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Science in an English course? But why?

One question kept arising in this course: why are we undertaking elemental analysis in an English course? Sure, it was an atypical English course, more book history than traditional literary study, but still: we were all humanities majors. Not a budding chemist among us. So why put my English and language and theatre majors through the trauma of thinking about electron shells, atomic numbers, and elements’ energy signatures?

When we discussed this question in class, my students came up with many pragmatic reasons. The ability to “speak science” and write in varied genres provides English majors with a diverse skill set they can offer to potential employers. And humanities and STEM fields are complementary in ways belied by the frequent institutional separation of humanities and scientific fields – as a couple students decided to write about in their blog posts (here and here).

To be honest, I incorporated this chemical analysis unit into the course simply because I could; I wanted to learn the science behind medieval pigments. I was also interested to see what would happen: curious about what pigments we could identify, of course, but also intrigued to see what the students would do with the elemental analysis unit. What might they learn?

Coming out of the unit, I have a much better sense of what learning outcomes I can design for in future iterations of this course. These are four points that I know the students got out of the course, and they’re also elements that I believe would be transferable to other courses in which some aspect of the hard sciences played a role.

The first three are points at which the scientific analysis we undertook intersects with the literary analysis English majors are used to doing. In all three cases, the defamiliarization of the analytic process – having to derive conclusions from graphs instead of words – highlights the process of analysis itself, no matter the text (or spectra) being examined. That defamiliarization leads to an increased suppleness in thought: by using a different skill set, a different part of the brain, students can deepen their analytic capabilities.

1. Govern for constants to identify meaningful readings. It’s a rookie mistake in the analysis of poetry, for example, to conclude that a sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, as though the fact of the meter itself were meaningful. It’s not. An adept analysis notes instead those moments when the poet deviates from the metrical pattern to emphasize a particular word or image. In the same way, this class learned to govern for the constants of certain residual elements in the parchment itself. Calcium in a reading isn’t meaningful, because it’s leftover from the quicklime used to clean the skins. But when there’s suddenly extra calcium in a sample, then it means something – as when these students used just that discrepancy to identify a shell- or bone-based white (instead of lead white) in their pink pigment.

2. Use evidence to prove a point. This may seem too obvious to say, but it’s not. Never before have I required students to put images into their final papers, but this time it was critical that they include pictures of their fragments and spectra in their reports. (This was uncomfortable for many of them – we’re word people, after all!) Why? Because those pictures constitute the evidence for their analysis in the same way that a quotation, in an English paper, constitutes evidence – as you can see in the second spectra in this student post. Whether it’s a poem or an elemental spectra, the writer needs to provide the base information being analyzed so the reader can assess the validity of the argument. And knowing how to present that raw data to your audience — when to use a block quotation vs a three-word snippet, when to show the whole spectra vs when to zoom in on a specific peak — is similar. What point are you trying to make in your discussion? What data does your audience need to see for that point to be persuasive?

3. Account for the data that doesn’t fit. In our analysis of our fragments’ pigments, every team ran into an elemental reading they couldn’t account for – the biggest surprise being the mystery of the mercury blue. The format of the scientific report allows for these unknowns to stand; the literary analysis paper isn’t so accommodating, but even there the contradictions shouldn’t be ignored. Too many undergrad analysts of literature completely skip over the parts of the text that don’t support (or even flat-out contradict!) the point the student is trying to make. But when the writer accounts for those recalcitrant parts of the text, often she can develop a more insightful argument. While scientific publications certainly suppress or downplay evidence as well, in this instance students were required to grapple with the unknowns. That process of investigating the unexpected elements provides the true insight into a fragment’s distinctive features.

The fourth point is distinctive to the way I organized this course, but could be replicated in any class, with or without the science element (although it may be a little more natural in an interdisciplinary course like this).

4. Learn to translate knowledge differently for different audiences. The science learning curve in this course was steep, but even more impressive was the depth of knowledge the students developed about their fragments and pigments. Of course, the real test of knowledge is explaining it to someone else. So that’s what we did. The students presented the results of their elemental analysis in three very different formats: formal scientific reports, blog posts, and an end-of-semester oral presentation. In each case, the students had to think carefully about how best to present their data for each different audience and format, and they did so astutely. This kind of audience-focused writing (writing for what is often called an “authentic” audience) prevents some of the problems endemic to the traditional term paper. That’s true in part because it increases student investment in the writing project, and in part because these papers are clearly not an exercise to demonstrate that the student know the material. Rather, they’re legitimate attempts to convey new knowledge to these different audiences. And the process of translating complex scientific knowledge for different audiences is a skill set that the sciences seriously need.

All of these skills are, ultimately, skills that are transferable from our literature courses. The thing about skills transfer, though, is you need to practice that transfer, to see that the skills are indeed relevant to more than the English classroom. Ultimately, that’s what this class has done: helped students practice transferring their analytic and writing abilities to spaces beyond poetry and novels. Best of all, it’s been a fun, intriguing, and deeply rewarding study. And isn’t that what the best classes are like?