Assigning literature in a science class


I don’t know more than a few science undergraduates who regularly read literature.

If I’m training excellent scientists, that means I’m training excellent thinkers and problem-solvers. I’m training people who see things beyond their own perspective. One huge route for that is literature. But my students don’t read literature. So, am I training truly excellent scientists?

There’s a conversation I often have, during lab, or waiting for class to start. I broadly ask, What good books have you read lately? Then I ask, When was the last time you’ve read a non-required book? Through the silence you can hear the sound of crickets (and raccoons fighting over the food put out for feral cats).

When I ask students why they don’t read novels, I always hear that they don’t have time. If I have a good rapport, then I call BS on that claim. I suggest the idea that, maybe, they have the time, but haven’t prioritized reading. I then get some pushback, about how busy they are. This, I cannot deny. Nearly everybody works long hours and has major family obligations on top of coursework.

But, they really still have time for reading.

I’ve asked how much TV they watch, and they say “not much.” Then I ask which shows they are currently following, and how many games per week they watch on TV, and for nearly all students, it’s a long list. We do the math together, and it seems that they’re watching 10 or more hours per week at a minimum. My eyebrows indicate that the lack of literature in their life is a choice.

I’m not a TV-is-bad-for-adults sourpuss, but I am a no-reading-is-bad sourpuss.

One of the great things about academic freedom is that we have broad latitude over what happens in our classrooms. Even if the course needs to conform to a tight curriculum, you have broad interpretive latitude about how you go about things.

There are tons of great novels that feature protagonists who are scientists, or are in settings that are relevant to the course at hand. I don’t think I’d throw students into challenging literary fiction if they aren’t used to it. But I could assign things like The Poisonwood Bible, Angels and Insects, The Monkeywrench Gang, House of Leaves, Dirt Music, Never Let Me Go. These books have people at the heart, not science, but they are infused with ideas tied to science or nature.

I haven’t yet assigned an unabashedly not-a-science-book novel in a class; I’ve assigned non-fiction books like Beak of the Finch in the past. But I’m open to the idea. At least at my university, students don’t get too many novels to read in the route to getting a B.S. in a STEM field. Academic freedom allows me the latitude to decide that reading literature is an important of learning how to do science. Of course, by requiring it, I have to make students accountable for having done it, and make it a large enough part of the grade to make sure they read it. And I wouldn’t scale back any other part of the course, and I’d make sure that all other course objectives are met as always.

Do you know anybody in a STEM field who has done this? If you did this, how much guff would you get from your department mates? What are some other books that you think would be good?

54 thoughts on “Assigning literature in a science class

  1. Yes to this! I subscribe to the same philosophy (most likely because my parents were both English majors) and have been doing it for a couple semesters. My personal favorite to use is Prodigal Summer, but there are others, as you mention, and I like to give students at least some choice. Not everybody loves it, but far more like than dislike, and the science majors appreciate the “opportunity” (even if it’s because it is a requirement) to read fiction. I haven’t tried this yet, but I hope to create an assignment in the future that explores the same scientific issue from three different avenues: 1) a peer-reviewed publication, 2) a novel, and 3) the lay media. Students could dissect the treatment of the issue through each medium, highlighting both recurring themes and notable differences. I think incorporating literature into science education is so important because it (hopefully) reminds them of the joy of reading fiction, it demonstrates that science’s role in our society extends beyond just the classroom, and it forces them to rely on non-quantitative analytical skills. This kind of holistic education will serve both the future-scientists and the non-future-scientists better long after they graduate.

  2. I proposed reading Robert Desowitz’s The Malaria Capers for a new class I am developing on parasites and human health. It is non-fiction, but it reads like a novel. Made it passed the Dept. Chair. We’ll see if I get it through the rest of the pipeline.

  3. The moment of greatest scrutiny for a curriculum happens when a new course is proposed. (There are three levels of committees at my university, two of which are often overly prescriptive. The politics of these committees is somewhere between absurd and surreal, especially if a course fulfills a general education requirement.)

