Writing & Speaking for a Public: Science, Politics, & the Law

ENGLISH 290S-4.02

“It may be what you think I said, but it wasn’t what I meant!”  There is very little that is more important to our daily existence than communication, and very little that is more difficult.  In the words of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “it is impossible to say just what I mean.” As difficult as it is to communicate effectively in our daily lives, it is even more challenging to get the message across to a broader public, especially through all of the noise. 

This class will take up the challenge to learn to communicate more effectively by studying three areas that are central to contemporary life: science, politics, and the law.  The class will be divided into three units in which students will study (and write) science journalism, political oratory, and legal cases with an eye towards what constitutes effective communication. 

How did Abraham Lincoln change the course of history with 272 words?  What power did Martin Luther King harness when he told a nation about his dream?  What captured the imagination of musicians and the public when Barack Obama chanted, “Yes We Can”? 

How do the best science writers enchant the world for a general public?  How might careful communication about scientific research and discoveries influence not only public opinion, but also policy debates and decisions?

How do the best legal writers construct arguments that persuade judges and juries?  How do they use the tools of language and story telling not only to win cases, but also to influence public opinion?

These are some of the questions we will address as we read some of the finest examples of persuasive communication.  Students will have the opportunity to hone their own written and oral communication skills as they practice these different forms of public communication.  Writing exercises will include a range of forms from political speeches to op eds; science journalism to legal narrative.  We will also have the opportunity to study and practice what constitutes effective public speaking in these areas as well. 

Ethical inquiry will be a central focus of this class as we discuss not only effective communication, but also the responsibilities associated with political oratory, scientific journalism, and legal writing. The objective of this class is to teach students how powerful communication can be, and what ethical concerns are involved in communicating effectively and clearly about politics, science, and law.  One third of this class will be devoted entirely to science writing.  To communicate effectively about science will require students to have some familiarity with the scientific issues we will be discussing as well as to understand both the impact of science on society and the social influences on scientific research and the ethical responsibilities it entails.  Science will also be relevant to the legal cases we consider, which will focus on criminality and biotechnology.