Teaching Literature and Science (final blog)

Teaching Literature and Science: BSLS Symposium, 8 November 2014

(5) Building Courses Workshop

The fifth element of the BSLS symposium was a welcome change of format, a workshop on building courses led by Allyson Purcell Davies and Yasemin Erden.  I naively imagined that after 30 minutes brainstorming our group would have devised the perfect final-year module.  As it turned out, this was a big opportunity to talk about other issues that had arisen during the day, so we got a bit distracted, and I don’t think we were alone in that.  It was an enormously valuable session, but I’m not sure any courses were built at the end of it.  My group talked about our different institutional contexts, with Janine Rogers’s Canadian one being very different, and also about why some courses recruit well and others don’t.

(Most people attending the symposium seemed to have very positive experiences, whereas I’ve had an M.St. special option that recruited only one person and wasn’t viable, and a series of lectures on Literature and Science that dwindled to an audience of about two by its final week.  With hindsight, I think the M.St. option was too narrowly drawn — science and poetry in the early C20th — while the lecture series had the bad luck to be timetabled against a very popular series on key concepts in literary theory.)

We also talked about specific outcomes we might want to see: much that had been discussed under the heading of aims was fairly general and not specific to textual study, and I made a case for the importance of historically informed linguistic sensitivity to figurative language: something that might in part be developed through reading Lakoff and Johnson, but which only becomes historical by reading scientific source texts. We also talked about the different marketing strategies for a literature and science course: do you title it as ‘literature and science’ and place that at the very centre, or do you devise a different topic (e.g., ‘the body in the fin de siècle’) and work the science in as part of the content?

Other groups reported back on matters such as

  • the different approaches one needs to take in a class: the need to be ‘teachery’ for some texts, which I think meant provided formal exposition and specific guidelines, in recognition that absorbing historical science and history of sciences approaches can’t be done by extending existing literary-critical skills.
  • outcomes (in a large sense): understanding the ethical implications of literature and science knowledge.
  • institutional structures: liberal arts model of university, and question of what transferrable skills institutions want to see
  • collaboration: how best to enable it
  • the nature of funding for interdisciplinary research
  • what sort of students we want to produce
  • digital resources and how to use them productively
  • if one were offering an entirely MA course in literature and science, what would be core and what would be optional. (The interesting thought behind this is that the research consortium arrangements that have recently begun in the UK make such an MA a realistic possibility in terms of having sufficient lecturers with expertise.)
  • how to subdivide ones topics, e.g., historically or thematically?  One compromise solution suggested was to pick a theme (e.g. the body) and to historicise within it.
  • the question of validity in interpretation: what rules apply in literature and science, and how do they differ from those in the literary criticism the students have previously encountered.
  • What focus should one take?  Should one focus on authors, or on the culture and the readership?  Should one look at the history of forms of writing?

(6) Student perspectives

In the final session three current students reported back on their experience of taking literature and science courses.  (There were to have been two more, and the session probably needed more participants to really reach critical mass.)  It was interesting to hear their reasons for being drawn towards science and literature, and their reflections on the kinds of intellectual skills it develops.  Jonathan Craig from Mount Allison University is a major in Physics who had taken Janine Rogers’s Literature, Science and Technology course (English 1121), and his remarks on the differences in approach required — the more open-ended quality of literature — echoed what we had heard from Vic earlier in the day.  Daisy Edwards and Chloe Osborne had both taken Will Tattersdill’s module at Birmingham, and reflected on this motivations for choosing it — both to do with current non-literature friends and the choices they’d had to make (or had made for them) earlier in their school careers.  They also discussed teaching methods and structures: Daisy welcomed the lecture element on her course (one one-hour lecture per week and one two-hour seminar), while Chloe mentioned that she wished she had been able to develop relevant skills during her first and second year.  (Implicitly this takes us back to the start of the day, and Charlotte Sleigh’s remarks about the skills needed for literature and science being diverse and being a lot for students to absorb.)

Like previous sessions on teaching at regular BSLS conferences, the symposium was enormously stimulating and empowering: I was almost left wishing I taught in an modularised institution where I could offer a third-year special module; in practice I’ll have to create some undergraduate lectures or classes.  It’s clear we don’t all agree on what to introduce to undergraduates and what to save for postgraduate study, and that our motivations have different emphases, but the differences were good to think with, and the atmosphere supportive.  One important warning note came from Josie Gill, who noted the tendency of a meeting like this to be self-confirming: what about the students who don’t choose literature and science?  Why don’t they, and what are they choosing instead?   A few weeks ago I came across a tweet from a current Oxford student (not Merton), whose tutor is, I guess, offering some literature and science context as part of the 1830-1910 first-year period paper.  It’s a rather negative note to sound in conclusion; but it’s a warning that not everyone finds the topic as engaging as we do:

anti-science tweet


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