Science and Soul

Posted: April 25, 2014 by Laura Ng and Jim Konzelman

If most people were to create a continuum of subjects within a university, the STEM fields and the Humanities fields would probably be on opposite ends of the spectrum. STEM, with its focus on controlled experimentation seems far from humanist disciplines concerned with the abstract human condition. However, the disparity between these two vibrant areas of study is not the steep divide most imagine. To conceptualize these fields as mutually exclusive overlooks the rich exploration that occurs when these areas are studied together. Using speculative literature as the common ground for illustrating the connection between literature and science makes for a more scientifically and ethically aware citizen. Within fiction students of all fields can begin to explore the ethics of science and the relationship between science and humanity.

Focusing on speculative fiction as a way of exploring science is an idea that many professionals see as a natural match. D. Smith, a social science teacher, penned an article, "Bringing Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Classroom," offering a personal account of how Young Adult Science Fiction led him to reading outside of the classroom (2014). Dr. Aquiles Negrete, of the University of Bath studies fiction as a way to help students remember scientific concepts (2012). Even the New York Times offers articles asking what we can learn about science from fiction (2012). While these works draw scientists further into the study of their field, there are others that debate the effectiveness of using a genre that has limits in transmitting accurate scientific information (Garrett, 2013). These questions are valuable, but only provide half of the picture. The role of speculative fiction should go beyond asking what science can do, to asking what it should do. Scholars need to explore the ethical, social, cultural, and personal relationships of science and humanity found in speculative fiction.

Nunan and Homer were among the first to point out the boundaries and unrealized potential of studying science as a part of culture. In "Science, Science Fiction, and a Radical Science Education," the authors point out that science is presented as an asocial activity, uninfluenced by the cultures that sponsor scientific advancement, and that this view is inaccurate (1981). While Nunan and Homer call for speculative fiction as way tool for exploring science in the frame of the social sciences, this designation needs to be expanded. When speculative fiction is investigated in a literary context, the exploration becomes more complete, as the work is then not only about how accurately the science is presented, but about how the science is presented, and also the characters' actions, the social boundaries encountered, the moral issues inherent in the story, and the questions of what all of this means for humans or even what it means to be human.

This is where Dr. Konzelman and I enter the debate. Both of us value the idea of studying works where science is explored as a part of human experience. Dr. Konzelman thinks of it as using literature to find the soul of science. Using my World Literature II class as a testing ground, we have been working to see if we can help students increase their scientific awareness and understand the social, cultural, and ethical question surrounding scientific advancement. We chose three novels to work with through the semester. The first novel was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This work is a wonderful choice for our project as it still resonates with our culture. I introduced the work in the class. Then Jim discussed the scientific context of the time to help students understand the discoveries Shelley was exploring in her text. We repeated this with two other works, H. G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau and Richard Matheson's I am Legend. These novels addressed the same fundamental cultural, social, and ethical question found in Frankenstein and complicated the issue by bringing in more advancements that students could see as directly benefiting their lives. The works essentially ask the same questions: What does it mean to be human? Should we be taking the steps we are? These are inquiries that are critical in both our fields.

We measured our pilot work through a series of low stakes assignments and a final project. We used a series of discussion posts as a way to assess students' grasps of the materials in a quick manner. For the final projects, we offered students three different options. They could create an ethical analysis of a scientific advancement, compare and contrast the treatment of one of the advancements from a work in the class to another work outside of the class, or create their own short fiction piece that explores the ethical, social, and cultural implication of a scientific discovery. The results are promising. Students were able to discuss the ethical issue of science and culture. Now that we have completed a first run of the project, we understand how we need to tighten our design to include clearer pre/post captures of learning and a control group. We would like to expand our work to eventually include a section of literature for STEM majors.

Our partnership of scientist and humanist is not an odd collision of two disparate fields. It is about enriching both fields by allowing students to explore subjects of interest to them through different academic lenses. Those that are interested in science have found a way of looking at their field that includes ethical questions that switch the focus from "can we do it" to "should we do it?" Those who are not STEM majors find an avenue for exploring anxieties about the scientific advancements that shape the world in fundamental ways. Focusing on this connection breaks down barriers, and allows students to deal with the complicated issues of human existence, of which science is main ingredient. Also, this focus allows us to dismantle artificial academic walls to show our partnership as a logical extension of inquiry for both of our fields.


Establishing Connection...