Syllabus for Summer 2005: Advanced Writing: On the Natural Sciences and Technology

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 by scientists 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 particparticular 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.

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

Required Films:

Required Writing:

You are required to write two essays and one take-home exam outside class; to write three book reviews and one film review in class; and to give one short talk in class.

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)

Choice One: The Science of Medicine. Two of our books is about the science of medicine as it is really learnt and practiced in our world; we will also see a filmed stageplay which criticizes the way medicine is frequently practiced 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 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? You will find topics in Gawande's book and also Stolberg's essay.
  5. You may write about a particular procedure; why it has evolved and what is its efficacy. You will find many ideas about this in Gawande's and Stolberg's essay.
  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.

An Alternative Choice: Writing About Genetics, Race, and Nationalism and Geography. The idea would be to research and to discuss some aspect of Steve Olson's Mapping Human History. The subjects offered in this book range from: genetics; migrations of people (mapping human history); and tracing the history of languages to and small particular subjects arising out of these large areas. You can write a paper on subjects like: neandertal man; some aspect of the relationship between genetic mutation and climate; some aspect of geography and geology or racism; the Humane Genome Diversity Project. Our student model is "Deserts, Winds, and Water".

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 in the case of Choice One, one of them may be an interview with an experts or people who have had the illness you are writing about. You may also use either a chapter from Gawande's Complications or a chapter from Ofri's Singular Intimacies.

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.

In-Class Open Book Writing: Midterm and Final

Analysing Science Writing. You will be asked to write book and film reviews in class in lieu of a closed book midterm and final. If you become a successful professional in any field, you will find yourself asked to review books, articles and (nowadays) films. 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. The first review is to be on both Feynman books when we finish reading them and is to be written in class half-way through the term as the class mid-term. The second review is to be on Olson's Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins, and the third review is to be a comparison and contrast of Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science with Danielle Ofri's Singular Intimacies. The film review is to be on a film of your choice taken from the four we will watch together in class. Right now I have planned to show: 1) The Last Journey of a Genius; 2) Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude; 3) In Search of the First Language, and 4) Wit. This may change if the class elects to see an alternative to Lost at Sea or another film on a topic.

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.

Take-Home Exam:

This will be a 10 question test in which you will be asked to provide a paragraph length- answer for each question. It covers John Trimble's Writing with Style, and I will hand it out before the day the first book review is due. You are asked to hand it in fully-typed (or printed out) with the first book review of the two Feynman books (see below); together, the take- home exam on Trimble and the book review of the Feynman books make up the mid-term exam.

The Short Talk

Talk is primary and writing secondary. I am persuaded that 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 responds to 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 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 second week of the semester (in summer it's the third session in a class that meets twice a week). 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 students whether they have made themselves clear; the ensuing dialogue and students' own later thoughts about either what happened when they or others 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.

All students are asked to hand in an outline or cards (hand-written or typed) which they used to talk from, and I will return this material with the grade for the talk in the following session.

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 the two 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 five major grades for each student on my roster. These I will average together to form the final grade. I should have two grades for the two essays, one for for the short talk, one for the midterm (which is made up of a review of the two Feynman books), and one for the final (a review of Olson's book, a review of Gawande's and Ofri's books and a review of a film we have seen in class). Smaller grades will be given for the two plans; these and in-class writings (which receive a check) will form part of class work. 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 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.

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 (993-1176) 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 afternoons 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 Tuesday and Thursdays from 3:30 to 4:30 pm in Robinson Hall A455. I can also occasionally come before 3:30 pm and stay after the second class (past 10:00 pm). 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


Week 1: Tuesday/Thurs, June 7th & 9th

Week 2: Tues/Thurs, June 14th & 16th

Week 3: Tues/Thurs, June 21st and 23rd

Week 4: Tues/Thurs, June 28th & 30th

Week 5: Thurs, July 7th

Week 6: Tues/Thurs, July 12th & 14th

Week 7: Tues/Thurs, July 19th & 21st

Week 8: Tues, July 26th & 28th

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 24 May 2004.