Self & Science

Despite the widespread assumption that scientists are weak communicators, many of today’s most celebrated essayists hail from backgrounds in the hard sciences. Physician, poet and essayist, Lewis Thomas inspires readers to delve into the etymology of scientific discovery, and, in doing so, prompts radical reconsiderations of the cultural significance of innovation. Similarly, neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks’ compassionate ruminations on mental disability advance fresh thinking on the nature of difference. Inversely, many essayists hailing from “fuzzy” backgrounds, deploy techniques usually associated with scientific observation to electrify their prose: The works of brilliant stylists like Annie Dillard, Chang-Rae Lee, and Mark Doty are characterized by the kind of deep observation that underpins scientific inquiry. These writers, like scientists, are first and foremost good at really looking.

The primacy of observation extends from the hard sciences to the humanities, yet the vitality of the intersection between creative self-expression and the sciences is often overlooked. Given the generative potential of working from the intersection of creative expression and scientific literacy, this course aims to introduce students to the tradition of scientists and doctors, like Atul Gawande and Richard Selzer, who use the form of the belletristic essay to develop personal reflections on the meaning of their work and to communicate their dearest discoveries to audiences outside of the academy. In their hands, the genre of creative non-fiction has served as a bridge between the sciences and the reading public. Further, essays of this ilk have provided an important site for radical reconsiderations of major ethical, philosophical, and spiritual matters.

This advanced experimental writing course invites students into the complex poetry of the self-fashioned essay, which is, at its core, a provocation to revel in the full range of rhetorical choice. While developing and revising an experimental personal essay, students can expect to bolster their overall communication acumen, enhance their ability to share valuable discoveries beyond the confines of their major discipline, and practice the difficult bliss of engaging a discerning public audience. This is the perfect class for techies, wonks, and data junkies who want to cultivate the poet’s cherished sensibilities. It is also an appropriate class for humanities majors of all stripes who want to transgress disciplinary boundaries and produce novel prose.