Syllabus for Spring 2000: Advanced Writing: On the Natural Sciences

English 302 N09: Tuesday/Thursday, 12:00 - 1:15 pm, Robinson A246

English 302 N10: Tuesday/Thursday, 1:30 - 2:45 pm, Enterprise Hall 279

Dr Ellen Moody. My homepage address

Advanced Writing: The Natural Sciences:

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 three English courses constitute the only prerequisite for this course, our perspective and discussions cannot be specialized or narrowly-focused on any single 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. Richard Feynman's satirical autobiographies and essays will enable us to examine how science ought to be, and how it really is, practiced in our society. Our two semi-technical book, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and The Darwin Reader are older, and the first was written for the general reader and in its time a best-selling travel-book. It will enable us to examine how Darwin came to his theory of natural selection. Finally, in Edward Golub's The Limits of Medicine we discuss and write about the history of medicine as a science from a sociological standpoint; we will be discussing how its applied technologies emerged from new attitudes of mind that arose in the Renaissance and these and the technologies they have fostered affect the way we define illness, behave towards it, and relate our lives to the science of medicine.

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


Films, if time permits, parts of the following will be shown in class:

On my homepage you will find a copy of this syllabus, students models for you to read, and bibliographies. In addition, you can get from my homepage to:

Richard Feynman:

Charles Darwin:

Required Writing:

You are required to write 3 essays and 3 book reviews and to give one short talk.

First Essay (#1)

Writing About How a Machine Works. The basic aim of the science essay is often explanation, and the basis of good scientific writing an ability to put something technical or complicated into English a reader can understand, and so we begin here.

Imagine your audience is someone with one or two years of college, someone who can read and enjoy Scientific American, The American Scientist or Nature and explain to him or her:

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.

You can also choose ordinary everyday processes. 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.

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. How does a zipper work? 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 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. 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: 3-5 double-spaced typed pages.

Second Essay (#2)

Observing Nature. To be a good scientist you must learn to observe accurately and disinterestedly; 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.

Third Essay (#3)

The Youngest Science. Our fourth book is a history and examination of the youngest science: medicine. But since this is not a pre-med course, we will be discussing not so much how to perform a Caesarian section or how to diagnose some illness, but rather how the science of medicine has radically changed our attitudes towards sickness and death and how medicine really is practiced in hospitals and at home in this country. Suggestions:

  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 or medical problem. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. You may discuss how our society should control and pay for medical treatment since it can powerfully affect individual lives and is expensive.
  5. 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 you to think for him or herself, take initiatives, consider how the social and psychological and economical realities surrounding illness have affected your own life or the life of someone you are closely connected to.

This is to be a researched essay, but you are also encouraged to use personal experiences. Length: 4-6 double-spaced typed pages.

Four good sources are required, but one of them may be Golub's The Limits of Medicine and another 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.

Three Book Reviews:

Analysing Science Writing. You will be asked to write three book reviews. If you ever become a professional in any field, you may find yourself asked to review books and articles.

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. The second review is to be on those parts of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and The Darwin Reader that have been assigned. The third review is to be on Golub's The Limits of Medicine. The book reviews are also intended to provide practice on how to select, elaborate upon and judge sources. 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 review the skills needed for literary analysis. Length: 3-4 double-spaced pages.

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. Our course Bible, John Trimble's Writing With Style is based on this belief. A writer must learn to think of his material as something he is communicating to someone else; not something he or she is mumbling to him or herself in the hopeless hope that no-one will actually read it, much less read it aloud. To do a short talk forces the student to experience these assumptions.

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 five books which is due the day he or she is scheduled to talk upon. The talks will begin the third week of the semester. The idea is to practice inventing a clear thesis-statement which is supported by concrete details from a text or your own experience.

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.

Other Requirements:

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. If you miss a shorter writing assignment in class, you must make it up, but you must then type or print it from a computer. 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 each essay; 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 d) 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 more gracefully, clearly and naturally. I will also attempt to help you think more deeply about your thesis or subject.


By the end of the term there should be seven 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, and three for the book reviews, and a seventh for the short talk. 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) 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 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.

How to contact me outside class:

Without an appointment:

Write to me by e-mail. My preferred address is You can also reach me at I look at this e-mail less frequently than the first. 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 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 am on campus only 2 afternoons. The secretaries don't call me; they simply place put a note in my box. Further, 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.

With an appointment:

Private conferences are available by appointment Tues/Thurs 10:30-12:00 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.

Tentative Calendar:

Week 1

: January: 25th (Tues) & 27th (Thurs):

Course introduction; explanation of syllabus; Importance of thesis statement; how to formulate; Making Inferences and Defining a Good Thesis. Essay #1.

