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C LIT 210 A: Literature And Science

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
* *
Joint Sections: 
ENVIR 295 A, CHID 270 C
Gary Handwerk

Syllabus Description:

                            Course Syllabus: COMP LIT 210/CHID 270/ENVIR 295

Literature & Science: Coping with Risk: Composing Our Lives

 Winter 2021                                                                     Professor Gary Handwerk

Tues/Thur 10:30-12:20; on-line, synchronous               Office: A-402 Padelford    

E-mail:                                               Office Hours: Th 1-3 PM and by appt.

Canvas Site: Office Phone 543-2183 or 616-1208

TA: Raja Althobaiti (                               Office Hours: Tuesdays 1-3 PM and by appt.

(Note: all office hours will be on-line only)


About the course:

Modern science is typically understood as a research enterprise, one with practical applications, but essentially a process of investigation into or discovery of facts about the natural world.  It is that, to be sure.  But science is in equally fundamental ways a social, civic, cultural and political enterprise, deeply intertwined with the ways in which human beings define themselves and organize their activities.  This holds true, indeed is especially true, for non-scientists and non-researchers.  Our topic in this course will be this aspect of science: how it reaches into social life, shaping the intellectual frameworks through which we understand our world (and ourselves), affecting public processes of social and political decision-making, and influencing our daily interactions with people and with the natural world in ways that can be obvious or unobtrusive.

Our core material will be at a set of what one might term either natural history or public science texts.  Each deals with one or more scientific issues of wide social concern in its era; each was widely reviewed and broadly read; each had significant impact upon how the project of science has come to be socially construed and practiced.  These texts range from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859; selections only!), the seminal text for modern evolutionary theory, through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped launch modern environmental movements, to a trio of more recent texts dealing with climate change, ecology, epidemiology and public health.  Although different in substance and in style, all of them share one key feature: unusual rhetorical skill.  All are works carefully crafted to achieve wide readerships and to have a significant impact upon public debate and political decision-making—not only informing or educating the public about environmental issues, but also shaping the deep base of beliefs and values that frames social and political debates about public policies related to those issues.  This element—rhetorical effectiveness—will be our primary analytical focus.  Why, and even more centrally, how did these works succeed in having the impact that they did? 

In school, we often learn science primarily as a matter of facts, information and theories, plowing through textbooks, generally one discipline at a time.  But the influence of the sciences upon us persists and permeates our lives in myriad other ways as well. To approach this topic from the angle of the humanities will for us mean foregrounding one particular mode through which science has an impact: the power of stories and story-telling. Some of you may read scientific journals, at least occasionally, dipping into Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine or Transactions of the American Geophysical Union to read an article of particular relevance or interest for you.  For most of us (indeed, even for many scientists outside of their own disciplinary specialties), however, science comes to us framed by narrative, embedded in anecdotes or reporting or personal memoir, couched in terms of the ethical or political implications a particular theory or discovery is presumed to have, or set into a broader historical perspective (hi-story, itself a form of story).  As these options suggest, narrative is not a single thing; it has various forms (termed genres) that function more or less appropriately in varied settings.  So another part of what we will be doing in this class is to hone your awareness of genres—how different ones are constructed with an eye to specific reader expectations, and what devices particular genres employ.

Learning to read these kinds of texts from an alert “literary” perspective is a skill that we can also bring to bear on non-literary texts.  Most kinds of discourse make extensive use of “literary” sorts of strategies, deploying not just narrative structures, but features such as imagery, allegory, tone and other elements typical of literary texts to help them achieve their rhetorical purposes.  Indeed, it is rare that scientific expertise proves to be the sole determining factor even for decision-making about what one might see as scientific issues—the reality of global warming, for instance, or the decision to protect or not protect an endangered species, or the choice to approve (or not) a specific chemical or medication for wide-spread use.  It is even rarer for politicians or bureaucrats or activists to refrain from the slanting of perspective that rhetoric can provide (thus the not-so-distant renaming of global warming as “climate change”).  So the analysis we will practice in this class is in an important way transferable to the reading and the writing you may do in very different contexts.

