By Danny Long
This portfolio describes the curriculum, philosophy, and outcomes of my science-writing course, Writing 3030: Radical Science Writing.
Note: my science-writing course has a service-learning project for which my students tutor local high school students in math or the sciences for a total of eight hours. I love this project, but in this portfolio I chose to discuss only the course’s major writing assignments, as they offer tangible examples of radical science writing. Perhaps in the future I will write a separate portfolio on the service-learning project.
In this section I define radical science writing and provide my course goals, which I encapsulate in the phrase “rhetorical flexibility.” I also distinguish between looking at and looking along.
Writing 3030, offered through CU Boulder’s Program for Writing and Rhetoric, is an upper-division writing course for science majors. About half of the students in this course major in engineering, while the other half major in integrated physiology; molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; physics; astrophysics; chemistry; mathematics; geology; biochemistry; evolutionary biology; astronomy; and so on. Some of these courses of study require students to take Writing 1150: First-Year Writing and Rhetoric, but engineering does not, making Writing 3030 the first (and in some cases only) writing class engineering students take at CU. This disparity puts Writing 3030 instructors in a tricky position: to lay a foundation in college writing for the engineers and to build upon the material learned a few years prior by those students who took Writing 1150.
I have two categories of goals in Writing 3030. The first category I’ll call the journey; the second, the scenery.
Each instructor of Writing 3030 has the freedom to decide his or her own curriculum, as long as it allows students to accomplish the following goals:
- Extend rhetorical knowledge
- Extend experience in writing processes
- Extend mastery of writing conventions
- Demonstrate comprehension of content knowledge at the advanced level through effective communication strategies
The plural “s” at the end of some of these lines suggests that students cannot accomplish these goals, cannot arrive at these destinations, by following only one path. They must follow multiple paths simultaneously. This befuddles me. Albeit obvious, it’s worth pointing out that a student who writes lab report after lab report will become familiar with the processes and conventions and communication strategies involved in writing lab reports, but will that familiarity extend to other writing projects? Argumentative research essays? Creative projects that require some knowledge of visual rhetoric? Interpersonal scientific discussions? In my experience, students, whether or not they’ve taken a college writing course, can accomplish these goals only if they have achieved some level of rhetorical flexibility: the ability to adapt to many rhetorical situations. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, then, I have pared these four goals down to one: “increase rhetorical flexibility.” This one goal is the viaduct connecting the four destinations above.
The journey to an exciting destination can be dull if the scenery is flat and colorless. As important as it is that my students increase their rhetorical flexibility, I do not want them to think from one moment to the next, “I am supposed to be increasing my rhetorical flexibility. I must increase my rhetorical flexibility. What can I do this minute to increase my rhetorical flexibility?” Such thinking would amount to dull scenery. So I try to add to the journey some points of interest, and I call these points of interest “radical science writing.” (“Radical Science Writing” is also my course title.) By “radical science writing” I mean writing that is both old and new, orthodox and unusual; writing that is based in the present, looks to the future, and draws upon the past; writing that combines the sciences and the arts.
The history of scientific communication is a crazy salad of rhetorical forms. From the large, itch-inducing engraving of the flea in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) to the serpentine unfurling of Sara Press’s Evolve=Unroll (2013), scientific writing goes beyond any narrow definition. It contains illustration, imagination, storytelling, and argumentation.
To disabuse my students of their assumption that scientific writing consists of lab reports and . . . that’s it, I take them to CU’s Department of Special Collections and Archives (hereafter called Special Collections), where they walk and page through the legacies of their fields: physicists engaging with Newton and Galileo, engineers with Tesla, evolutionary biologists with Darwin, mathematicians with Euclid, integrated physiologists with da Vinci. Students lose themselves in such scenery, temporarily forgetting, I can only hope, that they’re learning something from it. Through Special Collections, students also learn how to bind books, and they discover the communicative possibilities of artists’ books, such as Amandine Nabarra-Piomelli’s La Formule de Bernoulli (2008).
Another way of phrasing my course goals comes from C. S. Lewis in his “Meditation in a Toolshed.” “I was standing today in the dark toolshed,” he says.
The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Students of Writing 3030 do their fair share of looking at, which accounts for the critical thinking they must do to prepare for their writing assignments: analyzing the work of professional science writers, critiquing each other’s and former students’ work, conducting research, understanding and applying the conventions of scientific argumentation, learning and using the tools of graphic design, thinking about themselves as writers, figuring out how to work in teams.
But looking along—that’s the ultimate end. By the time they’re done with 3030, students should be able to create (not just write) something that enables readers to look along a scientific topic, not just at it; to create a journey with scenery that their readers can enjoy and understand from within.
Here I provide an in-depth description of each project as well as my approach to teaching it. The projects are a scientific picture book, a dialogue in which characters (students) argue exclusively in logical fallacies, a graphic-design project for which students engage with the history of science, and an artists’ book that requires students to teach through a combination of text, image, and touch.
With eighty students, I find it difficult to get quality one-on-one time with any of them. And yet, having been a writing-center consultant for many years, I know that one-on-one time often leads to the greatest gains in student learning. Workshops are good too. I therefore strive to create a classroom environment that combines writing-center consultations with workshopping, which I do primarily through in-class group work. After assigning them a new project, I organize students into small groups. As they work on their projects in class, they offer each other feedback, and I move from group to group to offer more feedback. Using this method, I am able to see multiple drafts of each group’s work (and each student’s work within that group) before the students submit their final copies.
