This is an advanced writing course. In some ways it may remind you of the introductory college freshmen writing course you took a few semesters ago. We will talk about how to write plainly and clearly, about the ways of constructing arguments, about how to synthesize materials to compose a research paper, about punctuation, documentation -- about, in short, everything we can think of having to do with writing; and we will read and discuss essays and stories and see films.
The course will, however, differ from the introductory freshman composition course in that you will be asked to use these skills to read prose about various aspects of science or the applied practices of a specific discipline. Since there is no science prerequisite for this course, our perspective and discussions cannot be specialized or narrowly focused on any single science or group of sciences, even if a fairly large number of students in the class are majoring in a particular group of sciences.. The background knowledge assumed is that of the typical generally-educated reader who has attained Junior status in a senior college.
- Marcia Angell "The Body Hunters", New York Review of Books, 52:15, October 16, 2005.
- Marcia Angel "Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption", New York Review of Books, 56:1 (January 15, 2009)
- Atul Gawande, "The Score: How childbirth went industrial", The New Yorker, October 9, 2006, 59-67.
- Atul Gawande, "The Way We Age Now", The New Yorker, April 30, 2007.
- Atul Gawande, "The Bell Curve" New Yorker, March 30, 2009
You are required to write three essays, to give one short talk, and to take (or write) two exams, which take the form of a combination of in-class book reviews, film reviews, and short-answer questions done at home.
Writing About How a Machine or Scientific Process Works or About the Composition of a Objects which has been designed and built (or created) by people. The basic aim of the science essay is often explanation, and the basis of good scientific writing an ability to use scientific and technical or complicated English in ways that a reader can understand. So the first of our two essays is an exercise in which you use technical language and/or scientific concepts in order to explain something in a clear and engaging manner. Suitable topics:
- why an airplane flies; or why a building doesn't fall down (you can use any kind of building); or how some aspect of the Internet or a computer works or how to use a computer; or how a radio or TV or car or roller coaster or ferris wheel or bicycle or vaccuum cleaner or coffee-maker or microwave oven or zipper or other household or personal appliance works (e.g., razor for shaving, eyeglasses, hearing aids, cosmetic mirror, a wheelchair, food-processor, thermometer, doorknobs). Other machines you can explain include: scuba-diving equipment, fax machines, xerox machines, elevators, subway systems, the internal combustion engine. Y ou can explain objects which need man at the helm to operate them, like sailboats or cranes, because to make these work the individual using them has to have mechanical and scientific knowledge of nature.
- The sort of object or process you are to choose is something which is man-made or depends on a knowledge or manipulation or transformations of nature which are done by people. It can therefore also be an object that is the result of a mechanical or artificial or chemical process initiated by man, such as glass or steel. You can describe the process by which the object has been made or its history. If you are a humanities or social science major or would prefer to try something less technically-rooted, you can also explain processes which use things which occur in nature and which we use with little transformation by man. How did people learn to brew beer? There's a history behind wine, ices, cloth-making and the invention and use of rope.
- And remember a machine or man-made object need not be made of metal or plastic, and it can be used for aesthetic pleasure or emotional uplift: you can explain how any musical instrument works or the history of how it comes to take the form it does. A ballet-shoe is a man-made object which enables women to dance on the edge of their toes. You can explain the process whereby a book is made or history of book-making.
- You can write this satirically. Pretend you are a person from a community with no knowledge or experience of such objects and use your description to criticize the society which uses such objects. You can write this personally: tell how you or other members of your household or school use the object. In all cases, you should have a thesis-statement and a context. You should in the essay include the reason why your reader ought to know about how your chosen machine or process works or how the object has come to take the form it has.
Clarity is a special concern in the natural sciences and technical writing. Your aim is to transmit technical information accurately and in a way that the reader will understand sufficienty to be able to use what he reads. The intent here is to practice using language which is jargon-free and analogies which actually help readers to visualize and explain something.
It is suggested you do some minimal research, and, therefore, you must document your sources and all verbatim quotations or paraphrases. We will review documentation before this essay is due. You may of course do research, but if you do please make sure your source is reliable and respected. If you take information from the World Wide Web or an e-mail group of any kind or wikipedia article, be prepared to verify the expertise of the person whose article, pr e-mail you are quoting or the respectability of the website. Length: minimum 3-5 double-spaced typed pages.
