The Anatomy of a Rice Class

FWIS 121
Time Travel Narratives: Fiction, Film, Science
(Fall 2017)

First-Year Writing-Intensive Seminar

This course investigates the historical, aesthetic and scientific connections between the authorial and scientific co-creation of time travel. The class aims to define the relationship between scientific and narrative jumps through time as well as forge a general understanding of how our culture represents time travel.


Five years since I last stepped into a college classroom, I take a seat in instructor Laura Richardson’s freshman writing class and experience my own version of time travel. But I had never attended a class with a teacher who blasted pop songs as students took their seats. My envy fades when three students are summoned to the front to recite monotations — oral presentation is critical to the course. I’m instantly grateful I am not my past self, nervously waiting to complete a public speaking assignment. After some constructive feedback, the time travel talk begins. The class assembles in a circle, and Richardson shows a clip from Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic comic sci-fi movie, “Back to the Future.”


The film features Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student who is accidently sent back to 1955 and must ensure his teenage parents-to-be meet and fall in love so he can get back to the future. We watch a future scene where McFly witnesses an event in which his past self is a participant. Richardson asks the first discussion question: How do we know that the two McFlys in this scene are different?

Immediately, the discussion veers away from the question to consider how time travel works — a topic that many students have strong feelings about. Because no one has personal experience with time travel, their collective knowledge on the matter is primarily drawn from other movies. One student says, “In ‘Time Cop,’ when a person touches their past or future self, they melt into goo.” Another student insists that time travel involves multiple universes, so when someone from the future arrives to their past’s universe, one has to leave for another universe.


A student who appears to have a fair amount of time travel knowledge presents the Novikov self-consistency principle, which holds that time itself wouldn’t allow the two McFlys to interact with each other; if an event exists that would cause a paradox in the past, then the probability of that event is zero. In other words, someone from the future can’t interact with someone in the past because that would create an inconsistency
in the time loop.


Just as the class seems confident they have more than proved that the two McFlys are different, Richardson asks the last question: How do we know the two McFlys are the same? The class, plagued by frustration, then attempts to poke holes in their previous arguments. While I’m not sure the class answered either question completely, the discussion highlighted a slew of themes that will appear in their upcoming reading list.

Since the birth of storytelling, our society has been fascinated by time travel and themes such as changing the past, creating multiple timelines, using time as a dimension and using time travel as an engine for social change. Whatever dimension 2017 finds itself in, the themes of time travel have never been more prevalent.