Michelle Smith and Technology in Utopian Literature

Michelle Smith smiles at the camera and poses in front of a natural background.

Dr. Michelle C. Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Clemson University and an award-winning scholar. She is also currently teaching Engl 3490: Technology in Utopian Literature. This past year, she won an honorable mention for the Winifred Bryan Horner Outstanding Book Award from The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition for her first book, “Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age.


This award came after years of researching her interests: feminist rhetorics, historiography, women’s work, archives and utopianism, which Lyman Sargent defines as “social dreaming.”. The award means a lot to her because The Coalition is her closest professional community, and her research and feminist commitment is what gives her her passion for her work. 


“Utopian Genderscapes” focuses on three utopian communities in Boston, Pennsylvania and upstate New York during the Industrial Revolution in the 1840s. These communities created their utopias by changing up stereotypical male and female labor dynamics. Smith also translated her passion for these subjects into other areas like her current lecture.


Smith taught utopian literature for the first time in 2012 when she realized she loved the subject and that studying it requires a more theoretical lens. She found what utopias did with technology was an important and interesting topic, so when she came to Clemson five years ago, she jumped on the opportunity to teach the upper-level special topics class Technology in the Popular Imagination. This course allowed her to teach Technology in Utopian Literature, a class she knew she was passionate about and a lecture I am currently taking this semester. 


She first taught this course in Fall of 2020, a very fitting time to consider questions of technology

and “the good life” in light of the covid pandemic moving all classes online at Clemson. 


Smith said one of her favorite parts about teaching this class is that, “We get a bunch of upper-level English majors but also get people from history, business and engineering, and I really enjoy this kind of cross population that we get,” and, “Particularly when you’re looking at literature and technology, it’s cool to have those perspectives.” 


The conglomeration of majors is an aspect I have particularly enjoyed about the class because the many different perspectives create a well rounded class discussion. Smith makes Tech in Utopia interesting and also helps her students think deeper about the real world and the direction it is heading in, no matter what your major. 


She will not be teaching this class this upcoming Spring semester, but she hopes to teach it once a year, meaning it should be available again in Fall 2023. I would highly suggest keeping an eye out for it next year. 


When asked why this topic is important, Smith said, “We tend toward these all or nothing attitudes toward technology, so I think looking at technology alongside utopia or dystopia helps us nuance that and be less black and white in the way we think about, talk about, or respond to new technologies in particular.” 


She encourages her students to study both sides of the pendulum. We have read works for and against technology, and from these works, we get to conjure our own ideas about the perfect future society. She is always drawn to assign readings her students have connected with most in the past like “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler. Other class readings include Michael Focaut’s “Panopticism,” Langdon Winner’s “Do Artifacts Have Politics”’ and N.K. Jemisin’s “How Long ‘til Black Future Month.” 


Smith enjoys keeping the class interesting and engaging for students by juxtaposing literature and theoretical readings and assigning easy, short reflections before every class. She believes this allows students to apply what we read in class to literature and to life, and the reflections are a way to motivate class participation while also allowing students to be able to bring something to the table for each class discussion. 


When it comes to technology in the classroom, Smith is admittedly “old school,” requiring printed versions of the text and response; no laptops unless necessary for special cases like learning or accessibility purposes. She recognizes that her no-technology policy could be seen as ironic for a class all about technology. Smith says she is not intentionally making a statement about technology she simply believes it allows all of us, including herself, to bring our best selves to the space.


When asked if there is anything particular she would like to say about the class, she said “Our relationship with technology isn’t a one-way street,” and, in some cases, “not only does our technology tell us what to do, but it tells us who we should be.” Despite this, she says you can change how technology affects you, and this class allows students to consider how to do exactly that. Technology in Utopian Literature allows us to reclaim our agency. 

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