the legitimacy of our field—now that a moment has come where SF is no longer relegated to the corners of “nerdy” and “unacademic,” I hope we do not squander it. I hope we guard against gatekeeping of all kinds, both directed at us and facilitated by us.
The line between scholastic and artistic work has always been blurry in SF studies—I hope we can not only keep it blurry, but develop better protocols for working within and across that blurry space. This is a question our field has to come to terms with at a variety of scales, from the citational practices of our own work and teaching to the CFPs we produce and the people we choose to fund. Is “critical” a stance or form? Are you introducing works as “primary” or “secondary” sources? “Theory” or “fiction”? How can we strengthen the critical praxis of SF, across and within this boundary space? How can we train future practitioners that feel equally at ease in critical and creative spaces, and how do we institutionalize and support those interdisciplinary spaces? We’ve already started—I think it’s imperative that we continue, and then share our theories of how to work in the blurry space with our respective home disciplines.
Review: If you could write a dream book, or teach a dream course, what would it/they be?
N: I’m itching to spend time thinking and writing about the way we learn to craft and be crafty through fiction. Dystopian worlds with instructions for survival, Engineering debates in Star Trek, prepper novels with lists of supplies, fantasy swordsmiths and healers, and Little House on the Prairie. Too broad for a dissertation, but I’ve been working on it for fun whenever I find a wonderful example of it.
Although it doesn’t look like a traditional book project or course, I’ve been building a database of SF award winners that allows for digital humanities methods like text-mining to be analyzed alongside qualitative coding methods and metadata like award-status or the pronouns used on an author’s Wikipedia page. The database has been an ongoing project of its own—it definitely started as a part of my dissertation (I just wanted to answer one small question about “hard SF”!) but then quickly became, with the support of undergraduate research assistants in the Literary Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, a project that far exceeds the scope of my dissertation. I’m excited to get to dig into it once the dissertation is done—whether that’s in a (somewhat untraditional) classroom space, a lab space, or as part of a book project remains to be seen. Most likely—all three!
Review: Thank you, Nichole! Your labor and thoughts are valued and appreciated.