Assigning literature in a science class

Standard

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?