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Where STEM meets literature

The College of Humanities’ new Great Books course has been a hit, according to faculty and students.

“I’ve loved teaching in Great Books, a chance to hear other professors and actually talk across disciplines with students,” said Scott Black, professor of English. “It’s like being back in college.”

“Each week it’s been a pleasure to engage my first-year students in thoughtful, lively conversations,” said Erin Beeghly, associate professor of philosophy. Beeghly was initially hesitant about teaching books she had no part in choosing. “It was an intellectual trust fall,” she admitted.

“Great Books offers to both students and faculty a unique chance to engage with a kaleidoscope of perspectives and thoughts, opening up the chance for new and thoughtful dialogue one page at a time,” said Sean Lawson, professor of communication.

Students agree. “I hope I can find other classes like the Great Books class in future semesters,” said Bennett Gardner, a first-year student studying accounting, who calls the course “intellectually stimulating.”

In fact, the College of Humanities will offer Great Science Books (HUM 1550) in spring 2024. Taught by top faculty from philosophy, world languages and cultures, communication and writing and rhetoric studies, students will explore a series of books, historical and modern, including primary texts and contemporary critiques to question and challenge how science is understood both as an object and method of inquiry.

“With the success and popularity of Great Books this semester and the exciting feedback we’ve received from students and faculty, we’ve created Great Science Books to reach even more students and to dive into key science texts through the centuries,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “Scientific discoveries were published in book form and circulated around the globe to spread findings from culture to culture. Like travelers of old, STEM students as well as humanities students will find this course to be eye-opening.”

Great Science Books will explore discoveries, the idea of objectivity of science over the centuries, the popularization of science findings, and the influence of science on society through primary texts. Leading faculty across the humanities disciplines will lecture and lead intensive small group discussions on influential texts spanning more than 800 years across cultures and contents, The faculty and texts will include:

  • Mujeeb Khan, assistant professor of world languages and cultures: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s “Incoherence of the Philosophers” (~1100)
  • Jonah Schupbach, associate professor of philosophy: Galileo’s“Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” (1632)
  • Stephen Irish, associate instructor of philosophy: Jane Marcet’s “Conversations on Chemistry” (1806)
  • Joyce Havstad, associate professor of philosophy: Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” (1971)
  • Sean Lawson, professor of communication: Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society” (1987)
  • Maureen Mathison, associate professor of writing and rhetoric studies: Evelyn Fox Keller’s “A Feeling for the Organism” (1983)

Like the current Great Books course, which combines virtuoso faculty lectures followed by small discussion groups led by faculty and senior graduate students to provide a learning experience often reserved for upper-division – or other major-focused – classes, Great Science Books faculty and students will continue to learn through formal lecture, analysis, questioning and discussion.

Clearly, the format works.

“Great Books has been my favorite class during my first semester here at the U. The topics we’ve covered have been wide in subject matter yet all interesting, the professors care and know about their subjects and want you to learn their passion, and as an introvert, the discussions have been my favorite part of the course,” said Bennett.

Beeghly agrees “My students are also just the best.”

Michael Middleton, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Humanities, says the Great Science Books course appeals to all types of students, including those looking for dynamic general education opportunities, those hoping to learn more about academic pathways in the humanities, and those students in other disciplines, including STEM, who want to complement their coursework with an opportunity to consider the ethical, cultural, and social contexts of their primary course of study.

Jonah N Schupbach, associate professor of philosophy, is excited to teach “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” in Great Science Books, to bring home the point of how unorthodox and entertaining real scientific practice can be.

“A careful read-through of ‘Dialogue’ leaves us with a much more complicated but accurate understanding of scientific methodology, experimentation, and progress,” said Schupbach. “We see firsthand in this delightful book that basic ideas we were all taught in our early science education are overly simplistic and naive. Actual scientific practice and development is much messier (and far more interesting) than the ‘textbook model!’ Also, Galileo’s writing is just great fun, including biting sarcasm and masterful rhetorical flourish. Students won’t want to miss this course; by surveying great books such as this, the course is likely to change the way students think about science entirely.”

Joyce Havstad, associate professor of philosophy, plans to explore Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man,” which documents Goodall’s first 10 years observing chimps in Africa. Havstad said, “Goodall pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be discoverable. We can all learn from someone who changes our sense of what’s possible.”

Another book that students will examine during the spring semester will be Jane Marcet’s “Conversations on Chemistry” taught by Stephen Irish, associate instructor of philosophy. Marcet’s book was the best-selling chemistry book for the first half of the nineteenth century.

“It was the starting point for many lay readers, and also for many scientists, who were interested to understand the recently-transformed science of chemistry,” said Irish. “It was highly influential as a model for the popularization of science and was widely imitated. It is also an engaging and interesting read that offers a window into this crucial period of scientific development.”

Maureen Mathison, associate professor of writing and rhetoric studies, is looking forward to introducing feminist science studies to students, to understand the experience of women scientists over the years.

Students looking to fulfill their HUM requirement with a disciplinary and unique team-taught course can now register for Great Science Books in the spring.