Teaching Literature and Science (2)

Teaching Literature and Science: BSLS Symposium, 8 November 2014

Case Studies: Literature and Science for Literature Students

The second session turned from larger questions of motivation and philosophy to more detailed account of methods and approaches. It’s harder to take precise notes in this kind of session — I didn’t manage to write down all the texts the lecturers had mentioned as being on their courses — so the account here may seem thinner than my account of the first session, or may distort it towards the more abstract questions.

Rebecca Lindner and Shannon McBriar teach at Amsterdam University College, a very recently founded small liberal arts college (about 850 students) in Amsterdam, part of a network of such colleges that has arisen in the Netherlands in recent years.  Theirs attempts to differentiate itself from the others by making science a significant part of its profile, with the result that humanities students can feel marginalised. A literature and science course can work well in such a context. Their literature and science course covers a long duration, from the early modern to the present.  It makes thematic divisions, using large themes such as mind, body, and place.  It covers many genres of writing, such as early modern anatomy texts, travel narratives, etc.  In practice Rebecca and Shannon found that the thematic boundaries collapsed.

Ros Powell teaches at Liverpool Hope, and runs a final-year module ‘Reading Enlightenment’.  It begins with Bacon’s New Atlantis and ends with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, and covers themes such as imagined worlds, man’s place in the world.  Ros described her aims as being to educate her students about science in a historical way: that includes historicising ‘science’ itself and making them familiar with historical categories such as ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘the virtuoso’.  She’s asking them to think about the nature of Enlightenment; about scientific diction and genre, and what happens to scientific ideas and terms when they are transposed from one genre to another.  She encourages students to think about the choices that scientists made in their discourse, and encourages students to be independent, finding their own texts on databases such as ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online).

Greg Tate teaches at the University of Surrey, in which English is a relatively new subject; it’s historically a science and engineering university.  This situation has allowed him more flexibility than might have been the case in a department that was set in its ways.  Greg offers both a second-year undergraduate module and an MA module. The undergraduate module, ‘Science Fictions’, compares representations of science in Science Fiction texts with those in drama, nineteenth-century fiction, and other forms.  The MA module is more explicitly a Literature and Science module.  The big question Greg had to ask us was whether there’s a pathway from undergraduate literature and science to MA level to doctoral level, and how we might describe those levels: are there concept, texts, or methods that you have to teach at each?  This is a huge topic, and one which didn’t picked up at the length I’d have liked in the questioning, though we did have some good informal discussions over tea.

In his BA course, Greg begins with C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures.  This was a text mentioned by several contributors over the day, somewhat to my surprise, as in the research-focused environment of the spring BSLS conferences, I’ve heard it said (quite reasonably) that there ought to be a ban on Snow as a starting-off point; certainly no-one is going to derive a methodology from his book or his spat with Leavis.  But in a pedagogical context, Greg reports, it’s a useful text: Snow’s argument about education resonates with the students’ experience of being forced to choose between art and science.  (At some point in the day, someone mentioned the idea of placing Snow in a series of such arts vs. science spats, and to my mind that’s a more satisfactory way of dealing with the problem: the precise terms of the disagreement and their different relations to their historical moments become part of the investigation.)

Other questions Greg raised were how to deal with students’ anxiety about talking about science; and how to introduce students to the idea of two-way traffic between science and literature. (And, one might add, at least at a higher level, how do you teach them to be discriminating about the conditions under which such traffic can meaningfully occur.  You can name your subatomic particles from a word in Finnegans Wake, but is that, in itself, meaningful traffic?).  Greg returned to the question of how to differentiate levels: his answer was that his undergraduates don’t read many scientific text directly, while his MA students do; and his MA students are expected to think about science as a genre. (For myself, I’d be keen for undergraduates to make steps into being alert and critical readers of scientific texts, and for many years at Bangor, and more recently at Oxford, I’ve used extracts from Darwin’s ‘Essay of 1844’ as a way into one kind of scientific writing.)  Finally, Greg asked about the assessment and delivery of the MA module, and in particular the question of whether it should be preparing students for doctoral level.

Michelle Geric spoke as someone currently in the middle of teaching a new final-year undergraduate module at Westminster.  Students there hadn’t had previous opportunities to study literature and science, and for Michelle one important reason for beginning with Frankenstein was that the students are confident there’s a connection with science; the module runs from Frankenstein through to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  It also brings in a session on Poe and mesmerism, which has proved especially popular, and one drawing on her own research into geology.  It’s important and interesting to include pseudo-sciences, partly as a way of raising questions about historical fluctuations in what counts as science.  Emile Zola’s Nana has proved very successful, so much so that she’s had to make in-flight adjustments to the running order, so they could have one week on naturalism and another on degeneration. (One theme we didn’t raise in the day, and which Nana might have been a useful prompt for, was how useful non-Anglophone literature in translation has proved to be, and whether it raises any problems, such as it coming from a country with different scientific traditions and different social and institutional frameworks for science.)

The feedback Michelle has received so far suggests that the students feel there are too many new ideas for them (though I’d be inclined to see that as better feedback than students saying there are too few); and that, as regards their reasons for choosing the module, that they were very curious about the conjunction of literature and science.  The problems she has encountered echoed those mentioned Charlotte Sleigh in the first session: (1) introducing history of science; (2) getting students to think about science influencing the form of the text, which requires them to grasp concepts of form; (3) the problem of the two-way street.  As regards the larger question of motivation, Michelle mentioned wanting her students to engage with ethical issues (e.g., vivisection in The Island of Dr Moreau), and wanting them to be empowered to interrogate science.

Finally in this session, Fran Kohlt from Oxford spoke about her experience of teaching a literature and science class within the Oxford tutorial system (at St Anne’s College) on the first-year Literature in English 1830-1910 paper.  The primary texts she chose for this two-hour event were Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, essays from Kingsley’s Scientific Essays and Lectures, and essays by T. H. Huxley, including ‘Evolution and Ethics’. The relation of religion and science had been important for this session.  At the end of the session she had got her students to form small groups and to report back on one of three topics, using brief quotations prompts: Gillian Beer on myth-making as a proto-science; another on mysticism and science; and George Levine on the idea of there being one culture.  Fran went on to talk about how she transposed this session to work for a summer school group of fourteen year olds.

In the questions, Rebecca and Shannon mentioned their students wanting to know how to follow up their undergraduate study of literature and science, and what to do at MA level.  The question also arose of how to make use of material culture in teaching literature and science. In relation to the problem of students having to take on new methodologies as well as new texts and unfamiliar scientific concepts, Will Abberley suggested that we need to petition our departments to make some space for concepts relevant to our work on first year introductory modules.  (We didn’t get to discuss what form this might take, or what form might prove easiest to sell, but I imagine that teaching first years extracts from Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By would be a sellable proposition, and one that would benefit students who don’t go on to study literature and science as well as those who do.)

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One thought on “Teaching Literature and Science (2)

  1. Pingback: Thinking about Thinking: Teaching Literature and Science | Gregory Tate

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