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 essays; and we will read and discuss full- length books, stories, and essays.
The course will, however, differ from the introductory course in that you will be asked to use these skills to read books by scientists and about various aspects of science or the practice 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 science or group of sciences.. The background knowledge assumed is that of the typical generally-educated reader who has attained Junior status in a senior college.
You are required to write three essays; to pass an open-book midterm exam and open-book final exam (which will take the form of writing essays in class), and to give one short talk. There will be a take-home test. There will be no quizzes or closed book exams.
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. Here are some suggestions for suitable topics:
How 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 works or how to use a computer; or how any of the following work: 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 (e.g., eyeglasses, hearing aids, a wheelchair, food-processor, thermometer, doorknob). Then there are fax machines, xerox machines, elevators, subway systems, the internal combustion engine and sewing machines. You 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 knowledge, manipulation, or transformations of nature which are done by people. It can therefore also be an object that is the result of a mechanical, chemical or other artificial process initiated by man (e.g., glass or steel).
You can also 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 people learn to brew beer? What's wine? There's an important history behind the invention and use of ropes; there's an equally revealing history behind the invention of uses of ice or cloth.
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. 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 go to the beginning of the industrial revolution for objects like the spinning jenny You can explain the process whereby a book is made or history of book-making.
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 how your machine or process works. You don't want your reader to be asking him or herself, 'why should I read this?'.
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 sufficiently 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.
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 research.
The same remarks about clarity, research and length that apply to Essay #1 apply to Essay #2.
The Science of Medicine. One of our books and several of our essays are about the science of medicine, and the goal in writing about the subject itself is to go into -- with as much depth as we can -- a single area of science which is important to us all and is a huge 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.
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, but they may include Konner's Becoming a Doctor, and from Quammen's The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000, Helen Epstein's "Something Happened" (on AIDS), Atul Gawande's "The Cancer- Cluster Myth," Judith Hooper's "A New Germ Theory," and Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer". You can also use as a source experts or people who have had the illness you are writing about. The point is not to do original research (which you probably do not begin to have time for), but to learn to integrate the researched materials you use into a cogent argument.
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. 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 seven to fifteen 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.
Analysing Science Writing. You will be asked to write three book reviews and one film review in class. If you become a successful professional in any field, you will find yourself asked to review books and articles and perhaps films too.
The first review is to be on both Feynman books when we finish reading them and is to be written in class and, together with the take-home exam about Trimble's Writing with Style will take the place of a midterm exam. The second and third reviews are to be on David Quammen's The Best American Science Writing and Konner's Becoming a Doctor: A Journey of Initation in Medical School. The film review is to be on a choice taken from the films we see in class: 1) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Last Journey of a Genius; 2) Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude; or 3) Wit. The book reviews of Quammen and Konner and film review will take the place of a final exam.
There is a specific format which is followed which we will learn about. We will discuss how a good book review usually includes some or all of the following points:
It is difficult to educate the general public about the natural sciences and applied technology. One way to do it is through film. We will discuss the difficulties of translating science as a topic to film and what are the means used by film-makers. We will also discuss how a film review usually includes some or all of the following points:
The reviews are intended to test whether you read all the books with care, watched the films with attention, and to reward those who attended class and listened to the short talks. They will provide practice on how to select, elaborate upon and judge books and films
I will hand out a 10 question short answer test on John Trimble's Writing With Style. The answers required will not be a single word, but you should not have to write more than a short paragraph to answer each. I will hand it out shortly before the first book review is due. You write the answers at home and bring them in to class on the day of the midterm exam.
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:
By the end of the term there should be eight 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 the short talk, three for the in-class book reviews and one for the film review, and one for the test. I will grade each piece of work separately. So you will get 2 grades for the midterm and 3 grades for the final. The result is the reviews written in class will count for real. I do this in order to give credit to those who read the books assigned and come to class and participate in class discussions and the short talks as well as write the essays done outside class. All shorter and these 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 for the course I take into account 1) your attendance record; 2) your participation in class; and 3) if you came for 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 talks is done with care, is something really thought about, something for which a genuine self- educational effort was made. I respect serious hard work and reward it when I see it. I will also reward someone whose work improves.
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 suspect you of, or catch you at, plagiarising, 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.
Without an appointment:
Write to me by e-mail. My strongly preferred address is Ellen2@JimandEllen.org Please do not write to me at email@example.com. I rarely look at that address and cannot take attachments through it. You can write me 24 hours a day at Ellen2@JimandEllen.org; 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 (993-1176) or leave a message in my box in the English Office, which is in Robinson Hall on the fourth floor. I have no voice mail, and there is no way you can fax me. However, remember that I am on campus only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning; the secretaries will not call me and simply put notes in my box. Also, leaving essays in my box is a chancy business because materials get lost this way: no-one stands guard over the boxes. If you send an essay through an attachment, it doesn't always come through. The safest speediest way to get a late essay to me is still to bring it to the next class and give it to me warm hand to warm hand.
With an appointment:
Private conferences are available by appointment Thursday, 3:30 to 4:20 pm; Friday, 9:20 - 10:20 am; and Saturday, 1:50 - 2:30 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.
