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C LIT 210 A: Literature And Science

The Power of the Stories of Science

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
RAI 121
Joint Sections: 
ENGL 265 A
Gary Handwerk

Syllabus Description:

Course Syllabus: Comparative Literature 210/English 265

Literature & Science: The Powers of the Stories of Science


Winter 2018                                                                     Professor Gary Handwerk   

Tues/Thur 10:30-12:20; Raitt 121                                     Office: A-402 Padelford      

E-mail:                                               Office Hours: Th 1-3 PM and by appt.

Canvas Site:    Office Phone 543-2183

TA: Helen Lee (B-534 Padelford, OH: Tu 1-3 PM and by appt.)


About the course:

Modern science is typically construed as a research enterprise, one with practical applications, to be sure, but most essentially a process of investigation of and discovery about the natural world.  And it is that.  But science is in equally fundamental ways a social, civic, cultural and political enterprise, deeply intertwined with the ways in which human beings define themselves and organize their activities.  This holds true, indeed is especially true, for non-scientists and non-researchers. Our topic in this course will be this aspect of science: how it reaches into social life, shaping the intellectual frameworks through which we understand our world (and ourselves), affecting public processes of social and political decision-making, affecting our daily interactions with people and with the natural world in ways both obvious and unobtrusive.

For our core material, we will be looking at a set of what one might term natural history or popular science texts.  Each dealt with one or more scientific issues of wide social concern in its era; each was widely reviewed and broadly read; each had significant impact upon how the project of science has come to be socially construed.  These texts range from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), the seminal text for modern evolutionary theory, through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped launch modern environmental movements, to a trio of more recent texts dealing with climate change, ecology and epidemiology.  Although different in substance and in style, all of them share one key feature: unusual rhetorical skill.  All are works carefully crafted to achieve wide readerships and to have a significant impact upon public debate and political decision-making related to the issues they address.  They are examples of kinds of texts that play a key role not just in informing or educating the public about environmental issues, but also in shaping the deep base of beliefs and values that frames political debates about public policies related to those issues.  This element—rhetorical effectiveness—will be our primary analytical focus.  Why, and even more centrally, how did these works succeed in having the impact that they did? 

In school, we all learn science primarily as facts, information and theories, plowing through textbooks, generally one discipline at a time.  But the influence of science upon us persists throughout our lives and permeates our lives in myriad other ways as well. To approach this topic from the angle of the humanities means foregrounding one particular mode through which science has an impact upon us: the power of stories and story-telling. Some of you may read scientific journals, at least occasionally, dipping into Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine or Transactions of the American Geophysical Union to read an article of particular relevance or interest for you.  But for most of us (indeed, even for many scientists outside of their own disciplinary specialties), science comes to us framed by narrative, embedded in anecdotes or reporting or personal memoir, couched in terms of the ethical or political implications a particular theory or discovery is presumed to have (its plot implications), or set into a broader historical perspective (hi-story, itself a form of story).  As these options suggest, narrative is not a single thing; it has various forms (often termed genres) that function more or less appropriately in varied settings.  So another part of what we will be doing in this class is to hone your awareness of genres—how different ones are constructed with an eye to specific reader expectations, and what devices particular genres employ.

Learning to read these kinds of texts from an alert “literary” perspective is a skill that we can also bring to bear on non-literary texts.  Most kinds of discourse make extensive use of “literary” sorts of strategies, deploying not just narrative structures, but features such as imagery, allegory, tone and other elements typical of literary texts to help them achieve their rhetorical purposes. Indeed, it is rare that scientific expertise proves to be the sole determining factor even for what one might construe as scientific issues—the reality of global warming, for instance, or the decision to protect or not protect a specific endangered species, or the choice to approve (or not) a specific chemical or medication for wide-spread use.  It is even rarer for politicians or bureaucrats or activists to refrain from the slanting of perspective that rhetoric can provide (thus the not-so-distant renaming of global warming as “climate change”).  So the analysis we will practice in this class is in an important way transferable to the reading and the writing you may do in very different contexts.

Comparative Literature 210 will be a writing-intensive course, but in a class as large as this one, much of the writing will necessarily be informal, low-stakes, ungraded writing.  You will be writing on a regular basis for every class, sometimes in class, often before and/or after a given class.  That writing will provide me with one key measure of your engagement in the course and your active reading of the texts we will be covering.  For this informal writing, PLEASE PURCHASE A SMALL WRITING JOURNAL, which you will be asked to submit on a regular basis throughout the quarter.  Bring it to every class for writing purposes there.  You will be submitting response writing done outside of class electronically; you can enter it into your journal either by hand or by printing and taping copies of these responses into your journal.  You will also be doing: 1) a series of longer, graded analytical essays, and 2) a final self-reflective essay about your experience in the course.  Finally, you will have the option to revise and submit one of your three longer essays with your course portfolio.