I also build short exercises into each unit. By completing these exercises, students practice skills they’ll need for their current project. I try to keep these exercises shorter than twenty-five minutes, but sometimes they take longer.
In “Radical Science Writing,” there are three group projects that prepare students for the final project, called the “So what?” project, which is done individually. These three projects engage students with multiple aspects of radical science writing, and each takes up two to three weeks of in-class time. Below are descriptions of the assignments and their associated in-class activities.
The Scientific Picture Book
The universe is made of stories, not of stars.
– Muriel Rukeyser
In groups of three, students write, illustrate, print, and bind original picture books that teach a lesson in math or science to first graders at Bear Creek Elementary. They begin this project by reading to each other, in small groups, popular picture books such as Where the Wild Things Are, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Fat Cat Sat on the Mat, and Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing. After they read these books, we all brainstorm key characteristics of successful picture books: e.g., rhyming, personification, onomatopoeia, humor, simple language, dialogue, color, and useful illustrations. All of these characteristics are important, and I encourage my students to use the ones that are appropriate to their books and topics. The most important of these characteristics, however, is the last one.
To grow as communicators of science, students need to learn how to use illustrations—use them, not simply add them. Text and illustrations should be so incorporated as to require one another: without the text, the illustration confounds; without the illustration, the text befuddles; with both working together, the message is clear. The first pages of Where the Wild Things Are offer a good example. On their own, the words leave too much unsaid. What is “mischief of one kind”? On its own, the illustration leaves out the backstory. Is Max causing trouble? And what’s his costume supposed to be? A wolf? An ermine? An arctic fox? A Persian cat? Together, the words and illustration tell readers everything they need to know, even while saving room for their imagination.
Such a marriage of text and illustration can be found in much scientific writing, going back at least as far as the Scientific Revolution. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius are two examples of scientific writing that uses illustrations as tools for communication, not as decoration.
Because students need to bind their books, members of Special Collections, Archives, and Preservation lead them through a bookbinding workshop at the very beginning of the unit, teaching them four bookbinding styles: pamphlet, accordion, meander, and stab-stitch. Each bookbinding style has its own ethos, its own rhetorical effect. By practicing multiple styles, students can think about which style will best suit their picture book’s topic. For instance, for their book Halley—which follows Halley’s comet as she soars through the solar system, visiting her planetary friends—Lucy Wilkinson, Garish Narayanswamy, Christina Clementz, and Eric Brown used an accordion fold. Each page folds outward, increasing the book’s size. In the end, the expansive book symbolizes the expansiveness of space.
The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words become.
– Mary Sarton
This is a somewhat silly assignment about a serious issue. In groups of three or four, students create short skits in which they argue about a scientific topic using only logical fallacies. Here’s the example I include in the prompt (admittedly not about a scientific topic):
Jim, the academic journal article: Observe, Todd: chairs are made of metal, and bombs are made of metal, and terrorists use bombs. If you sit in chairs, you support terrorism [Faulty analogy].
Todd, the political pamphlet: You know, Jim, I can’t listen to you, can’t trust you, can’t even look at you, you uncouth fascist! You got it all wrong. Chairs are like fathers: they have legs and support children [Ad hominem, faulty analogy].
To familiarize themselves with fallacies, students read An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: Learn the Lost Art of Making Sense, by Ali Almossawi. The book is crucial. Almossawi cleverly embeds serious scholarly research into clear explanations of twenty common logical fallacies, and he partners each explanation with an imaginative and—here’s the key word—useful illustration by Alejandro Giraldo. Were the book exclusively about science, I’d happily call it an example of radical science writing: it’s multimodal and uses old forms in novel ways.
I see the fallacious dialogues as a consciousness-raising assignment. The more students develop as writers and communicators, and the more credibility they gain as a result, the more caution they must exercise when constructing arguments. (This goes the other way round too, of course: the more aware students become of logical fallacies, the less likely will they be duped by them.) If the picture book project poses the question, “What are some creative ways we can communicate science?” the fallacious dialogues project asks, “How do we know what’s true?” This critical attitude informs future class projects.
One more thing about the fallacious dialogues. As the example above hints at, each student must represent a genre of writing—e.g., diary, ghost story, haiku, fairy tale, academic journal article, etc. Because the “So what?” project invites students to experiment with genre, this is my way of introducing students to the concept of genre, and to point out that genres are generative.
The Hall of Shakespearean Science
On the third floor of Norlin Library, near Special Collections, is the Hall of Shakespearean Science. At least, that’s what I call it. And what you should call it. Let’s start a meme!
In groups of four (sometimes three), students write and design five 11”x17” posters that teach passersby about the sciences as they were understood during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This project, originally inspired by the First Folio! exhibit in 2016, moves the course to the question, “Why does scientific research matter?” The range of possible research topics is broad—dentistry, surgery, nutrition, education—so students can follow their follies. But there is one provision: at least half of the sources each group uses must be primary. The numbers work out as such. Each group member is expected to find and read three sources. In a group of four, three sources per group member makes twelve total. At least six must therefore be primary.
