Syllabus for Spring 2009

Dr Ellen Moody. My website address: htm. The URL for the Teaching Section of my website address:

Advanced Writing: On the Natural Sciences and Technology:

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.

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.

Required Texts (in the order we will read them):

Optional Book


CDs and Audiocassettes Available

Required Writing:

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 and short-answer questions done at home. You can also (for extra credit) to write reviews of the films we see.

First Essay (#1)

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. Please choose from among the following suitable topics:

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. Cooking is not only an art; it is based on knowledge of nature. How did a bunch of eggs and flower and milk become a cake? How did people learn to brew beer? What's wine? There's a history behind 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. How are newspapers and magazines produced today. Furniture and toys may be included.

Your object need not be something technologically sophisticated; it can be a light-bulb or a pencil or a fountain pen. You can look at obsolete or older inventions: the windmill or a medieval knight's armor.

You can also explain intellectual inventions like calendars.

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. You want to answer your readers' question: "why should I read this?" "why should I care how this works? or has come into existence?"

To those who are saying to themselves, 'I'm not a scientist, I don't know the first thing about how things work. I turn the key in my car and it goes, period', I say, come in at the level that is natural to you and that will be natural to a college-level reader.

Remember 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 (e.g., the Encyclopedia Britannica or a specialized encyclopedia in the relevant field is a wonderful source, but World Book , Colliers, and such like junk are out. If you take information from the World Wide Web or an e-mail group of any kind, be prepared to verify the expertise of the person whose e- mail you are quoting or the respectability of the host of the website whose information you are relying upon. Length: minimum 3-5 double-spaced typed pages.

Second Essay (#2)

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. We will around the same time be reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature, an example of good scientifically accurate descriptive writing.

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 research.

The same remarks about clarity, research and length that apply to Essay #1 apply to Essay #2

Third Essay (#3)

The Science of Medicine. Our two books (a novel, John LeCarre's The Constant Gardener and Atul Gawande's autobiographical memoir, Complications) as well as the assigned online essays by Marcia Angell and Atul Gawande are about the science of medicine as it is really learnt and practiced in our world; we will also see a film adaptation of LeCarre's novels by Ferdinando Mereilles, Simon Channing-Williams, and Jeffrey Caine and a film adaptation of Margaret Edson's stageplay by Mike Nichols, Simon Bosanquet, and Emma Thompson, both of which criticizes the way medicine is frequently practiced and exploited today. 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 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Questions you can ask yourself include: should nurse practitioners replace doctors in some aspect of daily care; if so, do they have to be better educated? what do we mean by better educated?
  5. You may write about a particular procedure; why it has evolved and what is its efficacy.
  6. You may discuss how our society should control and pay for medical treatment since it can powerfully affect individual lives and is expensive.
  7. I encourage students to write about their own experiences or those of close 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.

The Short Talk

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. Much of the advice you will find in John Trimble's Writing With Style is based on this belief. Most science and technical manuals advise the teacher to schedule short talks on topics taken from scientific issues or subject matter. A technical writer must learn to think of his material as something he is really communicating to someone else. The success of the communication of a technical writer is measured not only by how the reader or listener receives it, but by whether the reader or listener truly understands and can make use of what the technically-educated people say or write.

Thus, each student will be asked to prepare a coherent ten minute talk for classroom presentation on the readings from one of the four books which is due the day he or she is scheduled to talk upon. The talks will begin the third week of the semester. Fundamentally what you must do is invent a clear instrumental thesis-statement and develop it coherently and concretely.

The whole class will listen and try to respond; their response will tell the student whether he or she has made him or herself clear; the ensuing dialogue and the student's own later thoughts about either what happened when he or she or another student talked will (it is hoped) teach everyone something about the basis of writing -- again, clear thinking in clear language which comes naturally to the speaker-writer.

Each student is asked to hand in an outline or cards (hand-written or typed) which he or she used to talk from, and I will return this material with the grade for the talk in the following session. 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.

In-Class Open Book Writing: Midterm and Final (Book and Extra Credit Film Reviews, Take-Home Questions)

Analysing Science Writing. You will be asked to write book reviews in class as part of the midterm and the final. If you become a successful professional in any field, you will find yourself asked to review books, articles and (nowadays) films too. These will be "open book" in-class essays. In other words, you can bring books, any notes and any drafts you like.

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), the first book review is to be on both Feynman books when we finish reading them and is to be written in class. You will be asked to hand in short answers to questions handed out (on xeroxed sheets) on Trimble's Writing with Style, Dava Sobel's Longitude, and Roberts, Sturridge, and Sobel's film, Longitude. For the final, you will be asked to write an in-class book review of Atul Gawande's Complications and the essays by him we read, and a comparison of Mereilles, Channing-Williams and Caine's film, The Constant Gardener, with John LeCarre's novel, The Constant Gardener. You will asked to hand in short answers to questions handed out (on xeroxed sheets) on John McPhee's The Control of Nature, LeCarre's The Constant Gardener, the online essays we've read by Angell and Gawande and Bok, and on Margaret Edson's stageplay and the film, Wit. For extra credit you are invited to write a separate film review of Roberts, Sturridge and Sobel's film, Longitude or Nichols, Thompson and Bosanquet's film, Wit.