    But once the course exists, minor modifications like minor changes such as required reading don’t have to go through the curricular review process. Just sayin’.

    I’ll love to hear how the book works with the course.

  4. I’m currently teaching a Climate Change class for non-science majors and one of the options for their final project is exactly what you suggest — looking at the intersection of society and climate change through a novel (or some other art form), a scientific paper, and media coverage for a popular audience. I’m really excited to see what they do!

  5. I’m having my students read Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in a class I’m teaching next semester.

  6. I also featured some poetry by Goethe in my Evolution course this semester.

  7. A true classic would be “Log in the Sea of Cortez” by John Steinbeck. I knew a prof who would give it to every one of his students upon completion of their MSc or PhD. A great read and really gets at the heart of observation and natural history. Another great book is “One River” by Wade Davis about Bates collecting in the Amazon. So many options out there.

  8. I’d love to hear other titles, particularly fiction, that people have used with success. I did lots of searching online to expand my suggested list, but most of what I could find was non-fiction. One list of “ecological novels” included Ecotopia, but I haven’t read it yet…has anyone else, and would it lend itself well to this type of assignment?

    Incidentally, I do also like to have students read a non-fiction science book specifically written for a lay audience, such as Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man—makes for lots of great discussion and some very passionate papers. Also, for other people teaching behavior, an assignment of mine that has been very successful has been having students read Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, then write their own entry for the book. Science students have too few opportunities to indulge their creative writing juices!

  9. Oh and for a shorter read – I even read this aloud in class. “On Finding a Butterfly” by Vladimir Nabokov. Best part of the poem:

    Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
    poems that take a thousand years to die
    but ape the immortality of this
    red label on a little butterfly.”

  10. I loved Dr. Tatiana’s book. I read it for a break while studying for my orals and found if more helpful than many other the other readings that I did. Even used examples from the book to illustrate points. Fantastic!

  11. I agree – I think lots of us assign nonfiction, including more creative nonfiction. But genuine character-driven novels, I don’t think so much. I’d love to hear more suggestions, too. Loving the Kafka idea!

  12. Oh, I love that! Beautiful. I haven’t branched into poetry because of my own lacking education in the subject, but I should. Come to think of it, this whole conversation has made me want to propose a new course: “science in literature.” Definitely adding that to my to-do list.
    That Nabokov poem reminded me of one of my all-time favorite poems, by E.B. White. I sent my now-husband a postcard with this poem on it when I was living half a world away doing field work for 6 months. It has always brought me great comfort:

    The Spider’s Web

    The spider, dropping down from twig,
    Unfolds a plan of her devising,
    A thin premeditated rig
    To use in rising.

    And all that journey down through space,
    In cool descent and loyal hearted,
    She spins a ladder to the place
    From where she started.

    Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
    In spider’s web a truth discerning,
    Attach one silken thread to you
    For my returning.

  13. An aside…Is the proportion of STEM students that regularly read lit lower than in other majors (other than English/Lit)? My guess is ‘no’.

  14. I’ve heard it’s a great piece of science journalism. That could be a whole other post. What about novels?

  15. Dropping by this conversation from the English/Lit side of things. This is great, and I’m loving the suggestions (I’ve jotted down a couple of titles for my own reading). That said, I’m just wondering:


    I’m not trying to be snarky–I’m genuinely curious. I know why people in the English/Lit. world value the reading of novels (and novels and novels and plays and poetry and essays and more novels), but then that’s our, you know, job. I’m loving the general enthusiastic agreement in these responses that assigning a novel is a good idea, but I’m also puzzled: no one is saying what the source of the enthusiasm is. The original post points out that reading fiction is good, there are lots of novels relevant to scientists, and assigning a book is a way to jolt them out of TV/movie habits. Someone else mentioned using the requirement with a writing assignment to promote “non-quantitative analytic reasoning.” But that’s all I’m seeing here by way of rationale. That’s not a problem, by any means! I understand y’all are talking among yourselves and there are all kinds of common understandings in play that I don’t know about (and I’m all for a program to get students to read more books, regardless of the reasons)–but I’d love to know more about the thought process here.