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 http://writingcenter.gmu.edu and http://writingcenter.gmu.edu/resources/index.html/
In Class: Course introduction: explanation of syllabus. Short talks and Essay #1 explained. The class will watch Christopher Sykes's The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
Outside Class: Read for next week Trimble, Writing with Style , Chs 1-8 . Go to my homepage (see above for URL), hit "Teaching", then print out, read and bring to class "The Great American Scream Machine" and "The Golden Gate Bridge" and From Dictaphone to Disc. Read also Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! , Part One (pp 1-97), and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?, pp 1-59 (Preface through "It's As Simple as One, Two Three"). Be prepared to be assigned one talk for the term from one of the five books (see Short Talk schedules for choices and dates).
In Class: Short Talks Given Out. We'll discuss Trimble: What is a Thesis; Line of Argument; Openers; Middles; Closers. How to Write and Fill a Paragraph; What is a Paragraph; How to Link Them. Go over student models. In-Class Describing a Machine. Introducing Mr Feynman.
Outside Class: Read for next week Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! , Parts Two and Three (pp 98-163), and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?, the rest of Part One (pp. 63-113). Plan for #1 is due.
In Class: PLAN FOR #1 DUE. Short Talk 1: RFeynman, boy and young man: The Qualities that Make up the Good Scientist (SYJ, Parts 1 & 2, WDYC, Chapter 1); Short talk 2: RFeynman's criticisms of abuses of authority particularly at Los Alamos (i.e., his stories about counterproductive uses of secrecy), but you may include stories exemplifying this theme from elsewhere in the book thus far (so from SYJ, Parts 2 & 3, especially "Los Alamos from Below" and "Safecracker Meets Safecracker" and WDYC Part 1). The class watches The Last Journey of a Genius.
Outside class: Read for Session 4: Feynman, SYJ, Parts Four and Five (pp. 164-346). You should be working on Essay #1. Essay #1 is due Thurs October 9th.
In Class: Short Talk 3: RFeynman's Definition of a Good Experiment (make strong use of "A Map of the Cat", "A Different Box Of Tools" "The Amateur Scientist" from SJY and "It's as Simple as One, Two Three" from WDYC); Short Talk 4: RFeynman's ideas on what is real scientific learning: what ought to go on in a classroom, be in a book &c (e.g.,"O Americano Outre Vez" and "Judging Books by Their Covers" in SYJ and relevant Letters in WDYC).
Outside Class: Read for Session 5, WDYC, Part Two (pp. 113-254). Read the rest of Trimble (Chs 9-13).
In Class: Short Talk 5: Mr Feynman Goes to Washington: Why some NASA officials are driven to delude themselves and mislead the public ("Mr Feynman Goes to Washington" and "Appendix F" in WDYC); Short Talk 6: A World of Pseudo- and Corrupt Science and the Value of Science (Feynman's "Cargo Cult Learning" and "The Value of Science." I will hand out the take-home test on Trimble.
Outside Class: Essay #1 is due. For October 9th also print out, read and bring to class student models for the book review, one on Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Mark Ridley's Darwin Reader and the other on the two Feynman books, and the on-line popular book review by Michael Swaine, and the student models for Essay #2, "Some Observations on the Orangutans," "The White-Tailed Deer" and "The California Sea-Lion."
Class is cancelled because the lecturer has to be out of town.
Outside class: you should write Essay #1; write the answers to the take-home test.
In Class: ESSAY #1 IS DUE. Short Talk 7: RFeynman's Investigations into the Conscious and Unconscious Mind and Antagonisms towards Modern Psychiatrists and Psychology ("Mee", "Always Trying to Escape", "Uncle Sam Doesn't Need You!", "Altered States" from SYJ); Short Talk 8: RFeynman's Adventures in Art, Music and Anthropology ("But Is It Art?"; "O Americano Outra Vez!," "Bringing Culture to the Physicists", "Found Out in Paris" in SYJ, and relevant "Letters" in WDYC). We will go over how to write a book review and Essay #2 will be assigned.
Outside Class: Prepare to write book review; start thinking about what project you want to do for Essay #2. Also read Burkhard Bilger's and David Quammen's "Introduction" The Best American Science and Nature Writing
In Class: First Third In Class Paper: A Book Review of Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?. This will not take the whole of the class session; for the last hour we will go over the student models; project will be explained and we will begin to delve different kinds of professional science essays.
Outside Class: Get started on your project for Essay #2. Plan for Essay #2 due next time (Thurs, Oct 23rd). Read for Session 9 from Best American Science Writing, Richard Conniff's "Africa's Wild Dogs" and Ken Lamberton's "The Wisdom of Toads" (pp. 22-33 and 116-124); Wendell Berry's "Back to the Land" and Peter Mattiessen's "The Island at the End of the Earth" (pp. 14-21 and 125-134), Paul de Palma's "http://when_is_enough_enough?.com" and Brian Hayes's "Clock of Ages") (pp. 34-47 and 75-86).
