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Life and Work with Lisa Yaszek

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lisa Yaszek.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Lisa. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I’m a professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, where I explore science fiction as the most popular and pervasion story form of the modern era. I’m particularly interested in science fiction as a “global language” that all kinds of people use to convey their experiences with science, technology, and society across centuries, continents, and cultures. In addition to publishing books and talking about science fiction in newspapers and on tv, I serve as the site host for local science fiction events including the Atlanta Sci-Fi FIlm Festival and BlacktastiCon! I also run the Sci-Fi Lab at Georgia Tech, which is a research and maker space for members of the Georgia Tech community–we even have our own science fiction podcast and Twitch stream!

I start with all this because while there are hundreds of us who research, teach, and make science fiction in university environments, very few of us get to do this full time; instead, we usually have to “pass” as English or History or Physics professors who just happen to also study science fiction. But Georgia Tech has a longstanding commitment to the serious study of science fiction–we were one of the first institutes to offer science fiction classes in the 1970s, and today we have one of the largest science fiction research collections in the world as well as a cutting-edge science fiction minor and half a dozen professors who teach science fiction across media and languages.

It was probably fate that I ended up becoming a professor of science fiction studies: my very first memory in the world is watching Star Trek reruns with my parents, both of whom were huge science fiction fans. Later, when we went away to different colleges, my best friend and I stayed close by sending each other new science fiction books. But it never occurred to me that I could make a living exploring what I loved to read and watch! All of my professors studied serious literature–Chaucer, the Romantic poets, etc.–and I personally went to graduate school to study contemporary literature. While I was doing that I got interested in the impact of new technologies on new literary forms and vice versa, so I started incorporating some science fiction texts into my research.

After I received my Ph.D., I came to Atlanta for a postdoc in science and literary studies at Georgia Tech, where I learned that there were actually two people in my unit whose research agendas centered on science fiction. I was really excited to learn from them! Much to my surprise, both of those professors were gone by the time I actually got to Tech–one retired and the other got a new position elsewhere. But I had the opportunity to meet with both of these wonderful people off campus, and then, I had the great good fortune to interview for and land one of the two tenure-track jobs they had vacated. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
My journey toward becoming a professor who gets to read, write, and teach about her favorite subject has been an interesting one! I’ve encountered a surprising range of people who have not always understood how and why I’ve pursued the career path that I have. The first real challenge came from my family, who was very proud of my college accomplishments but who simply couldn’t understand why I would pass up on a well-paying advertising job to pursue graduate studies instead–it just wasn’t something people around us did. Fortunately, I had money saved from my part-time editing job as well as a graduate fellowship, so I was prepared to finance my own education at that point–and once my family saw that they began to come around. So, that is the first piece of advice I would give young women who are just starting their journey: try to think ahead to what you want to do with your life in five or even ten years, and then take charge of your finances to make it happen! You will be proud of yourself and gain incredible confidence, which is often all you need to persuade the people around you that you are indeed on the right life path. And even if you don’t persuade them, you’ll have the inner strength to be all right with that. It’s okay to have values and goals that differ from those around you. Diversity is part of human nature and it makes us all stronger.

This brings me to my other piece of advice: learn to say no, early and often. Our culture teaches men to make themselves their first priority, but women are often both implicitly and explicitly taught to please others, even at their own expense. This is especially tricky if you enjoy the path you’re on. As a young professor at Georgia Tech, I was thrilled to find an institute and then a larger academic community that supported my work, and of course I wanted to give back so others would also have those opportunities (both Georgia Tech and the science fiction studies community tend to be male-dominated, so I was particularly excited to make sure there were opportunities for other women like myself). So, for my first decade or so as a professor, I said yes to everything–every book I was invited to contribute to, every recruiting event I was asked to participate in, every editorial board I was invited to serve on, every administrative position I was hired to fill. Honestly, I was afraid if I said no, the opportunities would dry up! But that resulted in a situation where I was somehow literally working more hours than actually existed in a single day, I was constantly on edge with my spouse and child, I was no longer speaking with my best friends at work, and I had blown out my shoulder from–well, from shouldering the weight of it all. I knew I needed to change but I’d been saying yes for so long that I didn’t know how to prioritize and what to say no to. So I started seeing a career coach help me figure all of this out. What a great change it’s been! Five years later, it’s still hard to say no–especially if it’s something I really want to do–but it does get easier each time. And the payoff is great: my personal relationships are back on track and my academic work brings joy again rather than tears. The best part is realizing that when you say no, you actually become more attractive to all those people to whom you were previously saying yes: they realize that *you*realize your own worth, and are suddenly a lot more respectful of your time.