Comparative Literature 210 will be a writing-intensive course, but in a class as large as this one, much of the writing will necessarily be informal, low-stakes, ungraded writing.  You will be writing in your e-journal on a regular basis for every class.  That writing will provide me with one key measure of your engagement in the course and your active reading of the texts we will be covering.  For this informal writing, PLEASE SET UP A WORD DOCUMENT AS YOUR VIRTUAL JOURNAL, TITLED WITH A FILE NAME LIKE THIS: Your name.your course number (thus: handwerk.cl210, althobaiti.envir495), which you will be asked to submit via e-mail, NOT on Canvas, on a regular basis throughout the quarter.  Although you will be doing your response writing both inside and outside of class at varied times, you MUST cut-and-paste every entry into your e-journal.  You will also be doing: 1) a series of three longer, graded analytical essays, and 2) an ungraded response essay on Refuge, and 3) a final ungraded self-reflective essay about your experience in the course.  You have the option to revise and resubmit one of your three longer essays.

COVID-19 Addendum: All that I say above in general terms has special salience in the year of COVID-19.  We have all seen first-hand how science, psychology, economics, human behavior and politics intersect…not always to the benefit of any of them.  The texts and assignments in this course, revised in some significant ways to reflect the on-line format and the current situation, can all help us learn practice making connections across these disparate spheres of life—to com-pose our lives.  This, in turn, is a key piece of coping with the rapidly shifting, deeply uncertain world we now inhabit.

Course Texts:

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring                         Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water   Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Additional Course Readings available on Canvas Web site (in the Files section, organized by folders according to author name, and in the Modules)


Graded Work:

            Analytical essays (3): single-spaced,, minimal margin s       20% each; 60% of final grade

            Attendance, participation, in-class writing, Refuge response 20% of final grade

            Journal/Self-reflective essay                                                  20% of final grade

Journals: The writing journals will include two kinds of informal, ungraded writing.  Pre-class e-posts will primarily be responses to question prompts on the reading we will be covering for the next class, or involve modest on-line research on a related topic.  The in-class writing will be more personal in nature, reflective about your own past experiences with science and science education, your understanding of and experience with nature, or texts and topics from that specific day’s class.   

Analytical essays will be graded on a 10-point scale, with 9 = 4.0, 8 = 3.5, 7 = 3.0, etc.  Late papers will have 1 point deducted per day that they are late.  You will be writing three of these, each a one-page, single-spaced, no-margin paper (1100-1500 words), on topics circulated a week before the papers are due.  You will have a chance to revise one of them before submitting your portfolio.  . 

Course Learning Objectives:

  • Practice of and metacognitive reflection upon active reading skills, with attention to rhetorical strategies and purposiveness
  • Responsive, interrogative analytical writing, based on careful reading of texts and assignments
  • Understanding of how science enters into public, civic discourse
  • Awareness of the role played by stories and by narrative structures in shaping public interpretation of scientific issues, as well as other elements of persuasive writing
  • Familiarity with key issues and debates with regard to several environmental topics: pollution, climate change, evolution, epidemiology and sustainability
  • Comprehension of the Principles of Narrative Analysis and ability to apply them effectively
  • On-line objectives: learning to participate actively and effectively in virtual discussion groups, learning to make more effective use of virtual communication tools, self-reflection about the nature and effectiveness of on-line instruction

Other Essential Information:

  1. The amount and the different kinds of writing you will be doing may make this a challenging course for you. In addition, the active close reading that I expect may be something that you have not had much occasion to practice.  Especially this quarter, when we’re on-line I encourage you to ask questions in class chat rooms and/or to contact me or Raja Althobaiti in on-line office hours for further help.  It is your responsibility to come to us with issues you feel are getting in the way of your effective learning.   
  2. The median grade for the course is likely to be close to the norm for classes in the humanities at UW, somewhere around 3.3. That isn’t the bottom grade; it’s the median. This means that it is possible to get a grade below 3.3 even though you have been doing all of the assigned work and submitting everything on time. 
  3. Attendance and participation (in groups and in-class writing) are required. Moreover, they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. We will take attendance in on-line sessions and keep track of participation in on-line discussion groups, as well as using your Canvas discussion posts and your e-journal to help us assess your performance

