Teaching Literature and Science (3, 4)

Teaching Literature and Science: BSLS Symposium, 8 November 2014

(3) Literature and Science for Science Students

Our third session was an unexpected pleasure: three tutors talking about the opportunities they’d had to teach creative skills and/or literature to science students in a British context. (In the afternoon we also heard from a science major who had taken Janine Rogers’s course at Mt Allison, Canada.)  My only disappointment about this session was that because the institutional structures that all three were working in were so unfamiliar, I felt I’d missed crucial details about exactly what they were offering and how it fitted in.

Vic Callaghan (Essex) was speaking on behalf of the Creative Science Foundation.  Vic had started his academic career in electronic engineering, before moving over into computer science and A.I., and gave a compelling account of how, right at the start, he had been inspired to do science by reading science fiction. The main theme of his talk was the increasing recognition that technological innovation requires creative imagination, and that science degrees tend to knock it out: scientists favour cautious approaches and ‘incremental thinking’ over imaginative leaps.  Engineering curricula are packed full with content; there’s little space for creativity. This has become a particular problem for chip manufacturers like Intel, for which the average duration between a new processor being imagined and its going into production is an astonishing seven years.  The problem is that the consumer side of the market innovates far more quickly: mobile phone designs are superseded every 18 months or so; the Intel chip designer has to imagine future uses for processors that haven’t yet been invented.  Intel’s approach was to try to wean their designers away from the scientific mindset they’d been trained in (in terms of there being right/wrong answers to any problem, etc.), by telling them that they could use fiction.  They used stories as a way of ‘wrapping up’ the technology and as a way of communicating the ideas.

Duncan Mackay, an astrophysicist from the University of Kent, contrasted himself to Vic, and picked up on Charlotte’s earlier question about what it is we do, by noting that his science is completely non-utilitarian.  His methods of engaging students with creative material were (i) to get them to paraphrase poems in terms of mathematical formulae (the symposium noticeboard had a weird rewriting of one of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’), and (ii) to get them to identify conceptual metaphors and ‘image schemata’ in scientific work.  This was intriguing stuff (I was interested to know how much theoretical grounding he gave them on the latter), and I would have liked to hear more details.

Matt Wraith comes from a literary-critical disciplinary background, and runs the Horizons programme at Imperial College, aiming to broaden the coverage available in a science institution.  He noted that the motivations of the institution, the students, and the tutors are not necessarily identical, though there wasn’t time for a more detailed analysis of whether the gaps between those motivations, and the tensions between them, are productive or limiting.

(4) Negotiating University Structures

After lunch we moved to the question of how literature and science does or doesn’t fit into institutional expectations and structures. In so far as other sessions had made reference to institutional traditions, outlooks, tendencies, limitations, etc., these weren’t entirely new questions, but it was valuable to foreground them. Emily Alder (Edinburgh Napier) has recently offered a module ‘Narratives of Nature’ which consists of literature and science with an eco-critical slant.  The background to her offering is the Scottish educational system which, relative to the English, requires students to cover a broader range of subjects up to university.  Joint Honours programmes are popular at Napier, and her module needed to recognise that; it also needed to work around the other modules, which had already claimed a lot of the gothic and genre fiction texts that she might otherwise have taught.  One of the most innovative elements that she has been allowed is an assessment portfolio in which students chose (in consultation with the tutor) how to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcomes.

The institutional pressures that Greg Lynall (Liverpool) talked about were partly those to do with modules competing with each other, and departments not wishing to run modules with less than optimum recruitment: any new module could be offered only at the expense of an existing one.  Greg has taught literature and science in one form or another for ten years; his most recent offering is part of an interdisciplinary eighteenth-century studies MA at Liverpool. This brings with it the pleasures and problems of teaching students who are confident in one of the disciplines but weak in another: e.g., historians who are confident talking about economic issues, but unpracticed at writing literary-critical essays.

Josie Gill has just begun a lectureship at Bristol, where her job title is Lecturer in Black British Writing of the 20th and 21st Centuries, so literature and science teaching was not formally part of her remit;  however, it has been relatively straightforward for her to introduce a third-year module on contemporary literature and science, with the earliest text being 1990.  She covers topics such as the Human Genome Project, science on stage, and David Lodge’s recent forays into science.  Her week on looking at science as writing was queried by the department, but within literature and science studies this is a very common skill to develop; she insisted on its inclusion and the department allowed it.  She reported that she’s found teaching literature and science good for the students because it provides a space in which they can reflect on what it is they are doing in studying literature, and in which they can think about the modern university and its structure.

The theme that came through most clearly in the discussion afterwards concerned assessment, where institutions can be very set in their ways because of anxieties about parity between modules.  Emily added that at Napier many modules use a reading diary as an assessment method; Ros Powell observed that an insistence on traditional timed exams doesn’t do justice to the discipline, because it’s impossible to bring in the breadth of materials that characterise most work in literature and science.  (If an institution insisted on there being some sort of unseen timed exam element, I imagine it would be possible to introduce a suitable task: for example, a close reading of a scientific or popular-scientific text, with particular attention to its figurative language; but like most of the speakers today, I wouldn’t rush to embrace such an assessment.)


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