Reading with Scientists: Students Imagine New Ways to Teach Literature

by Abigail Droge
Published November 6, 2018

Imagine yourself as a teacher who must engage a scientific audience in a conversation about literature. This is the prompt that I want students to consider for our next assignment in “Reading with Scientists.” In this post, I’d like to share the content of the assignment sheet that I’ve handed out to students, who will be tackling this exercise in small teams of three or four. I’m asking each team to turn in a written document and prepare a five-minute presentation to share their ideas with the class.


Assignment: This assignment asks you to consider yourselves as teachers. A premise for this exercise is that we are all ambassadors for the humanities, capable of collaborating with and inspiring others in the exploration of literature. The assignment consists of two parts – a lesson plan and a reflection. A lesson plan is a written description of the steps you would take as teachers to lead a group of participants in an educational activity. For example: what questions you would ask in a discussion, what passages you would read as a class, how you would arrange your participants (in pairs or groups, etc), prompts you would give for a written exercise, what you would ask participants to draw on the board, etc. Think of it as a recipe for class time – if you were to give your lesson plan to other teachers, they should be able to follow your steps and lead a class in a similar way.

Part 1:

In this assignment, I want you to develop a lesson plan for teaching literature in a non-literary setting.

  • As a team, you should pick a literary text or an excerpt from a text (it doesn’t have to be one that we’ve read in class, though it certainly may be) – so, a short story, a poem, part of a novel, etc. (Please don’t choose an excerpt from a scientific textbook.)
  • Design an activity around this text that engages a scientific audience in some way. The imagined audience may be at any level of your choosing – for instance, a college Chemistry class, a Facebook employee meeting, a group of advanced career doctors, etc. The important thing is that your team has a specific sense of whom you are trying to reach.
  • I also want you to have a clear sense of the goal and desired outcome of your lesson plan. What issue do you want to address with your audience? (For instance, the ethics of creating artificial intelligence; privacy safeguards in data mining; the best ways for a doctor to understand the experience of a patient, etc.) What new understanding do you want your scientific audience to achieve after engaging with the text you have chosen? (For instance, an ability to imagine the consequences of an invention for unborn generations, etc.)
  • The activity (or series of activities) that you plan should be something that you imagine could be accomplished in 30 to 60 minutes.

To think through this assignment, you might imagine yourselves walking into a room full of members of your designated audience. Why are you there? Why is it important that this audience engages with the text you have chosen? What do you want them to learn? How will you spend your time with this piece of literature? Be creative! Feel free to include unconventional activities, like getting people up and moving, inventing games, staging debates, making up narratives of their own, doing improv, etc.

Lesson Plan Format:

  • At the top of the page, clearly list out 1) all of your names, 2) the text you have chosen (and which edition, if appropriate), 3) your imagined audience, 4) the issue you want to address, and 5) your desired learning goals.
  • Then lay out how you plan to spend your time. For instance – 5 minutes for X activity (which you describe in detail), 10 minutes for Y activity, etc… Detail is key. For instance, if you say “we will now turn to this passage,” please copy it out and say exactly how you will guide your audience in reading it.

Part 2:

After you create your lesson plans, I would like you, collectively, to write a 500-word (min) reflection in which you explain the strategies and motivations behind your decisions. Why did you pick this text? Why did you structure your lesson in a certain way? How do you imagine that an actual lesson with real participants would play out? Remember that a good teacher is also a good student – what do you imagine that you could learn from your audience as well?


It is my hope that this assignment will accomplish two goals. The first is to prompt students to see themselves as humanities advocates who have the power and the imagination to continue a cross-disciplinary discussion with audiences beyond our classroom. It is important to me that students from any major can see themselves as advocates for the humanities: one doesn’t have to be an English major to value literature, and the act of advocacy should not be territorial or proprietary. Indeed, many of the scientific audiences that we might consider would certainly already be avid readers, though they would not usually encounter literature within the institutional structures that guide their work. (For more about my Principles for Teaching Humanities Advocacy, see this post.) Since my students hail from many different majors already, such exchange can begin in their individual teams and broaden outward through the exercise itself.

The second goal is to prompt a sense of empathy, understanding, and collaboration (rather than paternalism) with the audiences my students choose: what does it mean to read with a different audience in mind? What kind of literary engagement is that? And what potential does it have to make disciplinary boundaries a little more porous? Previous assignments in the class have asked students to address this question through the editorial project of curating and annotating a text. But here, students must take that same impulse and translate it into a constructive and active situation of (at least imagined) face-to-face pedagogy.

Of course, an ideal version of this assignment would involve actual collaboration with an audience, complete with their participation and feedback. Such a real-life dialogue would help to prevent any tendency to make assumptions about what a particular group would know or not know, like or not like, and would make humanities advocacy a two-way exchange. But I hope the mere exercise of imagining how one might begin such a conversation can be a good start. I look forward to seeing where my students lead us!

This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!