Reading with Scientists: Syllabus Design

by Abigail Droge
Published October 1, 2018

To celebrate the first day of “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature,” I’d like to share our syllabus (attached below) and briefly describe the thought process behind it.

The purpose of the course is to imagine ways that we might teach literature in non-literary settings, like science classrooms. Our two sessions each week will alternate between analysis and application. On Mondays, “Reading Days,” we will concentrate on more traditional literary study, understanding and processing a range of texts – mainly science fiction from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – on their own terms. On Wednesdays, “Practicum Days,” we will explore pieces about contemporary scientific issues and spend time discussing how we might “translate” or “export” our literary texts for a scientific audience.

The first and most important design principle that guided my selections is the concept of reading with scientists, rather than reading at them, to them, for them, etc. I look forward to having students from both humanities and science majors in the class, and a key goal throughout the quarter will be to brainstorm what we might call “critical collaboration.” When humanists discuss science and technology, they can easily fall into the trap of passing judgement on what they deem to be unethical research and marketing strategies, which can position the humanities as a moral watchdog on scientific practice and sets up an uncomfortable “us vs. them” antagonism. What is needed to ameliorate such divisiveness is a different model of exchange, one that allows the humanities to participate in scientific conversations in a way that can offer guidance and criticism, but that can also recognize, appreciate, and build from the efforts that scientists are already making to address ethical concerns.

To this end, I have tried as much as possible to pair the literary selections for the course with excerpts from current science textbooks, ranging in subject from artificial intelligence to genome editing, from data mining to marine biotechnology. The principle here is that in order to read with scientists, we must first read what they are reading. Only then can we begin to imagine how we might integrate a humanities perspective. My focus on textbooks is motivated by a desire to understand how the next generation of scientists is being trained to view its work. Some of the texts are even those currently assigned in science classes offered at UC Santa Barbara this quarter, so my hope is that students will feel the impact of such readings quite close to home. In assignments and class discussions I will ask students to consider questions like the following: What worldview does this textbook present? What perspectives are missing? How might we put the literature on our syllabus in conversation with the issues this textbook raises? Our concern is as much with the rhetorical structuring of the textbook as with the information it presents. I hope that students will not only find creative connections between texts that don’t at first glance seem related, but also that they will begin to look more critically at textbooks as socially-conditioned documents.

So far, we’ve covered the motivations behind the first half of the course title: “Reading with Scientists.” I want to turn now to the second half: “How to Export Literature.” We don’t often think of the humanities as something that can be “exported.” The current academic structure of separated, specialized disciplines, which are housed in discrete administrative departments, has bred a territorial sense of the humanities. In the competition for enrollment, students must come to us in order to learn about literature; elsewhere in their academic lives they would not expect to encounter it. Though many wonderful interdisciplinary initiatives certainly exist, by and large, in order to make a connection between an English class and a Biology class in the current model, students must actively remember and apply the one to the other independently, a process that is not often explicitly guided by college teachers. When humanities classes act as General Education requirements, they can be viewed by students as something irrelevant that must be “gotten through” in order to move on to the “real” work of academic specialization. Despite the best efforts of instructors, the applications of such general education are sometimes not readily apparent, simply by nature of the divided course structure that governs the system of academic majors.1 When application is discussed, a common refrain is “transferable skills,” such as writing, communication, research, and critical thinking, or even transferable values like empathy, attentiveness, compassion, and virtue. All of these are certainly crucial, but I would add a bid for something more rarely seen: the transferability of humanities content – the actual texts we read.

Consider a different model, one of integrated disciplines that frequently assign materials not automatically included under the purview of the “home” department. Students in such a system might find it easier to make connections between texts usually kept separate. If such exchange is to be successful, texts must be short and relatively accessible. With this goal in mind, I have emphasized short stories and novellas on the syllabus, including several nineteenth-century texts which are readily available online. From a beginning in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will move through Isaac Asimov’s “Runaround,” Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. (Again, each will be paired, week by week, with selections from different scientific texts.) Throughout, we’ll be considering how such literature might be adapted for inclusion on a science syllabus and what might be gained or lost by such an experiment. How would a Computer Science syllabus change if you added a novel? And how would the novel itself change? What new narrative aspects might become visible in a different context? I hope this exercise will also prompt students to be self-reflective about their own interactions with literature, as they consider what it means to read while keeping another audience, besides themselves, in mind. What new communities might we build through such a reading practice?

In the coming weeks, I will be posting regularly about our course’s text-pairings, assignments, and activities. I hope you will join us as we read with scientists!


  1. For more on the pervasiveness of such divisions, even between courses in the same department, see Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature: An Institutional History, particularly the Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

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!

Droge – Reading With Scientists – Syllabus – Fall 2018