Poetry Lessons: Bridging the Chasm between the Sciences and the Humanities

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, December 22, 1990 | Go to article overview

Poetry Lessons: Bridging the Chasm between the Sciences and the Humanities


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


Poetry Lessons

The room echoed with the familiar sounds of a first day of class: nervous coughs, creaking chairs, shuffling feet, scratching pens and cracking notebook pages. Unspoken questions hung in the air: What am I doing here? How will I stack up against the others? What does the professor expect? How much time will this take?

But this was no ordinary class. The 14 students who gathered during the summer of 1988 to ponder the words and wherefores of Chaucer and Wordsworth were all science or engineering professors at Cornell University. They had interrupted their research to accept an invitation to participate in an unusual experiment billed "as interesting week of poetry."

The experiment served as an extension of a research project designed to elucidate what makes science difficult for neophytes and why students abandon science for other disciplines. Initiated by political scientist Sheila Tobias, a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the ongoing program has involved documenting and analyzing how faculty and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, acting as "surrogate learners," react to science courses.

In the poetry seminar, the roles were reversed. What might educators learn about teaching if scientists and engineers encountered a challenging subject in the humanities? How would science and engineering faculty react to the different norms of research and scholarship in the humanities?

"I started with the hypothesis that the scientist is just as uncomfortable with humanistic studies as the humanist is with scientific study," Tobias says.

Results from the Cornell poetry week, described in the September AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICS and the October ENGLISH EDUCATION, challenge some common assumptions about the differences between the humanities and the sciences. At the same time, the experiment provided useful insights into why physical science and engineering students have difficulty with and often avoid literature courses.

Writing in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICS, Tobias and Lynne S. Abel, associate dean for undergraduate instruction at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, conclude: "Perhaps the most important outcome of the seminar was that it stimulated faculty in the sciences to articulate and question what they assume and do as teachers."

For the participants, it was like going back to their college days. They spent the mornings listening to Chaucer expert Winthrop Wetherbee and Wordsworth specialist Stephen Parrish, both members of Cornell's English Department, and discussing the material, which included passages from The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English) and a number of Wordsworth's poems.

"I moved a little faster because it was a very compact five-day session," Parrish says, "but I presented about the same material that I would have presented to English majors -- juniors or seniors."

The students had reading assignments and had to prepare and submit three short papers for grading. They also kept notes on what they noticed about the teaching style, what they enjoyed doing, what caused them difficulty and what they discovered about the humanities.

Everyone noticed the central role of words, especially spoken words. Unlike science and engineering instructors, these lecturers just talked. They wrote very little on the blackboard. They used no diagrams, no equations, no tables, not even lists of key words or concepts. Class discussions followed unpredictable courses.

"When we give a [physics or engineering] course to a comparable level of students, most of the time we're at the blackboard deriving something or analyzing a problem with losts of equations and diagrams," says physicist Douglas B. Fitchen, who helped organize the seminar and then participated as a student. "Here, we would have these 1-1/2-hour seminar sessions with a professor who just sat in his chair the whole time and talked, making a lucid presentation of all kinds of context and connections. …

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