It is at this point in the semester that students become familiar with the treasures hidden within Special Collections, the Government Information Library, and the Maps Library in Benson. I devote an entire week of the semester to the Days of Joy and Wonder, when my students are introduced to a smorgasbord of primary-source materials. On Day 1, Susan Guinn-Chipman, Sean Babbs, and Leanne Walther lead students through materials from the late medieval period up until the end of the nineteenth century. It’s on this day that we see first editions of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin.
It’s also on this day that students learn about artists’ books, which will prove important for their final projects. On Day 2, Leanne Walther blows students’ minds with governmental materials about NASA, the atom bomb, and chemical warfare, among other things. On Day 3, Naomi Heiser and Ilene Raynes guide students through an impressive assortment of historic maps and help them to develop skills in “graphicacy”—i.e., the ability to tease out and understand significant rhetorical details in images. Since a large part of radical science writing is historical influence, these Days of Joy and Wonder play a critical role in students’ learning by, as Newton might have said, placing them squarely upon the shoulders of giants.
Additionally, Susan Guinn-Chipman visits my classes and shows students how to use several primary-source databases: Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Nineteenth Century Collections Online, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences. The students thus have more primary sources available to them than they could ever know what to do with.
The posters in The Hall of Shakespearean Science merge the skills gained from the two projects mentioned above. In their writing, which is meant to instruct through either expository or narrative prose, students must exhibit the critical awareness they developed when completing the fallacious dialogues, and they must use visual rhetoric strategically. The latter is an important point. The posters pose a significant design problem: as they are in a hallway where people come and go in a hurry, they must be so designed as to draw a potential audience member’s attention. There is no intended audience for the posters; there is only a captivated one. Unattractive posters will not catch the eye. Attractive ones will. But just because they are attractive doesn’t mean they are accurate, and so the arguments must be responsibly crafted.
To learn about graphic design, students watch (in class) David Underwood’s tutorial called “Graphic Design for People Who Think They Don’t Need It,” which is broken up into three parts: pathos, ethos, and logos—the three Aristotelian rhetorical appeals. They then spend about three weeks researching, writing, and designing their posters, before printing them, mounting them on foam core, and hanging them up in Norlin.
There are three stages in scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.
– Bill Bryson (paraphrasing Alexander von Humboldt)
And so we reach the end, the final lap, the last gasp: the “So what?” project. Like previous projects, this project combines visual and textual rhetorics, but it adds yet a third rhetorical mode: tactile rhetoric. Students are required to create artists’ books that merge form with message. A comparison might help here. Whereas in a research essay the paper is simply a mode of delivering words, in an artists’ book the paper (or cardboard, or thread, or whatever) has as much to do with the message as the words do. Artists’ books are multisensory: readers don’t just read them; they engage with them, experience them, look along them.
By completing the “So what?” project, students continue to consider the question, “Why does scientific research matter?” Why does it matter that Galileo drew the craters of the moon? Why does it matter that Newton discovered (or invented) calculus? Why does Google Maps matter? Questions like these allow students to confront the stakes of scientific research, for good or ill.
I ask the students to root their research in one of the following time periods, to limit the scope of their work:
- Pre-atomic bomb
- Post-atomic bomb
To prepare for this project, each student completes a ten-source annotated bibliography. The research guides the students’ projects, and the annotated bibliography allows students to work through their ideas and come to a conclusion about what they want their projects to do. But the annotated bibliography serves still another purpose. Students are allowed to choose whatever genre they like. Many genres do not require in-text citations. In case they choose one of these genres, the students still need to prove they’ve done their research. Thus, on Gallery Day, the last day of class, when students bring their “So what?” projects to the Special Collections Reading Room, they place their completed annotated bibliographies beside their projects, proving to one and all that they did indeed do their homework. Leanne Walther and Abbey Lewis show students how to use the government and scientific databases, respectively. Furthermore, as a class we read an essay by Steven Johnson called “Cold,” which appears in his book How We Got to Now. This essay presents students with a research methodology that they can borrow.
The “So what?” project offers students a lot of freedom, so much, in fact, that some students find the project intimidating. On the prompt, then, I provide this list of starting points, to help students narrow their focus:
- You can write as if you lived before a specific scientific development—before Copernican heliocentrism, for instance. If you lived at such a time, would you dare question the prevailing theory of geocentrism, even if you had your doubts?
- You can track the forward momentum of a scientific development. For example, because X was discovered, Y could be discovered, etc. This is very much in the style of Johnson.
- You can imagine life—life now, life at some point in the past, or life in the future—if some scientific development hadn’t occurred. What if Newton (or Leibniz) hadn’t discovered calculus?
A successful “So what?” project uses verbal, visual, and tactile rhetorics, in the form of an artists’ book, to demonstrate why a specific scientific discovery matters. And a really, really successful one joins Newton, Darwin, and Galileo on the shelves of Special Collections, Archives, and Preservation, ushering students into the halls of immortality. Karina Simon’s Thanks to Penicillin . . . He Will Come Home! is an example. Her paper, which consists of numerous mini papers rolled up into pill capsules and color-coded according to subtopic, not only discusses medicine. In a way, it is medicine—form merging with content. Thanks to Penicillin is now resting happily on Special Collection’s shelves, ready to treat anyone aching to read it.