Observing Nature. To be a good scientist you must learn to observe accurately and with as little bias as possible; the conveying of information based on such observation is another basic aim of writing in the natural sciences. Thus our second essay.
You are given the choice of writing about how an animal, or a plant, or some species of natural phenomena behaves. The idea of this essay is to describe nature in an objective and unbiased way, to say in words what it is one observes, and in so doing to explain something which occurs in the natural world without any man-made intervention or transformation.
Suggestions: you might try to develop or confirm a hypothesis about an animal or plant. Here what you do is research patterns of birth or development and watch their strategies for survival, for, obtaining food, for sleep, for creating an environment for themselves, for mating, for interactions with one another. The reason it's good to start with a hypothesis is it can help you decide what to to look for as you watch and, if you like, questions for further reading.
- If you choose an animal, it is suggested that you go to the zoo, or an aquarium, or, if you can, a farm or stable or ranch and pick an animal and observe it at length. Take detailed notes on your observations. I do not forbid the use of pets as we often know our pets very well; however, you must use your pet to generalize about the species of animal from: do not write an essay on your best friend and the solace of your existence.
- A plant is a good choice if you are a gardener already, or (as this is the fall session) have plants in your house. You must also begin early if you want to do this -- Ieave at least two weeks for daily observations.
- You can rely on memory, that is, on a experience you have had which you remember very well. It would be best if this were an experience that has been repeated, such as taking care of plants, doing something which involves an engagement with the natural world (hunting, fishing, bird-watching, naturalist observations while walking). I will not accept a description of a video -- if you have never seen a lion except in a video, lions are out; the same things goes for earthquakes or a tornados. The idea is to observe something which has not been prepared by someone else for you. You must use natural phenomena which you can observe. Thus, unless you have access to a reasonably sophisticated telescope, stars, the moon, & comets are out.
- Anything you have done in a laboratory in a science course is encouraged even if it occurred a couple of terms ago. This too will require that you remember what you did. You must also rewrite your work in good essay format.
The same remarks about clarity, research and length that apply to Essay #1 apply to Essay #2
The Science of Medicine. The idea here is to go into -- in as much depth as we can -- a single area of science which is important to us all and is a huge politicized and commercialized industry in our society which employs many scientifically-, and technically-educated people.
I ask you to write an essay about how a specific illness, or problem someone has which is treated medically, is experienced in our society, from both the viewpoints of the patient (or customer) and the physician (or anyone who practices some form of medicine). This will require that you understand the illness or condition the individual has, how it relates to what we define as health, its aetiology, and the treatments that are offered to help the individual cope or get better.
- You may write about how an illness has been treated in the past and is treated today. It need not be a lethal epidemic, but there is a good deal of literature on such illnesses. Examples: small pox, TB, influenza, cholera, measles, AIDS.
- You may write about a particular case history, kind of medical problem or condition or an ethical dilemma. These include prolonging the life of someone who has permanently lost consciousness and procedures which are controversial. Examples: miscarriages (not well understood), artificial insemination, abortion, various kinds of very expensive procedures to replace organs, cancer procedures.
- The subject of your essay need not be a dramatic procedure or unusual condition. Just as interesting and perhaps more important are conditions people develop which we today define as illness because we can hope to provide care or therapy. Such conditions include diabetes, deverticulosis, ulcers, all sorts of problems with the internal organization of the human body, epilepsy, migraine headaches. You may write about a particular procedure; why it has evolved and what is its efficacy.
- You may write some aspect of the medical profession. You can write about the way a hospital is organised; the education required of doctors and nurses or technicians.
- You may discuss how our society should reform the present non-system
- I encourage students to write about their own experiences or those of family members or friends. Part of the point of this part of the term's work is to encourage the student to think for him or herself, to take initiatives, and to consider science and technology in the context of real people's lives and the social and psychological and economical realities which impinge directly on real people.
This is to be a researched essay, but you are also encourged to use personal experiences. Length: minimum 3-5 double-spaced typed pages. Four good sources are required. One of them may be an interview with an experts or people who have had the illness you are writing about.
The Annotated Bibliography: As part of the researched essay, you will be asked to hand in an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography provides short summaries and evaluations of the books and essays used in a research paper. The skill of synopsis will be reviewed. Models will be provided.