Assignments: 1) Read for Thurs, and following Tues (Feb 2nd): Trimble, Writing with Style (pages to be announced); Student Models for # 1.

Begin reading and finish for Week 3 (due Feb 9th, Tues): Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!, pp 1-163 (Introd., Vitals, Parts One-Three), and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?, pp 7-53 (Preface, "The Making of a Scientist," and "What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?"

Week 2

: February: 1st (Tues) & 3rd (Thurs):

Openers; Middles; Closers. How to Write and Fill a Paragraph; What is a Paragraph. What is a Line of Argument. In-Class Describing a Machine. Short Talks thoroughly explained. Documentation begun.

Assignments: You should be reading the above Feynman material and formulating a topic; for Monday you must come to class with three topics for your short talk, and one will be given you. Short Talks begin Tues, Feb 8th. Your Topic Sheet is Due Thurs Feb 10th.

Week 3

: Feb: 8th (Tues) & 10th (Thurs):

Introducing Mr. Feynman. 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 analysis of authority (its counterproductive uses of secresy to mask pride and hypocrisy) at Los Alamos and elsewhere (SYJ, Parts 2 & 3, especially "Los Alamos from Below" and "Safecracker Meets Safecracker").

Assignments: Read for Week 4 (due Tues, Feb 15th): Feynman, SYJ, pp 163-174, 199-219, 234-337 (from Part 4 read only "The Dignified Professor," O Americano Outre Vez," & "An Offer You Must Refuse," and Part 5 through to 'Altered States'), and WDYC, pp 54-102 (the rest of Part One plus the private letters). You should be working on Essay #1.

Week 4

: Feb: 15th (Tues) & 17th (Thurs)

Short Talk 3: RFeynman's ideas on what is real scientific learning: what ought to go on in a classroom, be in a book &c (SYJ, Parts 4 & 5, especially "O Americano Outre Vez" and "Judging Books by Their Covers;" also WDYC, Letters). Short talk 4: RFeynman's Adventures in Art, Music, Anthropology, and Conferences (SYJ, Parts 4 & 5, WDYC, Part 1 & Letters)

Assignments: Read for Week 5 (due Tues, Feb 22nd): Feynman, SYJ, pp 338-346 ('Cargo Cult Science'), and WDYC, pp. 113-248 (Part Two: "Mr Feynman Goes To Washington", "Appendix F", "Value of Science") Essay #1 is Due on Thurs, Feb 24th.

Week 5

: Feb: 22nd (Tues) & 24th (Thurs):

Short Talk 5: Mr Feynman Goes to Washington: Why some NASA officials are driven to delude or lie to themselves and the public (WDYC, Part 2). Short Talk 6: SYJ, Cargo Cult Science, WDYC, The Value of Science" (Final Chapters) ESSAY #1 DUE.

Assignments: For Tues, Feb 29th, read Trimble, Writing with Style (pages to be announced). Next week we will learn how to write a book review; review punctuation & documentation & how to avoid plagiarism. The book review on Feynman's two books is due on Thurs, Mar 2nd; student models for #2 handed out:

Week 6

: February 29th (Tues) & March 2nd (Thurs):

Return and Discussion of #1. BOOK REVIEW ON FEYNMAN DUE. Achieving clarity, the importance of a voice. Introducing Charles Darwin. Essay #2 Explained

Assignment: For Week 7 (due Tues, Mar 7th) read Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, pp 1-28, 378-399 (Introd, Appendix One), pp. 58-122 (Chs 3-6) and The Darwin Reader, ix-xiv, 1-27, 52-54 (Introductory Chapters on life, work, Darwin's voyage round the world).

Week 7

: March: 7th (Tues) & 9th (Thurs):

More on Essay #2 explained & Darwin. Short Talk 7: Introducing Darwin One (Voyage, pp. 1-23, 378-99; Darwin Reader, pp. 1-27, 52-54). Short talk 8: Darwin and the Gauchoes, Observations on Large Animals and Vegetation, Chs 3-6 (pp 58-122);

Assignment: For Week 9 (due Tues, Mar 21st), read Voyage, pp 146-7, 158--97 (Part of Ch 9, 10-12, beginning of 13), 228-67 (Chs 16-18). Your Topic Sheet for Essay #2 is due Tues Mar 23rd.

Week 8

: March 13th - 19th, Spring Break.

As time permits, read ahead assigned chapters of Voyage and Darwin Reader and work on Essay #2.

