Michelle Smith: Technology in Utopian Literature

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

Dr. Michelle C. Smith recognizes the important role technology plays in our society and analyzes its effect on achieving a “utopian” future in her current lecture ENGL 3490: Technology in Utopian Literature. 

Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Clemson University and an award-winning scholar. 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.

Smith taught utopian literature for the first time in 2012 when she discovered her love for the subject and that studying it required a more theoretical lens. She realized utopian use of technology is an important topic, so when she came to Clemson five years ago, she was excited 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.

She first taught this course in Fall of 2020, a very fitting time to consider questions of technology in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When asked her favorite part of Technology in Utopian Literature, she said, “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. Particularly, when you’re looking at literature and technology, it’s cool to have those perspectives.” 

I have also enjoyed the diversity of majors in our class because the different perspectives create a well-rounded class discussion. Smith makes Technology in Utopian Literature interesting and helps her students deeply think about the direction the world is heading and the role you can play in it.

When asked why studying technology in utopian literature 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.” 

Smith encourages her students to study all perspectives. We have read works for and against technology, and from these works, we develop our ideas about utopia. She assigns readings her former students have connected with 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.”

Regarding technology in the classroom, Smith is admittedly “old school,” requiring printed versions of the text and response; no laptops unless necessary for 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 making a statement about technology intentionally she believes it allows all of us, including herself, to bring our best selves to the classroom. 

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. 

She will not be teaching this class this Spring, 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. 


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