Syllabus for Spring 1999: Advanced Writing: On the Natural Sciences

English 302 N06: Tuesday/Thursday, 12-1:15 pm, Krug Hall 19

Dr Ellen Moody; Homepage is

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 one semi-technical book, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle is older, was written for the general reader and in its 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 Medicinewe discuss and write about the history of medicine as a science and how its applied technologies affect the way we act and look at ourselves in the area of medicine.

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


Films, Extra Credit, if time permits, parts will be shown in class:

From my homepage you can get to:

Richard Feynman:

For Darwin:

Required Writing:

You are required to write two 3-5 and one 4-6 page essay outside class (typed or printed with documentation), and three 3-4 page books reviews on the three authors and subject matters we cover, 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 as a common reader (someone with one year of college reading, someone, say, who can read and enjoy Scientific American, The American Scientist or Nature) and explain to him or her something like the following:

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 thus, also, for example, 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 also describe the process itself, and you can 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 emotiona 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 neednot be something technologically sophisticated; it can be a light-bulb; Henry Petroski wrote a book upon the humble pencil. You can tell how a book is put together, or go into how people have made and put together books over the centuries. You can look at old-fashioned or older inventions -- like the windmill.

You can write this satirically (pretend you are a person from a community with no knowledge or experience of such objects or use your description to criticize the society which uses such objects); you can write this personally (how you or other members of your household or school use the object, e.g., computers); you can offer a history of the process or object as part of your essay if you think this will illuminate the process or object or entertain your reader; 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 -- otherwise your reader will 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 the common reader.

Remember clarity is a special concern in the natural sciences, and as (I assume) big words confuse and put you off (they put me off), so the intent here is to practice using language which is jargon-free and analogies which actually help readers to visualize and understand 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. Length: 3-5 double-spaced typed pages. 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 off the Web or an e-mail group, please check the background of the person or website whose information you are relying upon).

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 about or in nature.

Suggestions: you might try to develop or confirm a hypothesis about the animal or plant (look at patterns of birth, strategies for obtaining food); you could try to define questions for further research. If you chose an animal it is suggested that you go to the zoo, or an aquarium, or, if you can, a farm or stable or ranch and pick an animal and observe it at length. Take detailed notes on your observations. It is hard to choose a plant over a summer session, so you must begin early if you want to do this--or be a gardener already; leave at least one week for daily observations. As to pets, you must use your pet to generalize from; do not write an essay on your best friend and the solace of your existence. You can rely on a memory or a long-extended or repeated experience of natural phenomena. Anything you have done in a laboratory in another course is certainly welcome. H

owever, I will not accept a description of a video -- if you have never seen a lion except in a video, lions are out; the same things goes for earthquakes or a tornados. You must use natural phenomena which you can observe (thus unless you have access to a sophisticated telescope stars & comets are out). Finally, human beings are out since I do not want social satire, or a researched archeaological essay.
Length: 3-5 double-spaced typed pages. On research see the comment on Essay #1 above.

The 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. In lieu of a final, you will be asked to hand in an essay during the last week of term or on the day the final for this course is set on 1) an illness (it does not have to be a lethal epidemic) in our past or today; or 2) on a particular case history or medical problem (e.g. prolonging the life of someone who has permanently lost consciousness, or on procedures which are controversial), or 3) on some aspect of the medical profession (for example, the way a hospital works; the education required of doctors and nurses); or 4) the education required of doctors and nurses (what should they learn? in what atmosphere? 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?); or 5) how our society should control and pay for it since it can powerfully affect individual lives and is expensive. This is to be a researched essay, but you are also encourged to use personal experiences. Length: 4-6 double-spaced typed pages. Four good sources are required, but one of them may 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:

Selecting Good and Evidence and Evaluating a Source. You will be asked to write three book reviews, one (A) on both Feynman books when we finish reading them, one (B) on Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, and one (C) on Golub's The Limits of Medicine. The book reviews are 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: the book's thesis (or theses); a synopsis or summary of its contents; the author's background or biases; his evidence; the book's context; its audience; your evaluation of it. We will also review the skills needed for literary analysis.