An Abstract: You will also be asked to hand in an abstract of your own essay. We will in class learn to and practice the art of writing abstracts, of summarising, paraphrasing, and writing synopses.
Talk is primary and writing secondary. I believe everyone can learn to write more clearly and enjoy writing more if he or she would only learn to talk on paper, to use the real language he or she might use in the classroom or any other natural situation which demands a certain coherence. A technical writer must learn to think of his material as something he is really communicating to someone else.
Thus, each student will be asked to prepare a coherent ten minute talk for classroom presentation on the readings. The talks will begin the third week. You invent a clear instrumental thesis-statement and develop it coherently and concretely. The whole class will listens and try to respond. The ensuing conversation teaches everyone about the basis of good writing -- clear thinking in clear language.
Each student is asked to hand in an outline or cards. I will return this material with the grade. I have provided two models in the form of a typed-out transcripts and notes of talks two student gave, one on "Richard Feynman's Definition of a Good Experiment", and the other on Space and Time in 17th century (Chapters 1-4 of Longitude by Dava Sobel). If you enjoy doing talks and do them well, you may do an extra credit talk if there are talks not taken after each student has been assigned one.
There is a specific format which is followed which we will learn about.
For the mid-term (which will occur half-way through the term), you will be asked to write two book reviews: one on both Feynman books and one on Sy Montgomery's Walking with the Great Apes. You will be asked to hand in short answers to questions handed out (on xeroxed sheets) on all the reading and films thus far.
For the final, you will be asked to write an in-class book reviews of Gawande's Complications and Mahar's Money-Driven; on Olson's Mapping Human History, and a film review of The Constant Gardener or Near Death. Again there will be short answers to questions handed out the week before on all the readings and films we have seen after the midterm.
These reviews provide practice on how to select, elaborate upon and judge books, films, essays and research sources. A good book review usually includes:
the book's context and intended audience; your evaluative statement about one of its themes; a brief summary of the book's content; an analysis of the book to reveal how the author's background or biases help or hinder the author and the quality of the evidence for the theme you have chosen, a general conclusion: who should read this book?
A good film review usually includes:
the film's producer, director, intended audience, and (if applicable) screenplay; its perspective (or "message"); your evaluative statement about this perspective; a synopsis or summary of the story or literal content of the film; an analysis of the film's techniques (presentation of characters, use and juxtaposition of scenes, use of music), dialogue, use of real actors, and particular ending to discuss how well or poorly the film conveyed its perspective.
I assume everyone will attend class faithfully, read all the books, and participate in class discussions. I regard weeks of absence as one basis for a failing grade. I have allowed time for 1) revision of 2 of the 3 essays written outside; 2) discussion of student models; and for 3) the class as a single group to listen to, analyse and comment on one or more of the essays someone in the class has written.
By the end of the term there should be six major grades for each student on my roster. These I will average together to form the final grade: 3 for each of 3 essays, 1 for short talk, 1 for the midterm, 1 for final. If you give an extra talk, I will factor that in as a 7th grade. I grade the proposals, and factor these in as "class work" with any in-class writing we do.All writing assignments and the short talk are due on the day set; if your essay is late, the grade will be pulled down one element for every session, it is late. You must give your talk on the day cited on the short talk schedule so as to ensure only one person will talk on a given day. If you do not give your talk, you will be given an F and that will be factored into your final grade.
Plagiarism defined by the GMU English Department whose guidelines I follow:
'"Plagiarism means using words, opinions, or factual information from another person without giving that person credit. Writers give credit through accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or end notes; a simple listing of books and articles consulted is not sufficient."
Conferences by appointment: T/R,1:30-2:30pm, Robinson A455. Sign up on the sten pad placed on the corner of my desk every time the class meets. Write to me by e-mail. My preferred address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I try to write back within 24 hours. I will read over drafts of essays and material for your short talk sent by email. You can call the phone in the office I use (993-1171) or the English office (993-1160) or leave a message in my box in the English Office, Robinson Hall A455 on the fourth floor. I have no voice mail; there is no way you can fax me. I do not accept final essays as email attachments; you must hand in a hard copy of each essay.
The College of Arts and Sciences runs a University Writing Center where you will find tutors to help you with writing. Their phone: 703-993-1200; University Writing Center