I use a grading contract in my classes. Rather than assign a grade to each assignment, I give my students a universal grading contract that lays out all the requirements students must meet to earn a B. Once they and I sign the contract, their grading for the semester is complete, unless they choose to complete a portfolio. For the portfolio assignment, students must revise two major assignments, write a fallacy response (for which they read an article and analyze its argument), and write a reflection on what they learned about their writing and about themselves as writers. I based this approach to grading on Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.”
My curriculum more or less requires students to take chances in their writing. They can’t do so confidently if they are worrying about their grade. The grading contract has freed students up to experiment with their writing in ways they wouldn’t be able to without the contract, and it has freed me up to take attention away from grades and toward my students’ learning. My feedback on student work no longer zigzags its way toward the justification of a grade. It heads straight toward how my students can improve.
This section contains an all-you-can-read buffet of student projects, broken down by unit. Alongside these examples are my descriptions of the projects themselves and my analyses of the skills my students learned and applied when putting them together.
Scientific Picture Books
All the Things I Could Be
By Lindsey Humphrey, Jasmine Rethmann, and Floyd Humbly (fake name)
This rhyming book, bound with a Japanese stab stitch, teaches readers about recycling. On the first page an aluminum can, lying on the ground staring longingly at a recycling bin, wonders: “All the things I could be . . . if someone would recycle me!” In each scene thereafter, the can imagines something it could be. “I could be shooting to the stars . . . on my way to Mars!” Or, “I could be swaying to the motion of the waves on the ocean.”
The book uses words sparingly, allowing the images to contribute to the storytelling. For instance, in the examples above, the writers never use the words “spaceship” or “boat.” They give their first-grade audience the freedom to study the illustrations and identify those objects on their own.
Moreover, the writers used rhyming strategically. Over each rhyming word—e.g., “ocean” and “Mars”—they placed a piece of paper that folds upward. By covering the rhyming word, they could encourage the first graders to read chorally. Once the first graders supplied the word, the writers flipped up the piece of paper and revealed the answer. Most of the time the first graders were right, some of the time they were wrong or wrong-ish (saying “Sante Fe” instead of “L.A.,” for instance), but the entire time they were engaged.
The Day the Earth Got Too Warm
By Allyson Wheaton, Olivia Squalls, and Sydney Turbek-Heal
This book encourages children to do what they can to mitigate the effects of climate change. At the beginning of the book, the Moon asks Earth what’s bothering her. Earth replies, “I’m too warm.”
The writers represent global warming in this story as thick purple blankets: the more blankets covering Earth, the warmer she becomes, resulting in an increase in natural disasters, such as tornadoes, forest fires, and the melting of the polar ice caps. The book uses a structure of threes to give the audience a sense of expectation: “I [Earth] keep getting warmer . . . and warmer . . . and warmer”; the people of Earth are “making things lousy . . . and worse . . . and worse.” Eventually, desperate for help, Earth cries out: “ HELP!!! I’M TOO WARM!!!”
The children of the world hear her plea and spring to her aid. They ask their parents to drive less, use wind energy, and plant trees. These solutions remove the thick purple blankets from the Earth. She’s cool and happy again, and she leaves the children—those in the book and those listening to it at Bear Creek Elementary School—with some words of wisdom: “If you always take care of me, I’ll always take care of you.” This line gives the first graders agency and involves them in the story, which carries on after the last page of the book, for climate change won’t be resolved quickly. The first graders at Bear Creek discover that, through a series of smart and careful decisions, they will be the ones to keep Earth from getting too warm.
Allyson, Olivia, and Sydney held nothing back in the binding, which combines several binding styles. It holds together like a Coptic stitch or pamphlet, but with tape rather than a stitch, and each of the book’s eight signatures contains two accordion folds, one on the left and one on the right. Such an innovative and ambitious binding style serves two purposes. First, it keeps the audience engaged; six- and seven-year-olds don’t often see books bound like The Day the Earth Got Too Warm, if ever. Second, it slows the story down. The first graders have time to consider what they’re learning as they’re learning it. They don’t have to try and remember everything at the end.
An apple falls from a branch—“SNAP! ‘Oh no, my stem has snapped off of my branch!’ ” As it plummets toward the center of the earth, it exchanges pleasantries with its friends, Mr. Snail, Mrs. Caterpillar, Sir Squirrel, and Mrs. Bird. Yet before it reaches the ground, it plunks down upon the head of a pensive stranger.
“Ouch!” cries Sir Isaac Newton. “What in the name of science just happened?”
“I was enjoying my morning until some force pulled me to the ground,” the apple explains.
“A force?” says Sir Isaac. “Eureka! I shall call it gravity.”
So goes The Gravi-tree: a book about gravity and the moment Newton conceptualized it.
The authors of The Gravi-tree borrowed Halley’s accordion binding style. Unlike Halley, however, The Gravi-tree opens downward—i.e., toward the ground, per the dictates of gravity itself. Also, to help readers follow the apple’s journey, and maintain interest in it, the authors created a track by which the apple descends toward Newton’s famous and very valuable head. By pushing the possibilities of structure, The Gravi-tree expresses an important point: picture books can be interacted with as well as read.
It would take up too much room, and require too much patience on the part of the readers, to post entire scripts from this assignment to this page. Instead, I’ve selected three excerpts that I believe offer a glimpse of the range of genres students chose for their writing. These genres run the gamut from serious to silly, to make the point that no genre, and no writer, is immune to fallacious reasoning.