  16. My university is similar, at least currently, with crazy people on the curriculum committee at the university level. Getting a new course approved sounds much harder than getting a paper(s) published. But like you said, once it’s approved, anything is fair game.

  17. Great point. Come to think of it, the conversation was pretty much the same when I’ve taught GE sections.

    This reading problem clearly is bigger. I just remembered something from a few years ago.
    I was part of an interview panel with a person who just received a BA in African-American Literature (from a larger, far more respected, university than my own). Making small chat, I asked who her favorite novelists were, she said that she liked contemporary women writers. She mentioned Maya Angelou as a favorite, and I asked her if there was anything else that she particularly liked. I tried to make it easy on her, as she was nervous as an interviewee, so I asked her what her favorite Toni Morrison was. She hadn’t heard of Toni Morrison. Even taking into account her nervousness in the interview, I got the distinct impression that she had not read more than a couple novels in the progress of getting her degree, in literature. And she received good marks in college, too, well over a B average. This wasn’t an individual failing, this was a failing of a system that can give a literature degree to a person who doesn’t know the fundamentals of her own field. It reminded me of the time when a graduating biology senior, at my old job, asked me whether a spider was an invertebrate. That was a sad day.

  18. Well, I mentioned in my initial comment this statement, which you sample in your comment: “I think incorporating literature into science education is so important because it (hopefully) reminds them of the joy of reading fiction, it demonstrates that science’s role in our society extends beyond just the classroom, and it forces them to rely on non-quantitative analytical skills. This kind of holistic education will serve both the future-scientists and the non-future-scientists better long after they graduate.”
    I think the first two reasons I mention are just as important (if not more so) as emphasizing qualitative critical thinking. And as for the last sentence, what I meant was that I hope my students (science major or otherwise) leave my courses viewing science as something that fits into their everyday lives and is important to society at large, not just to academics. I think introducing fiction with scientific themes into a syllabus helps promote that message by taking science out of the “school box” (“I only think about science when I am in science class”) and integrating it into their more general consciousness.
    Finally, I think certain works of fiction (like Prodigal Summer) do a nice job of emphasizing that most issues of science are multi-dimensional, with science being just one (or a couple) of the angles. A novel, particularly one with strong character development, helps drive home the message that science is not always in perfect alignment with other dimensions—socioeconomics, politics, morality, religion, etc.; rather, these perspectives all play important roles in how we evaluate an issue, and thus deserve consideration.

  19. I hope you’re joking. I haven’t read it, other than an excerpt that was published somewhere (The Atlantic maybe). Based on that, along with the reviews, I think I’ll not read it so that I can only suspect, rather than know, that the whole thing was cloying and hackneyed.

  20. I’ve had a similar sense about students not reading though I think it’s not students, it’s most people. Haven’t done novels because I haven’t come across the right one(s).

    I do assign a fair amount of history or creative non-fiction.

    In my intro geology class, I have students read and discuss 2 first-person accounts of the plate tectonics revolution with the goals of 1) seeing that scientists are real people and 2) reflecting on the nature(s) of science — particularly physics/lab science as compared to complex/field science. I also have them read a New Yorker essay by John McPhee about the Mississippi River.

    In an upper-level course, I assign about about the Medieval Climate Anomaly (aka, Medieval Warm Period) and how it affected different civilizations around the world to get my students thinking about climate change from a different/history perspective. In the past, have had them read chapters from Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘Field Notes from a Catastophe’, which started as New Yorker essays.

  21. Sounds cool. I’d be interested to hear what students find for novels since I teach climate change in a couple of classes.

  22. I’ve never done it, don’t know anyone who has. I think a lot of profs would feel hard pressed to do it in an ordinary science class as it’d take them too far afield from the “core” science content of the class. But I think it could be done, and that it would be both fun and very valuable.

