Category Archives: Higher Education

Serendipity and literary research

The current official discourse surrounding scholarly research in the humanities is that it’s rationally controlled and highly focused: from the outset you define your research question, your research methods, your research context; and then you set about doing your work. There’s no room for chance or inspiration. I would agree that it’s crucial that we have some idea of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why. But the controlled and directed process of official discourse isn’t always the entire story. Sometimes more unexpected elements come in.

Notes and Queries have just published a short note by me, ‘Wordsworth’s 1802 “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads and 1 Corinthians 15.53.’ It’s unlikely to change the face of Wordsworth scholarship, but here’s the core discovery. In the 1802 version of the Preface, William Wordsworth wonders about science becoming available to poetry:

If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

The passage in which this quotation appears became, by the early twentieth-century, a standard point of reference in discussions about the relation of science and poetry, and so although I don’t usually research on or teach Romantic-era writing, it’s long been familiar to me.  What I realised is that there’s a faint echo of a passage from the Bible. In spite of the efforts of the Church of England primary school I attended in the 1970s, I’m not deeply familiar with the Bible.  So how did I make the connection?


In January 2015, my partner and I decided it would be fun to start reading the same novel simultaneously, so that we could discuss it as we went.  We chose Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. The reading-in-sync project worked out fairly badly, as she’s either a faster reader than me, or she’s better at fitting reading into odd minutes of the day, or both; but I enjoyed Faber’s novel, read mostly on my Kindle or my phone late at night, and it led to my note on Wordsworth.  Faber’s novel is science fiction, of a sort, about Peter, a recovering drug addict who has become an evangelical Christian, who travels to a distant planet to spread the word to a race of hooded, not-quite-human things, the Oasans. The title of Faber’s novel is also their name for the Bible. At one point, speaking to the converted Oasans, Peter finds himself discussing what will happen to his body after his death.  One of the Oasans insists that Peter’s body will not die, and Peter uses a passage from 1 Corinthians to argue against them:

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption‘, he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?’

This brought to mind the passage from Wordsworth in several respects, and made me wonder whether the ‘put on’ was an echo from Corinthians; and whether the ‘as it were’ was a way of hinting that this was a metaphor, and a metaphor about which Wordsworth wasn’t entirely sure.  It’s not just the ‘put on’: there’s the implication of a contrast between body and spirit as well, though Wordsworth’s use reverses some elements.

At this point it was possible to construct something more like the approved research model: I had a question (what is the relation of 1 Corinthians 53-54 to Wordsworth’s Preface?); I had a context (what has been said before about that passage in the 1802 Preface, and what has been said about Wordsworth’s knowledge of the Bible and Corinthians in particular?), and, as I decided early on that I only wanted to write a factual note, I had a method (stick to the facts).  But my larger point is that these kinds of textual echo are often discovered accidentally, and sometimes are discovered in out-of-hours reading. It’s possible to improve one’s chances of finding a writer’s sources, above all by producing a list of their known reading and working one’s way through it; I’ve done something like this in annotating Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and in pursuing Hugh MacDiarmid’s sources.  But when you have texts accessible to memory (if not exactly memorised), then serendipity can should not be ruled out; and that means there’s a justification for activities that go beyond rational planning.

Beyond happening across relevant information, there’s another aspect of serendipity that might be beneficial. It struck me, writing the note, that many people with greater familiarity with the Bible must have read the passage in Wordsworth’s Preface and been in a position to note the similarity, and yet never did so. Why not? Possibly it’s because ‘put on’, even in such a relevant context, seemed too slight a similarity; but I wonder if they didn’t have the excitement of the unexpected discovery. Irrational though it is, the excitement provides an impetus to record the discovery.

[My Notes and Queries article is linked here, but I suspect the link will  work only if you or your institution have a subscription.]


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

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.)

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.)

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.

Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths …’: thoughts on no.9

Of all the ‘truths’ in Tara Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you‘, the one that surprised me the most was no.9: ‘Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern.’ I know that my colleagues in Chemistry, and no doubt in other laboratory-based subjects, meet weekly with their supervisees, and see them frequently between those meetings.  But is this a good pattern for the humanities, specifically for English Literature?

I’m not sure it’s a viable pattern.  The Oxford English Faculty handbook currently states that candidates ‘may expect that their supervisor will provide at least two extensive supervision meetings in each term’, and that the candidate will provide a substantial piece of writing towards the thesis each term.  In Oxford, someone in my kind of post — a ‘University Lecturer’ in English — has a normal supervisory load of 6 PhD students, as well as having undergraduate lectures and tutorials to deliver, and usually some involvement in the M.St.  Weekly meetings would represent a significant increase in contact hours.  What would have to give?  Not my own research — there’s never time to do that in term — but more likely the extras such as convening a research seminar.

