The Aesthetic Joy of Writing about Research
On a Thursday afternoon around an oversized table in the Allen Building, a student says they’re unsure about the aesthetic possibility of pipetting (scientifically pouring out fluids through thin tubes) as it appears in the first draft of their essay. The student’s fellow classmates disagree—the pipetting must stay.
They discuss the lines with the tension of defensive readers, whose favorite lines in a piece have been threatened. One student mentions the satisfaction that comes from reading about the formation of small, perfectly round circles; another comments that pipetting is “an art of its own,” and that it appears as such in the draft; someone with less pretense of literary terms, says bluntly: “This is a really scientific-y question but—did you get the bonds you wanted?”
The course is Professor Cathy Shuman’s “Writing about Research” course, offered through the Duke Department of English for the first time this spring 2017 semester. Originally intended as a course for juniors and seniors to write creatively—and a little more loosely—about their theses, the course allows students to write creative non-fiction about any research they have conducted, either qualitatively or quantitatively, during their four years at Duke.
In today’s session, the eight enrolled students are addressing each others’ writing on highly specific topics: sea turtle scars, the difficulty of running gels early on Saturday mornings, and the workability of an alarm clock scene, written by one student to describe waking up in Accra, Ghana, during the first week of his eight-week global health trip. The scenes are all intimately written—touching on emotions from monotony (a narrator’s process is so slow they are tempted to smudge their numbers) to peeled poignancy (a narrator confronts their own identity while soliciting consent forms from study participants). The writing illustrates a type of humanness, which undersides the fact and foil of science, but which is rarely seen in scientific writing itself.
The process is intentional. Professor Shuman is as an English professor who finds the aesthetic joy of English in everything (“even emailing—I can tell you which of my students has good grammar in their emails”), and created “Writing about Research” to help her students find the aesthetic joy in their specialized work. Arguing that we often separate the intellectual from the personal too sharply, Shuman eschews the separation; she is “deeply interested in how people position themselves toward their intellectual lives.”
“I really like the idea of bringing them together,” Professor Shuman says. “Yes, you’re really passionate about dissecting those mice—there’s a passion to that, and I want that. The sense that you can feel emotion about academic things, and that you can bring that emotion out by writing about it in a different way.”
Politically, as the “interdisciplinary” approach is increasingly applauded and all-present in academia, Professor Shuman also created “Writing about Research” to leverage the approach’s popularity. In positive ways—as “interdisciplinary” can at times lead to the commodification of the arts, or become code for the encroachment and increasingly-overwhelming power of science at American universities.
“I really want to accomplish the opposite of that. I want to focus and foreground the aesthetic —to have students think about the language of research from an aesthetic point of view. What phrases, metaphors, and figurative ideas are there in the language of research, and how can they use them creatively?”
Considering the class is currently stocked with scientists, Professor Shuman cannot help but admit that she also created “Writing about Research” because she gets joy from teaching in the delightfully foreign terrain.
“I force them to write in a way that I can understand!” Shuman says. “It’s one of those mutually beneficial things. It’s cool for them to learn to talk about lncRNA, and it’s also cool for me to learn about all this cool stuff I know nothing about. I’m a great litmus test for them!”
The spring 2017 course, which has units on describing research phenomena and processes creatively, as well as intertwining research with life outside of research—culminates in 18-20 page creative pieces. Beyond this semester, Professor Shuman is hopeful about teaching the course again. “I do want to teach it again, for all the reasons I said I wanted to teach it in the first place. It’s been really fun.”