    In terms of novels, you already mentioned the first one that occurs to me: Angels and Insects.

    And since the source book was made into a very good movie (that sticks very close to the book), I have a question: ever thought of showing a fiction film? I know, I know, that doesn’t get students reading, so this is a totally off-topic question. But still: my sense is that science classes often show science documentaries or clips from documentaries. But do they ever show fictional films? If so, what would you show? I’m tempted by “Creation” as an ironic suggestion, as it’s supposed to be a Darwin biopic, but it stretches the truth so much, and flat-out invents so many key incidents, that I consider it fiction…

    And I’d love to hear what you thought of Angels and Insects…🙂

  23. Oh, and to correct myself, Angels and Insects is the movie, and the title of the two-novella volume which includes the novella Morpho Eugenia. It’s that novella that’s the basis of the movie, and that occurred to me as a candidate to assign in a science class (especially one on animal behavior or social insects).

  24. I haven’t read the comic books, but seeing the X-Men movies has made me think they would be a great way of discussing evolutionary ideas. The movies pretty openly discuss (and abuse) ideas of mutation and evolutionary “progress”. Not exactly classic literature, but comic books and graphic novels seem to be in vogue right now.

  25. I had to read about halfway through this post to realize you were talking about novels, not research journals, because that’s the only “literature” I ever hear about. I think this illustrates your point perfectly (I got my B.S. in ’12 and am working on my M.S.).

  26. something like Jurassic Park (which sadly isn’t great literature) isn’t far at all from the core of most biology classes and could be excellent springboard for many topics. Instead of a lecture/regurgitation of section 18.4 to 18.9 in the textbook, have students read Jurassic Park and then open up the discussion relative to genetics, development, biomechanics, ecology, math, scaling, whatever.

  27. The novella is, as far as I can tell, a great window into the status of scientific thought in the Victorian era. Short of reading personal correspondence, this is a way to get into their heads. (I thought the movie was okay.) That’s also one of the reasons I got into the massive O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, and I’m only 2 books to the end and rather bummed about it.

  28. I read a good chunk of Primo Levi’s short story “Carbon” in an intro. bio. class. (We were talking about the carbon cycle.) I’ve also snuck Borges’ “On exactitude in science” into a modeling class and once got part of Stoppard’s *Arcadia* in (the part about grouse population cycles and noise), though I’ve since lost online access to that. Both of those were extra credit homework questions.

    This quote from “Carbon” is my favorite. I don’t know if any of my students really understood the thermodynamics behind it or if they were touched by it as I am, but I hope I got to at least one. Life is transient. Life is temporary. Always.

    “‘Such is life,’ although rarely is it described in this manner: an inserting itself, a drawing off to its advantage, a parasitizing of the downward course of energy, from its noble solar form to the degraded one of low-temperature heat. In this downward course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it.”

  29. Wow, Robin, that is a powerful quote and one that will stay with me for a while. I can’t wait to share it with my Ecology class. Thank you.

  30. I really like that idea.

    Its not only that reading fiction can change the angle on particular topics, like mutations, human clones, epidemics. It can have a much depper impact and touch the way we think. How does science work? or what is nature, actually? What is a model? what is evidence?

    This sounds like the novels necessarily need to be serious and deep. No! If there is one book I would recommend for assigning it to students it would be “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. There is so much to learn about probabilities and models.

    Then “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco, where the main character applies Ockhams Razor in a Sherlok Holmes like fashion to solve a series of murders in a medieval monastery. But he fails somehow, ending up with even more questions. A bit more abstract, you could also read it as a critique on collecting hughe amounts of knowledge in the ivory tower.

    Finally, “The Road” by Cormack McCarthy is a dystopia of the post-ecosphere. All life is dying, only traumatised humans are left.

    Another reason for reading fiction is that you can teach something about storytelling and writing. You can’t deny that a hughe part of the scientific work is storytelling and writing, e.g. for presentations and papers.