In Class: PLAN FOR #2 DUE. Short Talk 9: The Non-Human Animal World (Richard Conniff's "Africa's Wild Dogs" and Ken Lamberton's "The Wisdom of Toads"); Short Talk 10: The Natural Landscape (Wendell Berry's "Back to the Land" and Peter Mattiessen's "The Island at the End of the Earth"); Short Talk 11: Machines (Paul de Palma's "http://when_is_enough_enough?.com" and Brian Hayes's "Clock of Ages").
Outside Class: Read for Session 9: Cullen Murphy's "Lulu, Queen of the Camels" and Craig B. Stanford's "Gorilla Warfare" (pp. 135-149, 235-244); Natalie Anger's "Men, Women, Sex and Darwin" and Hampton Sides' "This Is Not the Place" (pp 1-13, 209-234); Oliver Sacks's "Brilliant Light" and Ann Fadiman's "Under Water" (pp. 179-208, 63-66). You should be making your observations for Essay #2 or making your arrangements for observation.
In Class: Short Talk 12: Human Culture and Nature (Cullen Murphy's "Lulu, Queen of the Camels" and Craig B. Stanford's "Gorilla Warfare"); Short Talk 13: Pseudo-Scientific Thinking Exposed (Natalie Anger's "Men, Women, Sex and Darwin" and Hampton Sides' "This Is Not the Place"); Short Talk 14: Imagination and Science (Oliver Sacks's "Brilliant Light" and Ann Fadiman's "Under Water"). The class will watch excerpts from David Attenborough's 1979 Life on Earth: A Natural History.
Outside Class: Helen Epstein's "Something Happened" and Atul Gawane's "The Cancer- Cluster Myth" (pp. 48-62 and 67-74); and Judith Hooper's "A New Germ Theory" and Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer" (pp. 91-113 and 150-178), and the opening of Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor, Preface, Introd, Chapters 1-2, pp. xi-xvii, 1-40. The class will watch Peter Jones and David R. Axelrod's Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude.
In Class: Short Talk 15: Myths in Medical Science (Helen Epstein's "Something Happened" and Atwul Gawande's "The Cancer-Cluster Myth"); Short Talk 16: The Problems of Doing Something Useful in Science (Judith Hooper's "A New Germ Theory" and Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer"); Short Talk 17: The Origin of Konner's Journey, His Thesis and First Encounters: Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor: Preface, Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2.
Outside Class: Essay #2 is due. Read, print out, and bring to class and models for Essay #3: "Improving Life with Arthritis"; "Ritalin and ADHD"; "Unraveling the Mystery"; and "Cesarean Childbirth: A Modern Convenience?"; also Instructions and Practice 1 for Writing an Abstract. We will go over student models for #3 and research essay will be explained. Also read Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor, Chapters 3-7.
In Class: ESSAY #2 IS DUE. Short Talk 17: The Origin of Konner's Journey, His Thesis and First Encounters: Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor: Preface, Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2. We will go over student models for research essay. We will discuss how to write an abstract and how to write an annotated bibliography. We will begin watching Mike Nichols' and Emma Thompson's Wit.
Outside Class: Read for Session 12 Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor, Chapters 8-10. Print out and do Practice 1 for the Abstract and bring to class. Start researching and thinking about a topic. Plan for #3 is due next week, Thurs, Nov 20th.
In Class: PLAN for #3 DUE. We'll go over abstracts. Short Talk 18: The Trenches (Chapters 3-5: "Emergency Ward Surgery," "Anesthesiology: The Technicians of Sleep" and "Ward Surgery); Short Talk 19: The Problems in Treating Mental Illness (Chapters 6-7: "Neurosurgery and Neurology" and "Psychiatry"); Short Talk 20: How Women's Health is Treated (Chapters 9-10: "Obstetrics" and "Gynecology"). We will finish watching Mike Nichols' and Emma Thompson's Wit.
Outside Class: Read for Session 14: Finish Melvin Konner's Becoming A Doctor, Chs 11-16. Print out and do Practice II for Abstracts.
In Class: We'll go over Practice II. Short Talk 21: Death and the Overuse of Technologies (Chapters 11-12: "Pathologies" and "Medicine I: A Failure of the Heart"); Short Talk 22: Why Doctors are Distrusted and a Failure of Common Sense: (Chapters 13-14: Medicine II and III: "Deathwatches and "Healing and Hope"); Short Talk 23: Optimism and Synthesis (Chapters 15- 16: "Fourth Year: Highlights and Heroes" and "Conclusion").
Outside Class: Write Essay #3 which should be prefaced with an abstract and include an annotated bibliography of 4 sources. Prepare to write in-class 2 book reviews, one of The Best American Scientific Writing and the other of Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor, as well as a film review taken from a choice of
Bring with you printed out Research Essay #3 (it should have an abstract and annotated bibliography). In class writing of two book reviews, one of David Quammen's The Best American Science and Nature Writing and one of Melvin Konner's Becoming a Doctor; plus one film review from a choice of 1) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Last Journey of a Genius; 2) Episodes from David Attenborough's Life on Earth; 3) Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude; or 4) Wit.