First, we have a serious genre: the scientific journal article. This writer uses guilt by association to argue against an “antivaxxer” named Cathy.
Actually Cathy, there is overwhelming evidence that vaccines DON’T cause autism and that there is no correlation whatsoever. It has also been found that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un supports funding for anti-vaccination research.
Next, we have an obituary by Anna Walbridge about Burt Bolt Smith II. It includes a brief biography of Burt, as an obituary should, but it also embeds within that biography a not-a-cause-for-a-cause fallacy (also called faulty causality) against the fluoridation of public drinking water.
Burt Bolt Smith II, 67, of Joliet, IL passed away Tuesday, March 6, 2018 from a unique case of cooties. Although usually caused by babes flocking at recess, officials believe his case was a result of the recent supplement of Fluoride in the local Joliet tap water. His Memorial Service will be held at 3:00 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at First Christian Church of Joliet with Rev. Steve Carlisle officiating.
Burt was born February 22, 1951 in Petoskey, MI to his father, Burt Smith I and Gretchen Willow Smith. After growing up in his humble childhood home in the northern part of the Great Lakes State, in 1972, Burt decided to chase his passion of clean and admirable tap water and headed to Joliet, known to have the 12th cleanest tap water in the United States according to bestlifeonline.com. There, he met the love of his life, Terry Spring, who he married in 1975. They had two children, River and Brook, who Burt loved more than anything, even more than a good glass of pure water.
Burt was loyal to his home in Joliet, as he served as a passionate lock-smith to his community. However, he was devastated in 2000 when the public water systems of his area of Will County were subject to fluoridation. Doctors say that this implementation of fluoride most likely affected Burt quicker and to a more severe extent simply because he drank only the purest of water throughout his life.
Burt lives on through his wife, Terry, his three children, and his seven grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests signing Burt’s Need for Clean Water Petition to honor his number one passion in life and to protect the Joliet community from fluoride caused cooties.
Finally, we have a limerick from a dialogue about the health benefits of crystal healing and red wine. Composed by Allyson Wheaton, it contains the no-true-Scotsman fallacy, a favorite among 3030 students.
No healer would have a blood clot,
For the strange magic clears out the lot,
But our healer friend died
When her heart became fried.
A true healer, she surely was not.
Who knew goal posts could be shifted so considerably in so compact a space?
The Hall of Shakespearean Science
Brevis Historia de Sanguine: A Brief History of Blood
By Jesus Olivas, Jarrod Raine, and Group
This poster series focuses on blood as it was understood before and up to the early modern period. Reading these posters, we learn about William Harvey’s contributions to the science of blood—that it is a warming rather than cooling agent, for example, and that the heart “propels [it] from the atria to the ventricles, right lung to left lung, and then to the rest of the body.” We learn the difference between “hot” or “ill” blood (blood that causes illness) and “good” blood (blood that causes happiness and well-being). And we learn about Galen of Pergamum, a second-century Greek physician who proposed the spirit system of circulation, according to which pneuma, or spirits, were absorbed from the air into the blood and then transported throughout the body. Galen’s spirit system, the students claim, was “widely accepted until the 16th and 17th centuries.” A few of the primary sources this group read include William Harvey’s On the Motion of the Blood and Heart in Animals (1628) and The Anatomical Exercises of Dr. William Harvey (1673), Francis Bacon’s The Historie of Life and Death (1638, abbreviated title), and George Acton’s Physical Reflections (1668, abbreviated title).
The students used a design scheme that embodies the subject matter. The posters are about blood circulating through the body. What better way to express this than with an inside-out human body, circulatory system in full display? As we read, we circulate through the body, like blood itself.
These posters are great examples of design as opposed to decoration: the design elements serve a purpose. For instance, a blend of typefaces, a serif with a sans serif, creates contrast; the text contouring the central figure gives off a sense of professionalism; and the cluster in the middle produces visual tension. According to Dave Underwood, these three qualities—contrast, professionalism, and tension—generate reader interest and trust.
The Discovery of the Telescope
By Danielle Pourier and Group
These posters tell the story of the telescope, one of the most important inventions to come out of the early modern period. The story begins with a summary of astronomy before the telescope and then moves on to the controversy over who invented it (Jacob Metius, Hans Lippershey, or Sacharrias Janssen), proceeds to summarize the Galilean improvements to telescope design, and ends with a list of some of the major discoveries made during the early modern period, perhaps the most notable being Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Some of the primary sources the students consulted to create the content for these posters include (translations of) Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (1610), Tycho Brahe’s Astrononomiae Instaurantae Mechanica (1602), and Johannes Kepler’s Tablulae Rudolphinae (1675).
The students used several of the design strategies they learned from Dave Underwood’s tutorials. They use a large telescope that spans the first three posters and a sublimated starry sky to give the posters unity. (This is another good example of the topic and the design reinforcing one another: telescopes are used to study the stars, so why not build the design around someone using the telescope to study the stars?) The students built tension into the design by tilting objects—the telescope, the diagram on poster four—counterclockwise. Finally, they created contrast by mixing typefaces, a script for the headers and a sans serif for the body text.