Even if extra hours were discovered in the working day that would allow weekly meetings, would such a pattern actually be desirable? To hold weekly meetings would be to keep a graduate student in an essentially undergraduate pattern of teaching.  I have some experience of this pattern, acting a supervisor to American doctoral students who have been in Oxford looking after JYA undergraduates.  The meetings reassured me that the doctoral students — both focused and industrious researchers — were putting in the hours in the library, but the written work presented for each meeting tended to be lists and brief notes.  My real concern is that a weekly periodicity might discourage exploratory reading and the kinds of discovery that come serendipitously.  I’m sure my doctoral students could manage to write weekly essays of, say, 3000 words; but I suspect that if they did so they might fall into relatively mechanical ways of doing it; and that even if the material varied from week to week, the argument or the method would remain substantially the same.

Brabazon justifies weekly supervisions by saying that some postgraduates ‘lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing.’  I’m inclined to think if they’re so completely absorbed in those vices as to be unable to produce written work (or other substantial evidence of progress) every month or so, they shouldn’t be doing postgraduate research.  (My own guess is that postgraduates are far more likely to get distracted from their theses by diligent teaching preparation or by finding new, shinier and more exciting topics; this second one is the bad side of exploratory reading.) Maybe if there’s a crisis a postgraduate will need to be put onto the intensive care regime of weekly meetings; but I wouldn’t see it as a desirable norm.  Postgraduate study should foster time-management skills and scholarly independence; in the Humanities weekly meetings could do the opposite.  A good supervisor will be there for an extra meeting if there’s some sort of crisis in the project, or a practical difficulty with obtaining texts; but he/she will also allow the student space to develop the project and his/her thinking.

‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you’: some thoughts

Tara Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you‘ (Times Higher Education, 11-17 July 2013) will be of great interest to those thinking about committing to three or four years of doctoral study. Brabazon clearly writes from experience; but as disciplinary and institutional arrangements differ widely, that experience isn’t always applicable to other PhD programmes.  What I have to say comes from my own experience as a doctoral supervisor in English Literature in two UK institutions, the University of Wales Bangor (as was), and the University of Oxford.

(1) The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so’, begins Brabazon.  A commenter on the THE website has already pointed out the problem with this ‘truth’: an institution that embodied it would never allow newly appointed academics to supervise; the established successful supervisors would have a monopoly on supervision, until they died out. (One imagines them being kept on life support mechanisms, until the expense of 24-hour medical care bankrupts the entire doctoral programme.)

Of course some institutions might allow newly appointed lecturers to gain supervisory experience by co-supervising, though Brabazon warns against this in her 6th ‘truth’, ‘Be wary of co-supervisors’, and has particular concerns about ‘the overconfident but inexperienced co-supervisor’ who hijacks the process.

What truths lie beneath this one?

(i) Education is a life-long process; even the ‘experienced’ supervisor is, or ought to be, learning about the supervisory process. Experience can be experience of different kinds of project, of different kinds of supervisee, in different institutional frameworks. So the inexperience of the new supervisor shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle.  What’s important, whether the supervisor is experienced or not, is that the department has robust additional arrangements, such as formal transfer of status interviews, or a supervisory committee that meets periodically to assess your progress.

(ii) An ‘inexperienced’ doctoral supervisor may have extensive experience of supervising final-year undergraduate theses and Masters-level dissertations. He or she will have experience of being supervised, and in most cases of undertaking further large-scale projects.  And, because of the research councils, he or she will be operating within an institutional framework that is very much focused on completion rates.

(2) You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice’.  I’d agree that it’s important to research the institution properly.  Find out whether the department have appropriate expertise in your area.  Having identified one or more suitable supervisors, before applying, approach them with an outline proposal. (Whether they reply, and how helpful their reply is, might tell you something about their workloads.)  Some application forms (e.g., the one at Oxford) might let you suggest a supervisor.

But after that, there are good institutional reasons why the final choice should remain with the admitting department. An overloaded supervisor will struggle to be a good supervisor, no matter how well qualified he or she is.  Departments may also know which members of staff have good track records at timely completion, and may know that X, Y, or Z has a sabbatical coming up.

Of course if the supervisor you are allocated does not seem able to supervise you adequately, you should approach the department to discuss your options.

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There’s more to say on this, especially about no.9 (‘Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern’), but I’ll save those for a future post.