Week 9

: March: 21st (Tues) & 23rd (Thurs):

Short Talk 9: Discovering Extinct Species, Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands (Part of Ch 9, 10-12, beginning of 13, pp 158-97). Short Talk 10: The Chilean Earthquake, Mountain Climbing and How the Earth and Mountains Formed (Chs 16-18, pp. 228-67)

Assignment: For Week 10 (due, Tues, Mar 28th), read Darwin, Voyage, pp 268-325, (Chs 19-20, part of 21); 333-56 and 359-77 (Chs 22 and last part of 23). You can also read the chapters on the Galapagos Archipelago and Keeling Island and Coral Formation in The Darwin Reader, Chs 1-2, pp. 28-83. You should be working on Essay #2.

Week 10

: March: 28th (Tues) & 30th (Thurs):

Short Talk 11: The Galapagos Archipelago, Tahiti, New Zealand & Australia (Chs 19-20, part of 21, pp. 268-325), see also The Darwin Reader, Ch 2, pp. 52-83. Short talk 12: Keeling Island, Coral Formation and Conclusion (Chs 22 & Part of 23, pp 333-56, 359-77).

Assignment: For Week 11 (due Tues, April 4th), read The Darwin Reader, Ch 4, pp. 84-135 (from The Origin of Species), Ch 6, pp. 175-204 (from Descent of Man and natural selection in relation to sex). You should be working on Essay #2 which is due April 11th.

Week 11

: April: 4th (Tues) & 6th (Thurs):

Short talk 13: 'The Origin of Species' (as reprinted in The Darwin Reader, Ch 4, pp. 84-135). Short Talk 14: 'The Descent of Man and Natural Selection in Relation to Sex' (as reprinted in The Darwin Reader, Ch 6 , pp. 175-204.

Assignment: read The Darwin Reader, Ch 7, pp. 205-37 (from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals; Book Review on Voyage of the Beagle and The Darwin Reader due Tues, April 13th; begin reading Golub, Limits of Medicine, pp vii-31 (Preface, A Few Important Words, Introduction, and Chs 1 & 2).

Week 12

: April: 11th (Tues) & 13th (Thurs):

ESSAY #2 DUE. Short Talk 15: 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals' (as reprinted in The Darwin Reader, Ch 7, pp. 205-37). Return and Discussion of #2. Introducing Essay #3 and Golub; material on how to write an abstract handed out. Short Talk 16: "The Rectangular Curves," "Framing Health and Disease, "The Constant Presence of Death" & "La Longue Durée (pp vii-59)

Assignments: read Golub, The Limits of Medicine, pp 31-133 (Part One, Chs 3-5, Part Two, Ch 6). Do practice abstract. Book Review of two Darwin books due on Tues, April 18th. Begin thinking about feasible topic for #3.

Week 13

: April: 18th (Tues) & 20th (Thurs):

BOOK REVIEW OF DARWIN DUE. More on Essay #3 and How to write an abstract. Short Talk 17: "The Seeds of Change" and "Pasteur and the Authority of Science" (pp 31-94)". The annotated bibliography. Short Talk 18: "Rewriting History and "Never to Die of a Disease in the Future" (pp. 95-133).

Assignments: read more of Golub, The Limits of Medicine pp 134-201 (Part Two, Chs 7-9); Topic Sheet for #3 due Tues, April 25th.

Week 14

: April: 25th (Tues) & 27th (Thurs):

Short Talk 19: "Reframing the Internal World" (pp. 134-59). Short Talk 20: "Magic Bullets and the New Paradigm of Medicine" (pp 134-76).

Assignments: Read for Week 15: finish Golub, Medicine, pp 205-226 (Part 3, Ch 10 & Finale). Your topic for #3 is due Tues, May 2nd.

Week 15

: May: 2nd (Tues) & 4th (Thurs):

Short Talk 21: "The Therapeutic Revolution" (pp. 177-201). Short Talk 22: "Reshaping the Goals of Medicine in the Era of Chronic Diseases" and "Finale" (pp 205-226). Last Day on which everyone gives 1-2 minute description of project for #3. BOOK REVIEW ON GOLUB DUE.

Week 16

: May: 18th (Tues):

For 302 N09: Tuesday/Thursday, 12:00 - 1:15 pm, Robinson A246, Tuesday May 16th, 10:30 - 11:30 am;

For 302 N10: Tuesday/Thursday, 1:30 - 2:45 pm, Enterprise Hall 279, Thursday, May 11th, 1:30 - 2:30 pm;:

During this hour you are to bring to the classroom Essay #4, complete with an abstract and annotated bibliography. Also any overdue or compensatory work.

Page Last updated: 14 January 2000