ENGL 206: Introduction to Science and Nature Writing

In recent years, there has been a renaissance of science writing for the common reader that combines literary and scientific merit: from Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" to Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat," from Dava Sobel's "Longitude" to Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a series of books that explore scientific questions in a style that transcends the conventions of academic science writing or popular history have brought important questions from physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience and mathematics to wider public attention.

Short form science journalism has become one of the most important areas of literary nonfiction, recognized both by annual awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and two different series of Best of American Science Writing anthologies. This interdisciplinary science writing course will combine literary analysis of exemplary essays on scientific topics with a writing workshop that requires students to do close observation of scientific processes, conduct independent research and interviews, interpret data and present scientific information in highly readable form.

Weekly readings will be selected from prize-winning science essays and the Best of American Science and Nature Writing series. We may also read one book-length work of science writing. Weekly writing assignments will include journals, observational accounts of science experiments, exercises in interpreting scientific data, interviews, narratives and a substantial research essay. 

ENGL 291 Special Topic: Animal Minds (G. Iyer)  Spring 2021

Contemporary studies of cognition across animal taxa have broadened our understanding of how animal minds operate—they’ve also forced us to rethink human exceptionalism—that our own minds are special and apart from those of other animals. One of the great paradoxes in cognition studies is that we cannot really know how other minds operate, despite our best efforts to study them empirically. But, exceptional or not, our minds are well-equipped to imagine other realities, which lets us take off creatively beyond the frontiers of our current scientific understanding of animal minds. This course in creative writing has only one goal: to tackle “the mind” in its diverse animal (and not-so-animal) forms. We may consider the hive minds of social insects; the collective decision-making of pack vertebrates; tool-using octopodes; nest-weaving birds; the extended sensory networks of spider webs; and even the underground root networks of plants. We might contrast human neurodiversity, early childhood development, memory loss and senescence with the exploding field of artificial intelligence. Our primary texts will be research papers in fields ranging from animal behavior and cognition studies, neurobiology, philosophy, and related studies. We will also read some examples of short fiction or poetry that explore other mindscapes (think science fiction, persona poems, choral narratives, and artificially generated texts). Your writing may straddle genres (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction) and you are encouraged to experiment, using the primary scientific texts and literary pieces as jump-off points to imagine minds unlike your own. This course will count as an elective within the English major and can fulfill the introductory workshop requirement of the creative writing emphasis. Permission of instructor required.

ENGL 291 Special Topic: Making Science and Nature Comics (G. Iyer) Fall 2021

This creative writing course uses visuals and text in tandem to communicate stories about science and nature. Students will be asked to doodle, draw, diagram, collage, photograph, photoshop, diorama, shadow-puppet, fingerpaint, or otherwise use visuals as a fundamental component of your creative process. Students will also pair your visuals with text, which means you will label, caption, thought-bubble, lyricize, define, describe, recall, recount and narrate with words what you do not express in images. Images and text in conversation come in many forms, ranging from comics and graphic narratives to illustrated guides and technical manuals, to maps, journals, graphs and more. We will use this hybrid medium to explore topics in science and nature writing, including but not limited to describing the form, function, and relationships between living and nonliving systems in interaction, ruminating on our dis/connections with built and natural environments, and rejoicing in the complex beauty of a world that demands multisensory appreciation. Adding visuals to science and nature writing expands its possibilities because visuals can capture in shorthand the microscopic (think molecules and endoparasites) and macroscopic (think animal migrations and carbon cycles). Visuals can simplify complexity, or amplify signal from noise. Visuals and text in combination offer a multidimensional, non-linear platform for exploring important topics in science and nature “writing,” and their aesthetics can package serious, weighty questions in an approachable format. Our core texts will include Making Comics, by Lynda Barry, and Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. We will also look at a selection of works by print and webcomics artists, visual poets, natural historians, science illustrators, animators, and documentary filmmakers to consider the possibilities of visual/text hybrids as a narrative form. There are no prerequisites to take this course—to quote Lynda Barry, “You don’t have to have any artistic skill to do this. You just need to be brave and sincere.” This counts toward an elective for the major and toward the emphasis in creative writing. Permission of instructor required.