Medical Practice and Theory in the Early Modern Era
By Greg Dyba, Justin Tapper, and Javier Hollines
These posters focus on four key issues of early modern medical practice: the four “humours,” germ theory, surgery, and the treatment of common ailments. Propped up with primary sources such as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s “Part of a Letter of Mr. van Leeuwenhoek” (1703), Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), and Leonhard Thurneyssers’s Quinta Essential (1574), each of the miniature essays offers insights into the early modern medical landscape. Germ theory, thanks to Robert Hooke, was beginning to take shape. The four humours still held some sway. If you had a fever, your best bet was to get some “free air” and cold drinks. And if you needed an operation, you may as well have waited until you needed a haircut too, for the barber was the person to see for both. (In the students’ words, “The Elizabethan period was perhaps one of the worst times in history to undergo surgery.")
Greg, Justin, and Javier used simple but effective graphic-design techniques: white space, an unfussy grid, and contrasting serif and sans serif typefaces. And like the poster projects above, these posters hold together with the help of a symbol—in this case, the caduceus, which establishes a visual theme and gives some age to the concepts treated in the writing.
Our Body, the Planet
This student chose to write about bacteria, which she calls “the life within this life”—“this life” referring to the human body. This student drew upon sources she encountered in Special Collections: Robert Hooke, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, and Charles Darwin. Her brief history of bacteriology unfolds alongside an image of the human body sectioned off into miniature books, in each of which are explanations of bacteria that live within that area of the body: bacteria in the mouth, bacteria in breast milk, bacteria in the reproductive system, and bacteria on the soles of the feet.
But this project transcends simple information giving. It inspires by evoking the wonder of scientific study. Science needn’t always be phlegmatic, if Carl Sagan’s prose poem about the “Pale Blue Dot,” which we listen to in class, is any indication. Science can also be profound and moving; it can alter one’s perspective, make one think and feel. This student demonstrates as much with this passage:
When the Earth was less than a billion years old, the first single-celled organism appeared. For another 1.7 billion years, there was only single-celled life. Then, multicellular life broke the chain. It was not until just 200,000 years ago that homo sapiens [sic] appeared. Bacteria have been on this Earth 19,000 times longer than we have and many of them have survived mass extinctions.
Humanity is a fleeting, tenuous flicker in time compared to the hardy, abiding bacterium.
Jet Engines: So What?
By Andrew Fendel
Andrew chose to study the jet engine: its evolution and its impact on society. He treats the latter in this way:
The jet engine revolutionized the way we take to the skies. Commercial air travel transformed from a rather time consuming process seen as a luxury only for the wealthy into the main form of travel across countries and oceans for people from all backgrounds in a matter of less than twenty years. As a direct result of this new ease of travel, connections could be made much more quickly between economies, cultures, and nations. Transatlantic trips, which as late as the 1950’s took well over three days, are now completed in mere hours. In the same way that new technologies such as fiber optics facilitated a much faster spread of information, jet engines directly facilitated the faster spread of people themselves. International business models were now much more easily accomplished, as leaders could move between countries with ease no matter how far.
To explain the jet engine’s evolution, Andrew used an accordion fold, one of the bookbinding styles he learned during the bookbinding lesson at the beginning of the semester. His eighteen-page book, bound together with tape, extends to over twelve feet in length. On each page, beneath a portion of Andrew’s essay, is an image of a runway and an airplane. The runway runs the length of the book, functioning as a timeline, while each plane represents a different stage in the evolution of jet-powered aircraft: the first being the German-built Heinkel He 178, the last being the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Combining verbal, visual, and tactile rhetorics, Jet Engines: So What? encourages readers not only to learn about the evolution of jet engines but to experience it as well, to look at that history as well as along it.
How to Build an Earthquake Proof Building
By Sara Mottaghi
With a project reminiscent of Charles Hobson’s Fresnel’s Tower: Why Lighthouses Are Like Stars, which Special Collections shared during one of our Days of Joy and Wonder, Sara explored the significance of the pagoda, or what she styles the “earthquake proof building.” Like a nesting doll, How to Build contains all its parts within its largest piece. We open this piece and read the instruction manual, which doubles as a treatise on the subject of earthquake-resistant engineering. We learn how to assess a building’s location, plan the construction and lay the building’s foundation, determine the building’s size and design, and select appropriate building materials for the walls and roof. As we move through the manual, we construct the pagoda, at the top of which we place the manual itself, the finishing touch: the roof.
It is easy to cast a cynical eye to the sciences of the past—the crude surgical techniques, the ignorance of the earth’s age, the emphasis on astrology. Less easy, but more worthwhile, is to ask what we can learn from the scientists who lived tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Sara did just that; she studied the pagoda and asked herself, “What can civil engineers today learn from their ancient Japanese predecessors?” By studying structures like the pagoda, she says, modern engineers may learn how to construct buildings that are “safe for our people.”
But she goes on. The pagoda’s engineers didn’t just design a durable, seemingly indestructible building; they created “an amazing piece of architecture and art,” “[p]roving that engineering is not always boring and . . . can be very beautiful.” She blends the sciences with the arts and, by involving her readers in the construction of her project, motivates them to do the same.
The Origin of HIV
By John Dora
In Poe’s “The Raven,” it’s “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ” In Dickinson’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” it’s “And miles to go before I sleep.” In The Cat in the Hat it’s “That is not all. / Oh no. / That is not all.” And in my science-writing classes, when I tell students that they will need to make an artists’ book for their “So what?” project, it’s “But I’m not creative.” This refrain betrays a misconception about creativity: that it’s wild, unusual, bizarre; that it’s the sole property of the artist; that it’s off limits to the science major steeped in logic. Like many of his classmates, John expressed concern about his creativity. After he and I had a brief conversation in class, however, he realized that his artists’ book could grow out of his research.