IMPORTANT: Electronic submission of responses and papers.  Please use your last name as the first part of the file name for all writing that you submit for this class, followed by the name of the author on whom you are writing, and the assignment number.  I.e., smith.carson1.1, rajan.darwin3.2, liu.williams5.3, etc. 

ALL e-responses and graded papers should be submitted to our course Canvas Web site.

Course Texts:

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (selections in photocopy packet)

Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Plus Course Packet available at EZ Copy N Print, 4336 University Way NE


Graded Work:

            Analytical essays (3): 1 pp., single-spaced, no-margin                20% each; 60% of final grade

            Attendance, e-responses, participation                                        20% of final grade

            Journal/Self-reflective essay                                                        20% of final grade

Journals: The writing journals will include two kinds of informal, ungraded writing—in-class writes (for some, not all, classes) and Canvas discussion posts (you will need either to print these out and tape them in your journals, or transcribe your Canvas posts by hand).  The in-class writing will be more personal in nature, reflective about your own past experiences with science and science education.  The e-posts will primarily be responses to question prompts on the reading we will be covering for the next class, or involve modest on-line research on a related topic.

Analytical essays will be graded on a 10 point scale, with 9 = 4.0, 8 = 3.5, 7 = 3.0, etc.  Late papers will have 1 point deducted per day.  You will be writing three of these, each a one-page, single-spaced, no-margin paper (roughly 1100-1500 words), on topics circulated a week before the papers are due).  You will have a chance to revise one of them before submitting your portfolio.  Font size should be either 11-point or 12-point; papers using smaller font sizes will be returned unmarked. 

Course Learning Objectives:

  • Active reading, with attention to rhetorical strategies and purposiveness
  • Responsive analytical writing, based on careful reading of texts and assignments
  • Understanding of how science enters into public, civic discourse
  • Awareness of the role played by stories and by narrative structures in shaping public interpretation of scientific issues
  • Familiarity with key issues and debates with regard to environmental topics such as pollution, climate change, evolution, epidemiology and conservation

Other Essential Information:

  1. The amount and the different kinds of writing you will be doing may make this a challenging course for you. In addition, the active close reading that I expect may be something that you have not had much occasion to practice.  So I encourage you to ask questions in class and to see me or Helen Lee in office hours for further help if needed.  It is your responsibility to come to me with issues you feel are getting in the way of your effective learning.   
  2. The median grade for the course is likely to be close to the norm for classes in the humanities at UW, somewhere around 3.2 and 3.3. That isn’t the bottom grade; it’s the median. This means that it is possible to get a grade below 3.2 even though you have been doing the assigned work and submitting everything on time. 
  3. Attendance and participation are required. Moreover, they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. I will take roll on occasion (by collecting in-class writing) and will use short electronic response comments and your portfolio to help me evaluate your class participation.


Course Calendar (subject to revision)

January 4          --         Course Introduction: Science, Information & the Public Sphere: Rachel Carson                                          Silent Spring


January 9          --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

January 11        --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring


January 16        --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

JANUARY 20    --      ANALYTICAL ESSAY #1 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas…and yes, I know this

                                                is a Saturday)


January 18        --         Global Warming/Climate Change:  Changing the Narrative


January 23        --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

January 25        --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Dargan Frierson)


January 30        --         Finish Weart, Start Darwin (Darwinian Evolution: BIG Stories of Science)

February 1       --         Carl Zimmer, Evolution (selections in photocopy packet)


February 6       --         Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (selections in photocopy packet)

February 8       --         Darwin, Origin (cont.); The Afterlife of Evolutionary Theory, Phelan, “How We                                                           Evolve”  (essay in photocopy packet)

FEBRUARY 12  --      ANALYTICAL ESSAY #2 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


February 13     --         The Weight of Numbers: Environmental Epidemiology

February 15     --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water (Leah Ceccarelli)


February 20     --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water

February 22     --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water


February 27     --         Intersecting Plots: Composing Wholeness

March 1           --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge


March 6           --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

March 8           --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

MARCH 13         --     ANALYTICAL ESSAY #3 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


March 15         --         JOURNALS DUE




Principles of Narrative Analysis

(Or, What Good Readers of Narrative Read For)

I:   Principle of Narrative Economy—“Every Word Matters”

II: Principle of Narrative Juxtaposition—“Location, Location, Location”

III: Principle of Narrative Coherence—“Everything Fits…But Some Things

Fit Better Than Others”

IV: Principle of Narrative Completeness—“Now You See It…Now You


Catalog Description: 
Introduces the rich and complex relationship between science and literature from the seventeenth century to the present day. Students examine selected literary, scientific, and philosophical texts, considering ways in which literature and science can be viewed as forms of imaginative activity.
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
January 10, 2018 - 9:32pm