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'sWriting 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 a text (or topic on a text) 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: a) I believe something is to be gained by coming to class, and that we all can learn a great deal from one another, but b) I do not believe that writing is a mysterious process whose tenets can be communicated by a sort of osmosis of inspired joint-creativity. Rather c) I believe that good writing can be discussed in simple words, and exemplified, learned, practiced, and improved through imitation of models; d) I also believe that the only way to improve one's writing is by much practice over a long period of time; and have come to disbelieve that separate group workshopping helps most individuals learn to writer better. f) I think literature and writing courses in the humanities and natural sciences ought not to be centrally about politics; and, g) 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 or one of the three in-class essays, you are expected to do the shorter writing assignment at home on the computer or a typewriter and in lieu of the in-class essay in class a 3-page typed or printed book review of the book. I will accept nothing long hand-written from home. I ask that you limit your unexcused absences to a minimum; I regard weeks' of absence as one basis for a failing grade. In this class you will find that continual absence is the road to bewilderment.

2. Writing Assignments: I have allowed: a) sufficient time for revision of each essay; b) time for work as a group so we may define, and see how one goes about doing the various kinds of mental jobs and writing that make up a clear essay; c) time for discussing student models to help you see what is expected and give you ideas on how to go about a particular task; and d) time for the class to turn into a sort of group workshop to listen to one or more of the essays someone in the class has written. For each of the essays assigned I will give out student models which we will use as "handles" to give everyone ideas and patterns which can help in figuring out in a conscious unfrightened way the kind of organization and thinking which best suits a topic and the tasks one must do before and during writing a particular composition.

I will, in turn, try my best to write comments on your essays which will help you see how better to write clearly and gracefully and how better to organize your thoughts--the latter the hardest task of all and one people can be helped with.

3. Reading: I have also assigned readable yet serious books. All were meant for the common reader: three are popular in language, one scientific, but all were meant to and have sold widely. I have found that student anthologies of essays and literature which have been especially concocted for students considered as a target captive audience are often dull, puzzling, and hard to understand. They are also faddish -- they are written in conformance with this year's politically correct stance and what publishers think school boards across the US will not be angered by. All of our authors wrote books so that they might reach a large audience; they wrote not only to educate, but for money so they had to write well; they had to delight as well as instruct.

These books will be our models on how to write intelligently about science in a serious way which yet entertains and moves a reader. If you want to become a writer in the natural sciences, either as someone who makes his or her way as a writer, or as someone whose writing helps you in your chosen career, you need to realize and act upon the following truths: even in science you can only reach a reader if you use words in a concise, concrete, and meaningful (not obscurantist) way; to put it another way, even in science people will only read what they enjoy and understand. In addition, a reader values a book insofar as it addresses his or her real preoccupations, and if you want your work to be remembered and valued, you must address these.


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 written outside class (#s 1-3), and three for the book reviews (Lettered A-C). (The grades for the the annotated bibliography and abstract of Essay #3 will be included in the grade for that paper.) The seventh grade will be 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.

I also take into account 1) your attendance record; 2) your participation in class; 3) if you came for help if you needed it (i.e., planning the essay, thinking up a perspective; organizing it, revising it and so on); and, 3) those essays or short talks which showed that you cared, that you really thought about your subject and made an effort to find something out about it or to explore it and to write something intelligent and coherent and complete. While I, of course, will not deny the genius his or her A, I always also take hard work into account and will reward someone who has journeyed from a lesser place to a better one through effort. I also take attendance and class participation into account; it matters to me whether you come and it matters whether you have done the reading or participate or not (see Assumptions above).

To talk to me outside class:

Without an appointment:

Write to me by e-mail:; 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. 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. It is, however, well to remember that I am on campus only 2 days a week in the mornings before class, and the secretaries don't call me; they simply place put the 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: 26th (Tues) & 28th (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, pp ix-xi, Chs 1, 2, 4, 5, (omitting pp 46-50), 6 & 10; Student Models for # 1.

Begin reading and finish for Week 3 (due Feb 9th, Tues): Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!, pp 1-145 (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: 2nd (Tues) & 4th (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 9th. Your Topic Sheet is Due Thurs Feb 11th.

Week 3:

Feb: 9th (Tues) & 11th (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 on authority, secrecy, 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, Sept 16th): Feynman, SYJ, 149-158, 179-198, 209-214, 217-308 (of Part 4 only "The Dignified Professor," O Americano Outre Vez," & "An Offer You Must Refuse," all Part 5), and pp 217-308 and WDYC, pp 54-102 (the rest of Part One plus the private letters). You should be working on Essay #1.

Week 4:

Feb: 16th (Tues) & 18th (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 23rd): Feynman, SYJ, pp 217-317 (Part Five), and WDYC (Part Two: "Mr Feynman Goes To Washington" and "Appendix F" and "Epilogue") Essay #1 is Due on Thurs, Feb 25th.

