Thinking about Thinking: Teaching Literature and Science

On Saturday 8 November the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) ran a symposium on ‘Teaching Literature and Science’. Hosted by the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Science and Imagination, the event brought together humanities academics, scientists and engineers, and undergraduate students to discuss the pleasures, difficulties, and value of learning about the historical and contemporary links between science and literature. The symposium revealed how interested students in higher education (and pupils in secondary schools) are in literature and science, and it showcased some of the diverse and innovative approaches that tutors and lecturers are using to share the latest thinking in the field with their students. The scope and ambition of literature-and-science teaching was manifested on ‘the wall’, where participants posted module syllabi, reading lists, and accounts of their experiences of teaching the subject.

2014 BSLS teaching symposium

‘The wall’ at the BSLS symposium on teaching literature and science.

The first question asked at the symposium was also the biggest: ‘why teach literature and science?’ For me, perhaps the most persuasive and thought-provoking answer to this question was that teaching literature and science helps students to develop a ‘critical appreciation’ (the phrase was Charlotte Sleigh’s) of science. English Literature as a subject trains its students to read literary texts in ways that combine admiration with critique, a sensitivity to the linguistic and aesthetic richness of literature with a sceptical awareness of the strategies writers use to manipulate language for rhetorical or political ends. A similar approach is needed today in relation science. In a culture in which scientific models of understanding, and the technological applications of science, are powerful determinants of how people live and think, it is vital that humanities graduates (and science graduates too) can grasp the intellectual complexity and the social value of science, while also being able to question and analyse the political dimensions of scientific research, and the various ways in which science can be represented, marketed, and misrepresented. The interdisciplinary teaching of literature and science can equip students with just this double-edged skill of ‘critical appreciation’.

Several participants at the event (among them Josie Gill) also suggested that literature-and-science courses may sharpen students’ critical appreciation of English as a subject, helping them to think in new ways about what the term ‘literature’ means. English Literature students working on literature and science at university have often not studied science for several years, and the shock of being reintroduced to different models of enquiry can strengthen their self-awareness about what is involved in studying literature. To give one example: as John Holmes pointed out at the symposium, English Literature students can sometimes assume that literary analysis is straightforwardly a matter of personal opinion. In my courses on literature and science at the University of Surrey, I find that students often begin with the view that there is a clear distinction between the empirical and objective methods of science and the aesthetic subjectivism and moral relativism of literary writing and reading. Studying the scientific method, though, helps to remind students that their own work (and their opinions on literature) also need to be based on evidence, in their case the evidence provided by the language, form, and contexts of the texts they read.

I also find that many students on my courses feel that, during their school education, they were forced to choose between the humanities and the sciences, and so they are now unsure about whether and how they can discuss scientific questions. As Michael Whitworth observes in his blog about the BSLS symposium, studying literature and science can help students to place their own experiences in a broader historical context. By examining discussions of literature, science, and education by figures such as C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis from the twentieth century, Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold from the nineteenth century, and Margaret Cavendish from the seventeenth century, students can historicise current educational practices and contemporary debates about the respective places of the sciences and the humanities in education and society.

It was salutary to hear the views of several undergraduate students at the symposium. One of them, Jonathan Craig, summarised what was for me the key conclusion of the day. A science student, Jonathan took the literature-and-science course run by Janine Rogers at Mount Allison University in Canada, and he told us that Janine described the aim of the course as ‘thinking about thinking’. Studying literature and science encourages students to rethink how they think about their subject and other subjects. And the field asks the same of teachers, pushing them to experiment and innovate in their teaching practice as they investigate, with their students, the various and interlinked meanings of the terms ‘literature’ and ‘science’.


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