These reviews are intended to provide practice on how to select, elaborate upon and judge books, films, essays and all research sources. They are also intended to make you think about what is the best way to convey scientific information and how science is presented to the general public. We will discuss how a good book review usually includes some or all of the following points:

  1. the book's context and intended audience;
  2. its thesis or theses;
  3. your evaluative statement about this thesis and the book's content;
  4. a synopsis or summary of its contents;
  5. 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.

We will discuss how a film review usually includes some or all of the following points:

  1. the film's producer, director, intended audience, and (if applicable) screenplay;
  2. its perspective (or "message");
  3. your evaluative statement about this perspective;
  4. a synopsis or summary of the story or literal content of the film;
  5. 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.

Reading and Class Attendance:

Assumptions behind this course : I think that 1) something is to be gained by coming to class, and that we all can learn a great deal from one another; 2) good writing can be discussed in simple words, and exemplified, learned, practiced, and improved through imitation of models; and 3) the only way to improve one's writing is by much practice over a long period of time.

I have observed that people who write well are people who read a lot; thus:

  1. Classwork : I want everyone to attend class faithfully, to read all the books, and to participate in class discussions. I ask that you limit your unexcused absences to a minimum; I regard weeks of absence as one basis for a failing grade.
  2. Writing Assignments: I have allowed time for 1) revision of twoof the three essays written outside class; for 2) discussion of student models to help you see what is expected and give you ideas on how to go about a particular task; 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. I will try my best to write comments on your essays which can help you how better to organize your thoughts, correct your grammar, and write lucidly and engagingly.


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. I should have three grades for the three essays, one for for the short talk, one for the midterm (a book review and 20 short answer questions), and one for the final (a book review, a comparative essay on a book and film adaptation, and 20 short answer questions). If you given an extra talk, I will factor that in as a seventh grade. If you write an extra credit film review, I will factor that in as a seventh (or eighth) major grade. This will give more weight to the extra credit essay. I also give minor grades for the proposals; they tell me how much thought and work you are putting into the paper; at the end of the term, I will factor these grades in as "class work" with any in-class writing we do (for which you get a check), and this becomes what I weigh to give you the benefit of the doubt when your average comes out between grades.

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 must take an F and that will be factored into your final grade.

For the final grade I also take into account 1) your attendance record; 2) class work which means your participation in class; and 3) if you sought help if you needed it in planning the essay, thinking up a perspective; organizing and revising it. A teacher can tell when an essay or short talk is done with care, is something really thought about, something for which a genuine self-educational effort was made. I respect hard work and reward it when I see it. I will also reward someone whose work improves.

The Problem of Plagiarism:

DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. Plagiarism is defined by the GMU English Department as follows:

'"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."

If I discover you have plagiarised, I will follow the guidelines of the English department which require that I fail or report you to the Chair of my Department. I am serious about this.

How to contact me outside class:

Without an appointment:

Write to me by e-mail. My preferred address is You can write me 24 hours a day; I look at my mail at least twice a day, and I write back. Be sure to type the e-mail address to which you wish me to send my reply at the end of your message. Please feel free to write me. I will provide thorough commentary on any drafts of essays that you send me through my e-mail addresses.

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, which is in Robinson Hall A455 on the fourth floor. I have no voice mail, and there is no way you can fax me. It is also well to remember that I will have office hours on campus only two days each week. The secretaries don't call me; they simply place put a note in my box. If you attempt to send a late essay to me through an email attachment, it's your responsibility to make make sure it gets to me: the software you use must be compatible with mine, and I must be able to download it; also you must send it to Finally, leaving essays in my box is a chancy business because materials get lost this way. No-one stands guard over the boxes. The safest speediest way to get a late essay to me is to bring it to the next class and give it to me warm hand to warm hand. Better yet, hand it in on time.

With an appointment:

Individual conferences are available by appointment Tues, 4:30-7:10 pm in Robinson Hall A455. Sign up on the stenography pad which will be placed on the corner of my desk every time the class meets.

Other Help Outside Class

The College of Arts and Sciences runs a University Writing Center where you will find tutors to help you with writing. Their phone number is 703-993-1200. Here is a description of the place and its services:

"The George Mason University Writing Center is a writing resource open to the entire university community, offering free tutoring in a comfortable, supportive atmosphere. During face-to-face and online sessions, trained graduate and undergraduate tutors form a variety of disciplines assist writers at all stage of the writing process. Tutors emphasize positive attitudes and stratgies that help writers at any level learn to evaluate and revise their work in order to be more confident and effective writers."

To find out more and to start to use the services offered, go to the University Writing Center


Tues, Feb 3rd

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Spring Break: Mar 9th to 15th

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Tues, Mar 24th

Tues, Mar 31st

Tues, Apr 7th

Tues, Apr 14th

Tues, Apr 21st

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Tues, May 12th

Contact Ellen Moody.
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Page Last Updated February 9, 2009