This week I met a chemistry professor from Colorado who includes a creative writing assignment in his inorganic chemistry classes. This is not an icebreaker in an introductory course: inorganic chemistry is usually considered third-year college chemistry, a class populated by science majors. Why, then, spend the time away from a syllabus already jammed with information that chemists need to know in a course already filled with true believers in the subject? He tells me that he's a strong believer that analogy produces innovation, and the writing assignment is meant to encourage students who have made progress along the disciplinary path to think about ways to break away from the course of science as usual. This strikes me as a much needed intervention in undergraduate science because the rewards that fall from creating new knowledge are delayed in fields like chemistry, where acquring the building blocks of the theory and the practice takes years.
In other words, in a subject where doing "experiments" means that you're reproducing procedures have been done by generations of students and whose outcomes are already known and indeed receive high marks only if you have reproduced these results (or, in some more liberal-minded environments, can explain why you did not achieve the predicted result), students' ability to contribute new knowledge to the discipline happens very late in their academic careers, if at all. To do genuine experiments, students eiither have to wait until they have proceeded further in their coursework or they have to make the effort to pursue chemistry outside lectures and required labs, say, as a research assistants.
Professor Keith Kester keeps the spirit of discovery alive by urging students to consider that the familiar does not need to remain so even in a class designed to teach a fixed body of knoweldge. After all, what's now done may not be what is always done. In literary study, defamiliarization is a familiar concept. To take one well-known example: in Gulliver's Travels, Guilliver meets the Lilliputians so that Guilliver's readers can imagine what the human form looks like through eyes belonging to people one-twelfth Gulliver's size. He then encounters the Brobdingnagians so that he can inspect the minutiae of persons twelve times his size. The shift in literal perspective in an era in which microscopes and telescopes became increasingly common household objects allows the familiar human form to be experienced as alien to itself.
Indeed, if I might be allowed a digression of the sort for which Jonathan Swift, the author of Guilliver's Travels, is so well known, I'd like to interject here another story about the teaching of Guilliver's Travels that produced a moment of supreme defamiliarization for another colleague. She teaches literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; her students are mainly firefighters, police officers, and other public servants in search of advanced degrees. They are also already well-trained in other fields, men and women who are usually working 40+ hour/week jobs, who often have families and considerable other responsibilities. This professor's particular challenge is to show her students why -- in their week otherwise filled with pressing, life-threatening emergencies -- students should read an early eighteenth century novel that's perhaps now best known as a children's book or a Disney short. Her students are smart and willing, she says, but time and efficiency are uppermost on their minds. She, however, had no trouble the week she taught the first section of Gulliver's Travels. Why? Because class members came to class eager to discuss the episode where the royal residence is engulfed in flame and Gulliver urinates on it to put out the conflagaration.
The Lilliputians respond to Gulliver's actions in shock and horror: he had desecrated the home of the queen. Readers of Guilliver's own day took extreme pleasure in how magnifying bodily functions made them useful in new ways. Or, as my Chicago, Stanford, and Madison students have often put it, "they love the scat." (Gulliver needs to defecate in addition to urinate, and the Lilliputions quickly figure out ways to manage the overwhelming volume of fecal matter Gulliver produces.)
In post-911 New York, JJCCJ students came to class fired up because the Lilliputians had clearly not finished their emergency preparedness training, and this was a failure of their civic system. Swift's novel was to them a clear indictment of their disaster preparation. Gulliver's peeing out the fire contained the central moral -- not the central joke -- of the story: Swift had introduced Gulliver to the Lilliputions to show the need for a better civil infrastructure that included EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and the like and knowledge about ways to deploy them in crisis situations.
The uniformity of class members' responses struck the professor who had, as any other reader of Gulliver I have known, never considered the book in that context, yet her students thought of it in no other.
To return, then, to the inorganic chemistry assignment, Keith reports that he often learns as much about chemistry from the creative writing assignment he assigns as the students themselves do. A highlight of his years of teaching was an essay produced by an undergraduate that bears the title "Ten Moral Lessons that I have Learned from Boron." One can speculate that some of these lessons included the sad fact (from Boron's point of view) that it is so close to the star of organic chemistry -- Carbon -- in its behavior, but it doesn't share in Carbon's glory as the foundation of life on earth. Keith has promised me a copy of this essay, and I look forward to being able to share it with the author's permission. I was ready to send Keith back to Colorado from our conference in Chicago a day early because I am beyond eager to have my hands on this essay!