    And you wouldn’t believe it: for very similar reasons we initiated a movie club in our lab, inviting all the students of the seminars and field courses as well. I always saw it as an opportunity to widen peoples perception of scientific work. Some movies afterwards ignited deep philosophical discussions. We mostly were watching movies with some relation to science, but not necessarily.
    For your movie club I’d suggest: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” by Wes Anderson, Jurassic Park, “The Fountain” by Darren Arronofsky, “Temple Grandin” by Mick Jackson.

  31. Put two poems from W.H. Hamilton at my blog, because I thought they might interest you in the above respect.

  32. I’ve never commented on a blog before, but had some thoughts on novels that might work in science…

    Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver would be a great way to talk about climate change. It is about a woman who discovers an enclave of monarch butterflies far afield from their migration route, and how they got there.

    Also the trifecta Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn are great reads and inspirational; written in the style of Socratic dialogue, they touch upon culture, society, the environment and evolution.

  33. Agreed. Great story with captivating people.

  34. I second the suggestion of Flight Behavior and other Barbara Kingsolver novels that have been suggested. Another book that comes to mind is Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.

    As an undergrad I took a class on climate change communication where we were assigned State of Fear, a work of fiction often cited by climate change deniers. This book led to the most interesting discussions by far, and really highlighted the power of storytelling- something that scientists need to recognize.

  35. Credentials concisely first to establish credibility of response. I taught writing/lit in Oregon higher ed for 20 years, including an honors seminar on environmental lit at Oregon State. Won teaching award and nomination. Taught my daughter at home for ten years following the end of my formal teaching career. She graduated cum laude, first group from Smith and admitted to grad school by Columbia, Penn, LSE, UCL, and Edinburgh. Also interviewed Princeton’s William Howarth, a lit prof, on environmental lit in 1990. Yadda. Yadda.

    My problem with the fiction taught in higher ed is that it is humorless prose presented as requiring the PhD priesthood for interpretation. Students associate college lit with high lit, with the so-called great books that they were forced to read in high school. So I wrote my own when I could find no selections offered by academic textbook manufacturers that were anything other than canonical. Hence, “North Sister Protocol and Other Prose” that includes short fiction with environmental themes as well as nonfiction narrative. Also “The North Sister Novel” that includes radical ecofeminists as characters. And “Seven Two,” a novel with fire as the central metaphor, and fire is, in my humble opinion, the greatest nature/culture metaphor. All titles can be found at amazon dot com with reviews, samples, and tables of contents for your perusal. All titles are available in both Kindle and paperback editions.

    Lastly, I’d suggest that you asked the wrong question, one that threatens students the moment it is uttered: “Have you read any good books lately?” It’s not a question; it’s a value judgment. The student is immediately put on the defensive and fears ridicule by mention of a title that is not “good” as in listed in the canon. How about an open-ended question, such as: What have you watched or read this week on or offline? Narrative is narrative wherever it is found.

  36. Very cool ideas here, some of which I will try to use in the future – thanks.

    Regarding a novel with science ideas at its core: “The Gate to Women’s Country” by Sherri Tepper is a great read about a post-apocalyptic world where women have re-engineered society to breed aggression out of the human race – unbeknownst to most men. Ideas about evolution, eugenics, sexual selection, sex roles, ecology, etc. abound and I think might be good fodder for an undergrad class.

  37. Perhaps a highly esteemed and awarded professor of literature can’t ask one’s students to assess the quality of the books they have read without being off putting. But a bio prof can easily make small chat like “Read any good books lately?” just as I might ask “what’s a great place for tacos in your part of town?” Or “Heard a good new album lately?”

  38. ‘Red Plenty’, Francis Spufford’s excellent novel about the Soviet Union, has two set piece chapters that would be great in class: 1) on algorithms and how computers work (in the context of trying to model the Soviet economy) and 2) on the growth of lung cancer in one of the characters. The chapters are probably pretty easy read without reading the whole novel (which isn’t a typical novel) and are almost creative non-fiction in some ways.

