Self & Science: Using Life Writing to Communicate Science

Course Description

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’ memoir of caring for his patients with mental disabilities advances fresh thinking on the nature of difference. Inversely, many essayists hailing from more “fuzzy” backgrounds, deploy techniques usually associated with scientific observation to electrify their prose. For example, the works of brilliant stylists like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Annie Dillard, 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.

This writing course invites you to explore the freedom and precision of the personal essay, a genre driven by what Graham Good calls “the observing self.” The writing assignments will challenge you to make the most of your questions, curiosities, and life experiences as you’re exploring a topic of your choice in environmental, health, computer, or material science. To mine the intersection of creative expression and scientific literacy, we will read writers such as Atul Gawande and Lauret Savoy who use the essay to develop personal reflections on the meaning of their scientific research and to communicate their discoveries to audiences outside of the academy. Crafting both short and long-form personal essays, you can expect to learn more about who you are as a scientist and to enhance your ability to share valuable discoveries beyond the confines of your discipline—all while practicing the difficult bliss of engaging a public audience.

 

Overview of Assignments

“Perspectives” Radio Essay, two minutes or approximately 400 words, 25% of your grade

For our opening radio essay, you will adhere to the rhetorical conventions that characterize KQED’s “Perspectives” essay genre, which we will study as a class. The essay will be on a science topic that matters to you. It must have a beginning, middle, and end, and be clear and coherent. It should also aim to engage a general listener unfamiliar with the sources used and topic addressed. Added challenge: It must also sound good read out loud. 

Personal Essay, 2,000-3,000 words, 45% of your grade

In this long-form experimental essay, you may continue to work on the same issue you addressed in Essay 1, but you will work to present a new idea in a novel form. Essay 2 will blend exposition on a scientific topic with personal narrative. You are also invited to experiment with blending other genres into your essay, including everyday genres you practice and enjoy, such as lyrics, micro-blogs, and personal letters. Throughout, you will write both to express yourself and to explain specialist knowledge to a public audience.

Reading responses, writing exercises, and participation, all quarter, 30% of your grade

We will keep a reading and writing log, recording our close observations about the essays we’re reading together as a class, the scientific phenomena that fascinate us, and the ways our personal histories inform and illuminate our questions, arguments, and stories.

 

Learning Goals and Course Objectives

  • Enhance your ability to read as writers
  • Arrive at a nuanced understanding of how scientific inquiry and memoir writing can intersect
  • Discover novel approaches to analyzing, synthesizing, and presenting original ideas
  • Challenge and extend disciplinary and stylistic boundaries in the interest of communicating with a public audience
  • Enjoy the process of integrating personal experience and scientific literacy
  • Rigorously play with the relationship between form, style, and meaning