So he looked over what he’d written and seized upon this sentence: “Once HIV-1 attaches to the proper cell type, the virus can begin to spread inside the host.” In other words, HIV hijacks a cell and inserts its RNA, its information, into it. If readers were to understand one thing about HIV, it was this mechanism, and so John created an artists’ book to replicate it. The purple foam object is HIV-1, and the glass ball is a human cell. John’s essay—his information—is being inserted into the cell, where it spreads and takes over.
The X-Ray and the Cold War
By Greg Dyba
Greg divided his essay up into four sections: Part 1 – The Discovery, Part 2 –Application, Part 3 – Ronald Reagan, and Part 4 – The Cold War. So that his audience would experience x-rays rather than just read about them, Greg chose to print his essay on negatives. To read the essay, we must place each negative on a light table or blank white sheet of paper. When we do, we see the essay itself as well as some images: three x-rays (including the first x-ray ever taken) and one photograph of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
To a degree Greg applied some of the skills he acquired during the graphic-design unit. But beyond that he composed a gripping argument that connects x-ray technology, the attempt on Reagan’s life, and the end of the Cold War. Without x-rays, Greg argues, the future of U.S.-Soviet peace talks might have been quite grim. Here’s the thinking. By identifying where in Reagan’s body the bullet resided, surgeons were able to remove it and stop Reagan’s excessive bleeding. Such excessive bleeding could have led to Reagan’s death, which might have also meant the continued life of the Cold War:
Reagan’s relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was instrumental in easing US-USSR tensions. While recovering from the attempted assassination, Reagan wrote Soviet leaders, attempting to open a dialogue. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was ushered in as General Secretary of the Communist party and accepted a meeting with President Reagan. Gorbachev was a moderate, and for the first time in a long time, both leaders were committed to denuclearization. After two meetings, the two finally agreed upon and ratified the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. This treaty eliminated “all nuclear-armed ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges from 500-5,000 km” (Talking ‘to’ People, Not ‘About Them’). For the first time, the two countries had actually reduced nuclear arsenals, rather than limiting them. The two leaders developed such a great friendship; they even began to refer to each other as “Ron and Mikhail.”
This gutsy argument brings to mind Stephen Johnson’s argument in “Cold,” the second chapter from How We Got to Now, which I require students to read before they begin researching their “So what?” projects. In that chapter Johnson draws a link between the advancement of cold technologies, such as air-conditioning, and the political influence of the Sun Belt states in the latter half of the twentieth century. Greg found in Johnson a writer to emulate.
My radical science writers made me proud this semester. They also, through their work, revealed some opportunities for me to improve. I dedicate most of this section to what I learned about my teaching during each unit, and I end it with a brief apologia for completing course portfolios.
I was pleased with my students’ work this semester. Most students demonstrated an understanding of and facility with radical science writing. In many cases, they deepened my understanding of the topic; in others, their work revealed to me the need for some additional practice exercises and lesson plans. Below are some of the things I learned during each unit.
Scientific Picture Books
I was pleased with my students’ books. The students chose a wide variety of topics for their books, and some chose topics that before had received surprisingly little attention. For example, whereas only one group from the past few years chose to write about the environment, three groups this semester chose to do so. This reflects my students’ growing awareness of the potential impact their work has on their first-grade audience.
When preparing students for this project, I tend to focus on two things: first, the text-image relationship (“Don’t say what you can illustrate; don’t illustrate what you have to say”); and second, how writers can engage young readers (creating tension, making sure the book has a problem that needs solving, e.g.). I have spent less time encouraging students to experiment with their books’ physical form. After they learn how to bind books, I simply tell them to use one of the four bookbinding styles they practiced—and that’s it. I treat those four styles as the end. Yet several groups this semester taught me that those bookbinding styles are only the beginning. As The Gravi-tree and The Day the Earth Got Too Warm suggest, when writers become creative about their binding style, their writing often improves. This is because creative binding forces students to plan out their writing. If students are to increase their rhetorical awareness, my asking them to bind their books creatively may be an effective way to get them to do so.
Students clearly demonstrated their understanding and ability to use the logical fallacies from The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, as well as their appreciation of genre’s role in the writing process, which prepared them for the genre aspect of their “So what?” projects.
However, as I was working on this portfolio and reflecting on the learning that was taking place during this unit, I couldn’t help but think that I didn’t challenge the students as much as I could have. At the beginning of the unit, we read and critiqued two fairly straightforward op-eds critical of science and scientists: Bert Robinson’s “Teach Darwin’s Other Beliefs” (2009), published in The Daily Camera, and Sarah Palin’s “Sarah Palin on the Politicization of the Copenhagen Climate Conference” (2009), published by the Washington Post. These readings are great introductions to arguments about science, but they are only introductions: they test students’ critical thinking skills but don’t stretch them. In the future, I’d like to include more challenging and controversial readings by scientists—Stephen Jay Gould’s “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne’s “One Side Can Be Wrong,” or Andrew Wakefield et al.’s infamous article linking vaccinations to autism, say. I do give students the chance to engage with such readings in the fallacy reflection portion of the portfolio assignment, but the portfolio is optional, not every student completes it, so it seems a waste not to give students the chance to wrestle with difficult ideas in class, with one another.