  39. As I said upthread, I’m in English Lit. Just one title to add to the list (because whenever I teach it in a GE lit. class, the STEM students perk up): Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s not as immediately accessible as the contemporary stuff that has been mentioned, but students are often drawn in by the name recognition and the interesting disparity between the movie/pop-culture version of the Creature and the novel’s depiction.

  40. After finishing up my undergrad last May, I tallied up all the non-science things I’d read in the past three years. The number was something pathetic, like 2 books/year — I’ve done much better since. During that time, I was never even _encouraged_ by science profs to read literature. If I didn’t know any better, it would have been easy for me to just assume that scientists don’t read fiction (or even anything other than papers in their field). Maybe your conversations with students are par for course at “teaching institutions” like yours, but at my undergrad institution (U. Minnesota), a prof just asking students if we’d read anything recently would be a HUGE improvement.

  41. In and out of my science studies I’ve always read enormous amounts non-assigned novels. During graduate school I was fortunate enough to have ecology professors who saw the value in reading material that was not strictly academic in nature as well. For me I need the additional reading on widely different subjects and in different writing styles for my thinking to be creative and not limited by artificial constraints.

  42. Not asking them to assess quality. Personally, I hate the use of narrative as the object of analysis, aka critical thinking. Tell your students that Skakespeare told stories to entertain and make a buck, not to launch a million and a half dissertations. Tell them that Faulkner was a great action writer because he knew that good writing is cinematic. It’s not about the words. It’s about the images, just as with good television and film. You can have them read “Turnabout” without telling them Faulkner wrote it. You can then have them read “The Bear” without telling them who wrote it. You can see Faulkner’s early mastery of action in “Turnabout” and then see the same prose techniques used in the battle to the death between Lion and Old Ben. “The Bear” is a terrific environmental narrative at the same time.

    Last example. I taught the dreaded required poetry survey course at night once that allowed me three full hours to connect poetry and film, word with image. I started by drawing the difference between prose and poetry on the board using a smiley face. Students perked up, including one who had an “ah ha” moment and commented that in high school she’d never understood the difference until then. When we reached Langston Hughes, I brought in a film of Senegal with him reading his work in voice over about returning to Africa. A student in the class from Senegal moved to the front of the room and sat mesmerized as she watched and listened. At the end of the course, I screened “Dead Poets Society” for the first part of the last class, then handed out the exam without saying a word. Every student in the class went right to work. They each had something to say in reaction to film. Nobody wrote an exam attempting to regurgitate what she or he thought I thought would be the correct interpretation of this or that poem.

  43. The Crooked Timber seminar is indeed excellent and conveniently can be downloaded as a PDF.

  44. Yes, definitely assign non-textbook reading to your students! You will not be alone. When I taught general microbiology at California State University I assigned Richard Preston’s THE HOT ZONE (narrative nonfiction about hemorrhagic fever viruses). There is no shortage of quality popular science books to choose from.

    Novels can also be an excellent choice to stimulate student interest in science topics. Many page-turning works of fiction feature real science themes. My own microbiology thriller Petroplague, about hydrocarbonoclastic (oil-eating) bacteria that contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city, was used by Prof. Larry Aaronson at Utica College in his microbiology class. Dr. Aaronson is a proponent of using fiction in science classes; check out his 2008 article on the subject: Focus on Microbiology Education 15: 2-4.

    (A free Teacher’s Guide to Petroplague is available.)

    For further suggestions of books featuring real science or scientists, check out the book reviews at; the comprehensive LabLit list; or the discussion at Bad Bugs Book Club.

  45. Oh my goodness! The fact that, of all people, science students don’t read literature – not even Asimov? ‘Am saving your blog to favorites in order to read your other posts. P.s. ‘am nowhere near college, just saddened that too many bright people make too many excuses in order to avoid reading, and so end up falling for all sorts of b.s.

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