Introduction to Nonfiction Writing


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ENGL 305, “Introduction to Nonfiction Writing” (WRITING AGAINST TYPE: SCIENCE AND MEDICINE), Thu 2-4:20, Taper Hall 111, Professor Muske-Dukes

Our focus in this course will be on narrative – the “story” --as it emerges from the texts of science and medical writing. We will borrow an approach from crime detection and investigate how a narrative is “built” from a series of facts. A required text is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the “biography” of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman in 1940’s Baltimore, whose tissues (after death) were preserved at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and produced an “immortal” strain of “hela” (for Henrietta Lacks) cells, reproduced endlessly in laboratories and experiments everywhere throughout the world. We will also begin with two brief essay-examples of science writing – and thoughts on the story – including Lawrence Krauss’ “The Lies of Science Writing” (WSJournal) and “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World” (NYT) by Amy Harmon.
We will draw on the very brief example of the Krauss essay for a first assignment – an “imitation” of his approach, this will be followed by a longer story, based on the autism “profile”. The detective work, or research, will focus on your reading and “discovering” (in detective fashion) the many voices of contemporary science writers – as well as the texts and essays of great scientists and science essayists as well as medical doctors like Oliver Sacks. Each student will be required to “present” a science or medical writer to the class over the course of the semester. A portfolio demonstrating revision and research along with collected and revised writings by each student will be reviewed a the end of the semester.

Rebecca Skloot’s book will be referred to regularly in class discussion – and a long paper, due at the end of the semester, will follow some of her leads in focusing on how the story of a medical phenomenon can be told as a human narrative with human interest drama.

The focus here is not on “science fiction” or popular science-tech “romances” – it will be on hard science and medicine – and on the great and innovative thinkers of science and “discoverers” in medicine. Random names to know include great biologists, cosmologists and writers: Darwin, Michael Faraday, Einstein, Primo Levi, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Philip Plalt, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Richard Lewontin, Peter Medawar, Karl Zimmer, Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Natalie Angier, Gina Kolata, Dennis Overbye, Gina Kolata, Michio Kahu, Margaret Wertheim, Ian Stewart… Each class member will “present” a science or medical experience or practitioner – as narrative – to the class. Revision of all work is very important – try to complete revisions within ten days of the original assignment. We will be following the workshop model.

Titles –

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot

Feynman, a graphic-novel biography, Ottaviani & Myrick

Physics of the Fringe, Margaret Wertheim

Humor – a NYTimes Op Ed piece (mine) “Evil Science Runs Amok” , June 10, 1993

First Week – (January 12th) Introductions. Book discussion, discussion of assignments and portfolio. First Assignment - Find a “Science Lie” (or a wacky “thought experiment”, like Einstein’s Gedanken) and tell its story, a la Krauss – who wrote a book called “The Physics of Star Trek” as a joke. (“People are intimidated by physics, but not by Star Trek.”) About 750 words – for next class. Make copies for all. Begin reading The Immortal Life…

2nd Week (January 19th) Discussion of assignments – and first chapters of “The Immortal Life..” Choose your science or medical writer for class presentation – we will schedule presentations. Discuss what narrative is and how science and medical facts can be told in narrative form. Also how to conduct an interview with practitioners – with guest visitors to class? (Immortal Life)
3rd Week (January 26th) Continue discussion of first assignment. Begin research on a science or medical story of your own. Discussion. Assignment: read Margaret Wertheim’s description of Richard Feynman’s attempt to re-create Newton’s proof in Euclidean geometry. Then chooose a famous scientist or medical analyst (Galen?) from any time in history and conduct an imaginary “interview” with that individual about one of his/her discoveries. Research facts of the “story”. First presentation of science or medical writer.
4th Week (February 2nd) Read and discuss brief story assignments. Medical stories – like the Autism account, NYT. Discuss Immortal Life – 2nd Presentation.
5th Week - (February 9) “Interview” assignments due. Immortal Life. Presentation.
6th Week - (February 16) “Interview” discussion. Discuss research on your own science story - Presentation.

7th Week – (Feb. 23) Possible guest – Professor Michael Quick, Neuroscientist - questions, re his science “story”. Presentation.

8th Week (Feb. 29) Detective work – questions re long science or medical story. (a la the NYT “Autism” profile. Discussion: portfolios. Immortal Life. Presentation.
9th Week (March 1) Discussion of progress of long science or medical story – read excerpts – revision. Immortal Life. Presentation.
10th Week (March 8) More excerpts from long science story – works in progress.

Immortal Life. Presentation.
March 12 -17th SPRING BREAK
11th Week (March 22nd) Discussion of developing science or medical story. Immortal Life. Guest visitor – M.G. Lord, science writer, USC instructor – questions, “interview”.
12th Week (March 29) Discuss revision of short science or medical writing assignments + long science or medical story. Immortal Life. Presentation.
13th Week, (April 5) Revisions, excerpts. Presentation.
14th Week (April 12th) Discussion of revisions, final copy for portfolio. Presentaton.

15th Week, (April 19th) Detective work techniques, discuss. PORTFOLIO.

16th Week, (April 26th) FINAL PORTFOLIO, class party!
April 27, last day of classes

Exams – May 2-9

Commencement May 11th, 2012

Writing, revisions, final portfolio with all assignments and revisions completed – 90% of grade

Presentations, 10% of grade

Professor Carol Muske-Dukes

Office hours Tuesdays 2-3 and by appt.

Office Taper 409 – 213 740 2824
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