Week 5:

Feb: 23rd (Tues) & 25th (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, Mar 2nd, read Trimble, Writing with Style, Ch 8-15; on Thurs Mar 4th 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 Tues, Mar 9th; student models for #2 handed out:

Week 6:

March: 2nd (Tues) & 4th (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 Mar 9th) begin reading Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, pp 1-28, 378-399, 41-122 (Introd, Appendix One, Chs 1-5).

Week 7:

March: 9th (Tues) & 11th (Thurs):

More on Essay #2 explained & Darwin. Short Talk 7: Mapping the World, Appendix One (pp 378-98); Short talk 8: Darwin and the Gauchoes, Observations on Species, Chs 3-5 (pp 58-122);

Assignment: For Week 9 (due Tues, Mar 23rd), read Darwin, Voyage, pp 123-240 (Chs 7-16). Your Topic Sheet for Essay #2 is due Tues Mar 23rd.

Week 8:

Spring Break. Read Darwin; work on Essay #2.

Week 9:

March: 23rd (Tues) & 25th (Thurs):

Short Talk 9: Discovering Extinct Species, Large animals, the Ostrich and other observations on species, Chs 5-7 (pp 95-138); Short Talk 10: How the Earth and Mountains Formed, Relationships between Existing and Previous Species Chs 8-10 (pp 138-170)

Assignment: For Week 10 (due, Tues, Mar 30th), read Darwin, Voyage, pp 240-332 (Chs 17-21). You should be working on Essay #2.

Week 10:

March: 30th (Tues) & April 1st (Thurs):

Short Talk 11: A Freezing Wasteland, 'Savage' Peoples, & the Falkland Islands, Chs 11-12 (pp 171-194); both days talking about Essay #2 and descriptive and analytical writing in the natural sciences; Short talk 12: More Observations on Species, on Miners, and an Earthquake, Chs 14 & 16 (pp 195-204, 228-40).

Assignment: For Week 11 (due Tues, April 6th), finish Darwin, Voyage, pp 333-77 (Ch 17-23). You should be working on Essay #2 which is due April 8th.

Week 11:

April: 6th (Tues) & 8th (Thurs):

Short talk 13: The Galapagos Archipelago, Ch 19 (pp 268-90); Short Talk 14: The Voyage_ as a travel book: Tahiti, Island Paradise and Australia A World of Convicts, St Helena, Terceira Chs 20-21 (pp 290-328, 359-71); ESSAY #2 DUE

Assignment: Book Review on Voyage of the Beagle due Tues, April 13th; begin reading Golub, Limits of Medicine, pp vii-31 (Preface, A Few Important Words, Introduction, and Ch 1).

Week 12:

April: 13th (Tues) & 15th (Thurs):

Short Talk 15: Keeling Island, the Formation of Coral Reefs and Lagoons, Ch 23 (pp 333-56); 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" (pp vii-30)

Assignments: read Golub, The Limits of Medicine, pp 31-94 (Part One, Ch 2-4); do abstract; begin research for a feasible topic for #3.

Week 13:

April: 20th (Tues) & 22nd (Thurs):

More on Essay #3 and How to write an abstract. Short Talk 17: "La Longue Durée and "The Seeds of Change" (pp 31-77); the annotated bibliography; Short Talk 18: "Pasteur and the Authority of Science," "Rewriting History" (pp. 78-109);

Assignments: read more of Golub, The Limits of Medicine pp 95-160 (Part 1, Ch 5; Part 2, Chs 6-7); Topic Sheet for #3 due Tues, April 27th.

Week 14:

April: 27th (Tues) & 29th (Thurs):

Short Talk 19: "Never To Die of a Disease" and "Reframing the Internal World" (pp 113-60); Short Talk 20: "Magic Bullets" (pp. 160-84)

Assignments: Read for Week 15: finish Golub, Medicine, pp 161-226 (Part 2, Chs 8-9, Pt 3). Your topic for #3 is due Thurs, Dec 3rd.

Week 15:

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

Short Talk 21: "The Therapeutic Revolution" (pp 177-201); Short Talk 22: "Reshaping the Goals of Medicine" and "Finale" (pp. 205-26). Last Day on which everyone gives 1-2 minute description of project for #3. BOOK REVIEW ON GOLUB DUE.

Week 16:

May: 18th (Tues)

Final, consisting of Essay #3, complete with an abstract of it, and annotated bibliography due in this class on Tuesday, May 18th, 10:30-12:00.

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Page Last Updated: 1 February 1999.