Reading with Scientists, Week 1: Beginning with Frankenstein

by Abigail Droge
Published October 8, 2018

How would you characterize the current relationship between literature and science at UCSB? This question kicked off our first day of “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” Groups of students came up to the board and mapped out where they see the disciplines converging and diverging; their collective notes opened a number of doors for conversation. Some focused on methodological and philosophical overlaps, such as the use of observation, argument, and evidence. Others discussed structures within the university that encourage interdisciplinarity, such as courses and exhibits. And still others described personal conversations with peers as a key site of interaction. Simple questions like “What do you study?” or “What did you do in class today?” can become an opportunity either for communication or confusion.

To this end, we finished the first class with a brief exercise: Imagine you are on an elevator. The person next to you (who is not in your field) asks casually what you are majoring in and why, and in the two minutes before you reach the top floor, you must give a succinct answer. Students wrote down their responses on index cards and handed them in. I plan to return them at the end of the quarter to give us all a chance to consider whether our answers, or at least the strategies for communicating them, might have changed. A key emphasis of this activity, for me, is that communication is everyone’s responsibility, across the disciplinary spectrum; both scientists and humanists must learn how to explain themselves to one another in order for genuine conversations to become possible.

On Wednesday, our syllabus began in earnest with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I am excited to be using an edition published by MIT Press in 2017, which is, as the front cover proclaims, “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds” (edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert). Throughout the novel, footnotes by dozens of different contributors expand upon the text with a scientific audience in mind, linking passages to current and historical scientific research, literary contexts perhaps less familiar to science students, and questions of professionalization, mentoring, ethics, morality, and emotion. The experimental structure of this version, including the strategies and motivations behind editorial choices, is a key focus of our class discussion.

Already, we’ve begun to consider how this edition might make us read differently. First, there is the question of how we read: the mechanics of incorporating the footnotes into our interactions with the unfolding narrative. I’ve encouraged students to share the methods they develop for switching back and forth between story and frame as they go. What kind of expertise does an annotation establish? Students reflected on whether we should automatically accept an editor’s interpretation as correct, or whether we should treat it as a tool that might lead us to other, different interpretations. Second, there is the question of why we read: the purpose established by the editorial material. The Editor’s Preface describes the book’s project as one “designed to enhance our collective understandings and to invent—intentionally—a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive” (xvii). We paused over this remarkably optimistic spin on a largely negative, dark, and tragic book. As a class, we considered how a definition of “close reading,” a standard method of literary study which relies upon the detailed analysis of passages, might be expanded to include values like optimism, pragmatism, and application. What would happen if we replaced the usual mode of “critique” with a kind of reading geared towards subsequent action?

This is a particularly good time to be reading Frankenstein. Throughout October, events will be happening on UCSB’s campus in honor of the novel’s 200-year anniversary, including a film series at the Carsey-Wolf Center, and an innovative, cross-disciplinary conference organized by Professor Julie Carlson and WE1S’s very own Project Manager, Giorgina Paiella! And the Santa Barbara Reads project, organized by the public library system, has chosen Frankenstein as its collective text this year, making it the center of extensive programming throughout the community. The novel is thus well-positioned for humanities advocacy efforts. Its attention to questions of scientific ethics makes it well-suited to travel between disciplines, and its immediate recognizability allows it to cross easily between popular and academic spheres. By exceeding the traditional boundaries of scholarship, Frankenstein may help us to put those boundaries into question. It is important to me that students learn to see the educational system as the product of human decisions – decisions which could be changed to produce alternate outcomes. Throughout the quarter, I hope we can consider how our educations might be different if knowledge were differently organized – if it were the norm, for instance, to encounter a literary text in a science class, or to address questions of ethics and responsibility from Day One, both for humanities and science majors. This week, I also assigned a brief Wired article by Stanford Computer Science grad student Emma Pierson, provocatively titled “Hey Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities”. Pierson argues for increased interactions between disciplines, largely to address ethical issues arising from the use of big data. The piece raised questions for us about how closely the educational system should cater to the employment system. If you won’t get a job as a programmer based on the number of ethics classes you’ve taken, should a university still require them?

As we continue reading Frankenstein, several questions will remain salient for us. I particularly want students to consider the relationship that this edition establishes between literature and science. By engaging a scientific audience, how does the text encourage collaboration between readers from different fields? And does it risk encouraging divisions as well, perhaps by assuming that scientists would read differently than others? In the coming week, we will be pairing Frankenstein with scientific readings on the genome-editing technology known as CRISPR. Our goal is to find points of conversation between literary and scientific texts.

Find a Frankenstein event near you!


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!