Frankenstein connects literary themes to future technology

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The first University of Indianapolis Communiversity event of the semester brought “Frankenstein” to campus Sept. 25 with the arrival of its first guest speaker.

Taught by Associate Department Chair and Professor of English Jennifer Camden, Communiversity is an online course for which students read approximately 25 pages of a novel– in this case “Frankenstein”–  per week and later discuss the text online. According to Camden, roughly 60 students have enrolled across three sections, which comprise traditional students, alumni and community members.

The lecture and performance events associated with the combined Communiversity series feature external guest speakers and UIndy faculty from the Shaheen College of Arts and Sciences. According to Camden, the purpose of the Communiversity Series is to provide interdisciplinary perspectives on the novel under discussion.

“The goal of the course and of the events is to promote lifelong learning and to create a space for students and community members to connect and discuss literature in an interdisciplinary context,” Camden said.

This Communiversity series follows the similarly structured one of autumn 2016, which focused on Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Like its predecessor, “Frankenstein” is approaching its own bicentennial.

The guest speaker for the first installment of the Communiversity series was Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. Finn is also an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at ASU. He completed his Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Stanford University in 2011 and his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University in 2002. Before graduate school, Finn worked as a journalist at Time, Slate and Popular Science.

Finn spoke extensively of the link between “Frankenstein” and the ethics of modern-day technology, particularly artificial intelligence. According to Finn, the book’s themes of “creativity, responsibility, and the ethical limits of knowledge” are more relevant than ever.

“This is a myth that still counts, because it’s a myth about things that we are still worried about. It still counts because we haven’t found the answers to these questions,” Finn said. “And maybe today, it’s a story that counts because we’re getting ever-closer to the central dilemma that Victor Frankenstein faces, and the central transgression, the central problem, of the novel, which is no longer science fiction.”

The central dilemma of “Frankenstein” Finn referenced is the issue of whether or not creators are responsible for the actions of their creations. Camden, who was responsible for organizing the event and selecting “Frankenstein” as the central focus of Communiversity, Parallels such as this between “Frankenstein” and modern society.

“It’s a text that has a cultural life of its own,” Camden said. “Frankenstein’ is a novel from the past that is eerily relevant to the world we live in today and the world we will live in 100 years from now.”

Sophomore English literature major Shauna Sartoris said that she enjoyed the way the event connected the centuries-old story of “Frankenstein” to modern times.

“I liked hearing how the speaker connected history through the story of Frankenstein,” Sartoris said. “I think it’s important to connect works of [the] past to the present and future.”

Communiversity is funded by a grant from the Shaheen College of Arts and Sciences. This year, it also received additional support from Indiana Humanities as part of their “One State/One Story: Frankenstein” programming, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The next speaker for this Communiversity series will be Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Chad Martin on Oct. 9, followed by Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke Abigail Mann on Nov. 13.


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