Academic Integrity:

We assume that students will complete all assignments and other course components in good faith and by doing original work. The Student Conduct Code outlines various forms of academic misconduct, including (but not limited to):

  • Plagiarism
  • Submission of someone else’s work as your own
  • Multiple submissions of the same work in different courses without instructor permission
  • Engaging in behavior prohibited by an instructor
  • Unauthorized recording, and/or subsequent dissemination of instructional content

Failure to adhere to this code of ethics will result in referral for possible disciplinary action as described in the Student Conduct Code. You are ALWAYS expected to properly credit the ideas and words of others in your papers. Remember that plagiarism can include using someone else’s words without proper citation, using someone else’s words with citation but without quotation marks, and paraphrasing

Disability Accommodations:

It is our goal to insure that our learning environment is accessible to everyone.  If you have a disability and need special accommodations for note-taking, deadlines or any other aspect of your coursework, please contact Disability Resources for Students, (206) 543-8924 (V/TTY),  If you have a documented disability, we will receive an e-mail from DRS that discusses necessary accommodations.  We are happy to work with you in any way that we can to facilitate your learning in this class! 

Religious Accommodations: 

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy ( Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of the quarter using the Religious Accommodations Request form (


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion:


The University of Washington supports an inclusive learning environment where diverse perspectives are recognized, respected, and seen as a source of strength. In this course, we will strive to create welcoming spaces where everyone feels included and engaged regardless of their backgrounds and experiences.

Guidance to Students Taking Courses outside the US:


Faculty members at U.S. universities – including the University of Washington – have the right to academic freedom, which includes presenting and exploring topics and content that other governments may consider to be illegal and, therefore, choose to censor. Examples may include topics and content involving religion, gender and sexuality, human rights, democracy and representative government, and historic events.


If, as a UW student, you are living outside of the United States while taking courses remotely, you are subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction. Local authorities may limit your access to course material and take punitive action towards you. Unfortunately, the University of Washington has no authority over the laws in your jurisdiction or how local authorities enforce those laws.


If you are taking this course outside of the United States, please exercise caution by examining the full syllabus, including all topics covered in lectures, readings, discussions, and assignments, to ensure you are in compliance with the laws of your local jurisdiction.





Course Calendar: COMP LIT 210/CHID 270/ENVIR 295

Literature & Science: Coping with Risk: Composing Our Lives


January 5         --         Via Zoom:  Course Introduction and Tech Overview

January 7         --         Darwin…in brief; Phelan, “How We Evolve”

Readings for Weeks 1 & 2 are all on the course Canvas Web site

  • Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (some required, some optional)
  • Zimmer, Evolution (optional)
  • Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (required)
  • Phelan, “How We Evolve” (required)


January 12       --         Leopold, “The Land Ethic”

January 14       --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring


January 19       --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

January 21       --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

JANUARY 22             --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #1 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


January 26       --         The Weight of Numbers: Environmental Epidemiology (Devra Davis)

January 28       --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water


February 2       --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water

February 4       --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water

FEBRUARY 6            --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #2 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


February 9       --         Global Warming/Climate Change:  Changing the Narrative

February 11     --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming


February 16     --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

February 18     --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Dargan Frierson visit)


February 23     --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

February 25     --         Weart contl; Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Siege of Miami” (Canvas File)

FEBRUARY   27        --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #3 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


March 2           --         Composing Wholeness, Re-Composing Ourselves: (Terry Tempest Williams)

March 4           --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge


March 9           --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

March 11         --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

MARCH 13                --         JOURNALS DUE (by midnight, via e-mail)


MARCH 19                --         RESPONSE ESSAY on REFUGE DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)

Catalog Description: 
Introduces the rich and complex relationship between science and literature from the seventeenth century to the present day. Students examine selected literary, scientific, and philosophical texts, considering ways in which literature and science can be viewed as forms of imaginative activity.
Department Requirements Met: 
Pre-req to Declare Literature Major
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
January 25, 2021 - 4:20pm