The current reason for not doing this has been time, of which there is never enough. Next semester, I’m going to try something new. I’ll begin the unit the same way, but I’ll shorten the requirements for the fallacious dialogues, leaving a week or so during which students can read and respond to such readings as those listed above. I hope this will teach students that arguments within and about the sciences aren’t so easily categorized as fallacious or reasonable, “good” or “bad.”
The Hall of Shakespearean Science
This semester’s posters were the best yet to come out of this assignment, and I’m not the only one to say so. Librarians Leanne Walther, Abbey Lewis, Susan Guinn-Chipman, Deborah Hollis, Barbara Losoff, and Andrew Violet, all of whom had a hand in helping my students bring the posters to life, agree. Before I explain why, though, I’d like to point out a few things I need to work on.
First, I noticed that several groups’ posters had an inconsistent tone and voice. Very probably students will continue to work in groups after they graduate, and so they should get practice now in maintaining their individuality while working to establish a group voice. This is something I hadn’t thought much about before, but now that I’ve noticed it, I’ve also realized that I’ve never once mentioned consistency of tone and voice during the poster unit. Doing so will likely go a long way toward resolving this problem.
Second, to help students strengthen their ethos as science writers, I should include a lesson on qualifying language, particularly with regard to arguments. Next semester, I plan on adding a few exercises that get students thinking about when to use “may” or “might be” instead of “is,” or “likely” instead of “certainly,” and so on.
Back to the quality of the posters. They improved upon the posters of previous semesters for a few reasons. One, I devoted more in-class time than ever to having students analyze and critique effective and ineffective graphic design. Two, students took more design risks. One learned how to use Adobe Illustrator specifically for this project. Another took advantage of the occasion to reacquaint herself with Photoshop. Three, several groups decided to challenge the existing paradigm of how the posters appeared on the wall. Rather than having five whole posters, they cut and chopped and divided them up. They saw in their posters raw materials to mine, not just empty rectangles to fill. The added visual interest gave a boost to the assignment. I can’t wait to see how next semester’s posters turn out.
A lot of “So what?” projects impressed me. Some were so unexpectedly creative and artistic that I still haven’t wrapped my mind around them. How gratifying to experience, or “look along,” such projects!
Because I scaffolded the assignments, the reflections above apply here as well. I will say, though, that a fair number of “So what?” projects could have improved with riskier, more contentious claims. Karl Popper maintained that scientific arguments should be falsifiable, their acceptance contingent upon strong evidence and compelling reasoning. Someone should be able to prove them wrong. About a third of the arguments I encountered in the “So what?” projects, while interesting, weren’t falsifiable, specifically because they said nothing that anyone would disagree with. It’s one thing to point out that x-rays changed the field of medicine. It’s entirely another to argue that, without x-rays, the Cold War would never have ended. The former wouldn’t invite much of a discussion; the latter, demanding evidence and reasons, would. Next semester, I need to develop a few lesson plans that will push students to develop bold, refutable arguments.
Why Do the Portfolio?
Were I a wiser person, I would have looked at my responsibilities for 2017-2018—eight classes (four in the Fall semester, four in the Spring), several side projects, two program committees, and a baby on the way—and I would have decided that a course portfolio was just too much, thanks anyway, have a nice year.
I’m glad I’m not a wiser person.
Deciding to complete this portfolio meant thinking through my teaching philosophy more deeply than I ever had. What do I do, and why do I do it? What if I changed this or that? How effective is that lesson plan? Is that assignment really necessary? What if I changed it? Are students really learning? How do I know? Questions like these had always been bouncing around in my head, but not until I committed to writing this portfolio did I decide once and for all to give them the attention they deserved.
This meant I had to work harder than I’d worked since my first semester teaching for the Program for Writing and Rhetoric. The way I figured, only my sincerest effort would lead me to new insights about my pedagogy. If students failed to learn something, a middle-of-the-road effort would have left me wondering why. Were my lesson plans to blame, or my delivery? Was the material good and the execution bad, or did the material simply fail to inspire? Were the exercises useful and my explanations of them lame, or did I offer clear explanations of unprofitable activities? Coasting in the ruts I’d carved during previous semesters would have left me lost and confounded. Only my best could guide me.
And guide me it did, to two hoards of valuable treasure: one of lessons and assignments that work and don’t work, the other of reasons why. The time I devoted to this portfolio has thus turned out to be a worthwhile investment. I am now better prepared to serve my science writers than I ever have been, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s justification enough for having written this portfolio, and reason enough for other faculty members to consider writing one of their own.
Radical Science Writing would be a poor, feeble thing without the help of numerous individuals from the University Libraries. I’d like to give special thanks to Susan Guinn-Chipman, Deborah Hollis, Barbara Losoff, Leanne Walther, Sean Babbs, Abbey Lewis, Andrew Violet, Gregory Robl, Megan Lambert, Naomi Heiser, and Ilene Raynes for tirelessly supporting my students. Thank you as well to Teresa Nugent, Mary Ann Shea, and my course-portfolio cohort for your feedback, guidance, and encouragement this year.