Teaching Literature and Science (1)

Teaching Literature and Science: BSLS Symposium, 8 November 2014

As a research field, literature and science can trace its roots back to the 1930s (Carl Grabo’s A Newton Among Poets [1930]), but most practitioners would reckon it to have really taken off in the 1980s, with the publication of works such as Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983), Sally Shuttleworth’s George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (1984), and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists (1988).  But as a topic that one might teach as undergraduate level, it’s taken long to feature in more than the occasional lecture or seminar.  In his opening address to the BSLS symposium on teaching literature and science, hosted by the University of Westminster, Martin Willis asked why now?  Why are we having this conversation now and not ten years ago?  (It’s true that at the first BSLS conference in Glasgow in 2006 we did have a session on teaching, and it was interesting then to hear what people had tried doing in the classroom, but I don’t think we could have sustained an independent day event back then.)

(1) Why Teach Literature and Science?

Martin’s opening words set an important frame for the first session, ‘Why Teach Literature and Science?’, in which Will Tattersdill, John Holmes, and Charlotte Sleigh addressed the larger question of motivation, as well as giving us snippets of practice, sketches of their institutional context, and anecdotes of their point of entry.  This informal and personal tone was an important feature of the day as a whole: there are all sorts of personal investment in the topics we choose to teach, and in a supportive environment it’s useful to touch on them.

Will, who has been lucky enough to recruit 66 students to his final-year module on Victorian L&S at Birmingham, talked about how at school he had been made to choose between arts and science, and indeed had been more or less told that he had a Writing Brain rather than a Test Tube Brain.  For him, I infer, it wasn’t that simple.  (This is not atypical as a career story for L&S people, though it’s not the only one.)  Will had been particularly inspired by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (2008) which had made him concerned about media misrepresentations of science, and aware that students from an arts background who go on to work in the media ought to have a more informed perspective so they can approach science ‘appropriately’.  (I wonder whether science is singular, and whether we can therefore find a single ‘proper’ way to approach it, but I agree with the broad sentiment, and agree with this point of view as starting point.)

John had taught, around 2005-06, a module called ‘The Literature of Science’, and had later taught MA-level courses; right now he’s preparing a fascinating interdisciplinary module at the University of Reading which will involve tutors and students from biology, history, and literature.  Literature students will do scientific experiments; science students will study literature.

For John, there were three main reasons why he teaches literature and science.  (1) To break down the retrospective imposition of two cultures on cultures where there was no divide between literature and science.  (John sees the divide as arising in the late nineteenth century.)  (2) To counteract the entrenched arts / science divide in UK educational culture. (3) The civic argument: ‘we live in an age that is defined by science’, John said, and so it’s important from a civic or a political point of view to understand it correctly.  (I’d want to qualify this as above by asking whether there’s a single right way of understanding it, but I’d agree that most arts students could easily be better informed about the practices and content of science.)  As science doesn’t have much political clout, we get some weird distortions in its representation: on the one hand, scientism and an excessive optimism about its ability to solve human problems, and on the other hand anti-science positions.  There’s a particular problem about the media misrepresentation of science, exemplified by the media on climate change feeling obliged to demonstrate ‘balance’ (one climate-change ‘sceptic’ vs. one informed scientist). Scientific truth isn’t determined by processes of majority voting.

Charlotte’s career trajectory differs significantly from those of the other two speakers: her school, for honourable reasons, had directed any girls who were good at science to choose it at A level and beyond. During her degree she turned to history of science, and has since then begun work in literature and science.  At Kent she had taught a big first-year course that covered literature and science from Swift to the present, but found that it was asking too much of the students: they had to absorb some science, some history of science, and some literature; she gave up on this module.  Recently, she has devised a final-year special subject module, which — unusually when semesterisation is the norm — runs for the whole year and allows her to practice ‘slow reading’ of big texts like Middlemarch and The Origin of Species. The module has a special appeal to History and English Joint Honours students at Kent who hitherto had lacked any kind of bridge module.  Charlotte turned the motivation question on its head and asked ‘why not teach lit and science?’  There are risks: there’s a danger that nothing gets done properly (everyone gets a smattering of history of science, etc.); that people enjoy the frisson of working on the borderline but don’t do it rigorously; that lit students make bad historians and historians treat literature as a ‘light’ source, treated without the rigour they’d bring to ‘real’ historical documents.

On the question of ‘why now?’, Charlotte noted that in academia the ‘science wars’ (post-Sokal Hoax, etc.) are now over, even if they might still be going on elsewhere.  She noted that if science studies is all about the critical appreciation of science, in an era where science needs to be treated seriously — above all in relation to climate change — and defended from its detractors (she wasn’t specific, but I’d gloss that as religious fundamentalists and big business), then the emphasis has shifted from the critical to the appreciation.

There was a good conversation following these presentations.  Shannon McBriar noted that there are problems of perception on both sides: scientists making judgements about art (e.g., in neurological work on creativity) often start from a naive position that sees all art as expression.  I remarked on another motivation, which is that thinking about literature in relation to science not only sharpens our awareness of science, but also enables us to think about literature as a form of knowledge with its own distinct and valuable powers. Will had mentioned in passing the seeming importance of science relative to the humanities (in short: if we get it wrong, no one dies), but i wanted to make the case that, actually, if we don’t make a pitch for a full and complex sense of what it is to be human (part of which involves the kind of knowledge found in art), then we all become debased and brutish consumers. (I’ve been reading Christopher Hillary’s English As Vocation: the  Scrutiny Movement (2012) in the last few days, and was reading Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 on the train up to London, so if this came across as left-Leavisism, that’s probably why.)

Duncan McKay said something at this point about the positive value of doing neuroaesthetics, and I’m sorry I didn’t make a proper note of his real point, though if I recall correctly, it was that in doing it the practitioners come to recognise the limitations of their form of knowledge. Greg Tate suggested that our motivations for teaching might not be so far removed from our motivations for doing research in this area.  Laura Ludtke argued that literature and science offers us a view on the value of the humanities.

Charlotte opened the question of where there’s an asymmetry between science and literary criticism, and the related question of what this ‘literature’ in ‘literature and science’ is anyway: is it literature, or literary criticism?  Scientists might think they make real things: not just technological spin-offs, but real knowledge, where literary critics seem only to write about writing. I.e., the value of science seems to relate to the distance between its object and its medium.  Barri Gold suggested that maybe in many cases scientists don’t know what it is they do.

I’ll summarise the later sessions in separate blogs. The whole event was videoed, and will be posted online by our hosts at the University of Westminster and/or the BSLS, and I’ll add a link there when this session is available.

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