And that leads to my third and final piece of advice: when in doubt, seek out professional career advice. Many people don’t know that career coaches exist or that their services are covered by standard health insurance (because most are also licensed therapists or social workers). As I know from experience, even if you are surrounded by supportive family members and colleagues, they are not on your specific journey and most are not experts in negotiating a wide variety of job situations or career paths. But career coaches do just that! One thing I’ve come to realize in my time with my career coach is that we’re all taught to strive for success, but we are rarely taught how to manage and then enjoy that success. I wish I had learned that earlier, but I’m certainly glad to know it now.

Please tell us more about what you do, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I’m a professor of science fiction studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech as well as past president of the Science Fiction Research Association, the oldest professional organization in the world for the serious study of science fiction across media. I’m interested in science fiction as a global language that allows us to communicate our experiences with science, technology, and society to each other across centuries, continents, and cultures.

Most of my research focuses on recovering lost voices in science fiction and discovering new ones. I’m best known for my work recovering the rich and complex history of women in science fiction. Most of us know that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first commercially successful science fiction novel and that since the revival of feminism in the 1970s, we’ve enjoyed the work of amazing women authors including Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood and wonderful female directors including Kathryn Bigelow and Ava du Vernay. But where were all the women between 1818 and 1970? As I explain in my books Galactic Suburbia, Sisters of Tomorrow, and The Future is Female!, it turns out they were right there in the science fiction community, helping build the genre they loved even as they sometimes had to fight for their share of the future. Many of these women were written out of science fiction history because the stories they wrote (and sometimes the politics they espoused) didn’t match the vision of the (usually but not always male) authors and editors who created out first histories of popular culture. It’s been thrilling to help reshape history as we know it, and I’m honored by the recognition I’ve received from the science fiction and feminist communities for the work I do. But the biggest reward has come in the form of letters and emails and phone calls from complete strangers who have picked up one of my books and found their own mothers/grandmothers/aunts/friends in it! It’s extremely satisfying to see how excited they are–and extremely fun to get anecdotes and photos straight from the source.

In terms of my work as a professor at Georgia Tech, I’m most proud of what we call “SciFi@Tech,” which is the umbrella term we use to cover all our different science fiction activities. Georgia Tech has long been committed to the serious study of science fiction across media–my predecessor taught one of the first accredited college classes on the subject in the early 1970s, and when I was hired at Tech he had just retired, donating his extensive science fiction collection to the library. Since then, I’ve helped grow the collection to 14,000 unique items, and today we are one of the largest science fiction research collections in the world. We’ve also gone from one to six professors who research and teach science fiction and we have a thriving science fiction minor as well as a physical lab space where anyone from the Georgia Tech community can research and produce science fiction!

While it’s still fairly unique for any university to devote this many resources to science fiction, what makes SciFi@Tech particularly unique is that we don’t do our work in a vacuum or just with other humanities scholars. Instead, we partner with both scientists across campus and artists across Atlanta. For instance, last year I worked with colleagues at the Georgia Tech Research Institute to produce a workshop where science fiction authors and critics partnered with materials science engineers to brainstorm new research directions, and this year the research fellows in our Sci-Fi Lab are working with the College of Sciences and the Tech Library to produce a multimedia exhibit on “the elements in science fiction” to celebrate the International Year of the Periodic Table. I’ve also produced science-and-science-fiction events for the Atlanta Science Festival and the Decatur Book Festival, and my students and I serve as site hosts for the Atlanta Sci-Fi Film Festival and BlacktastiCon! (a regional convention for speculative artists of color). Science fiction is all about how we can do things differently in the present to build new and more just futures for all, and I like to think that is exactly what we do with SciFi@Tech.

Were there people and/or experiences you had in your childhood that you feel laid the foundation for your success?
I absolutely believe that the experiences I had growing up feed into my current successes! My parents shared their own love of science fiction with me from pretty much the moment I was born; my very first memory is watching Star Trek reruns on tv with them. This shaped both my interest in the genre and my overall belief that people really can put aside their differences and work together to build new and more just futures for all. I try to contribute to this project myself through my recovery of lost voices in science fiction and by making space for women and other minority voices in my classes and science fiction events at Georgia Tech.

I also owe a great deal of my success to the four teachers who took me under their collective wing in high school. As a smart girl who was bored by the standard curriculum and alienated from both the girls who didn’t share my interest in guitars or science fiction or motorcycles and the boys who tried to mansplain why men were so much better than women at music/science/machines, I was pretty miserable for a while! But these wonderful women saw exactly what was going on, and they turned me on to art and political activism and gave me something meaningful to do with myself! It truly changed my life, and I try to pay that forward with both my research and my teaching at Tech.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Jillann Hertel (personal photo)

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