Information FIRST YEAR SEMINAR: FYS 145---Fall 2009 


Policies and Course Information

Course description

Science and literature are regarded as two distinct disciplines, but in fact good writing in science is also good literature, and reading a good science book can be as pleasurable as reading a good novel. A good science writer takes specialized technical material and makes it clear, understandable, and compelling. A great science writer may even make it beautiful. In this course we will read many examples of the best science writing today, which is being published in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and in books for the general reader. In addition to discussing the science that informs each book, we'll try to understand the techniques that skillful authors use to achieve their ends, especially the use of rhetorical devices that personalize ideas and that make complex arguments seem simple and comprehensible. We'll investigate how good science writers interweave narrative and exposition, and how individual writers develop unique voices. 

In addition to a lot of reading, we will also do a lot of writing. By emulating good science writers in our own essays, and by discussing our own work as well as others, we will develop skills in the art of explanation, skills that will serve us well outside the seminar, at school and at work. In addition to numerous exercises and short essays, each seminar member will write a lengthy term essay popularizing a scientific topic of his or her choosing. 

The goals of the course, in short, are to develop an appreciation of good writing about science, and by practicing the techniques of the masters, to become better writers ourselves. 

Readings Readings

The following books are required for the course: 

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 edited by Jerome Groopman 

The Best American Science Writing 2008 edited by Sylvia Nasr

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin  by David Quammen

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks 

Longitude by Dava Sobel 

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner 

Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White 

In addition, selections from newspapers, magazines, and books will be handed out in class and/or placed on reserve as readings for specific classes. 

A bibliography of other suggested readings in the sciences will also be handed out in class and made available on the FYS 145 website. Reading books from this list will help you strengthen your understanding of popular science writing. The suggested readings list may also provide ideas and material for your term paper. 

Classes Classes

Classes are held in the Science Center Seminar Room, 348 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10:00 AM to 11:15 AM. The format is that of a seminar, and since class participation is a significant portion of your grade, your attendance is absolutely essential. 

Class activities will include discussion of the readings, of course. I'll specify reading assignments and suggest important points to consider as we go along. In addition to the readings, however, there'll be at least one writing assignment for class each week, and we'll spent part of each class reading and commenting on each others' work. From time to time we may even carry out short writing tasks in class. In addition to attending class, therefore, you are responsible for coming to class prepared. Take notes as you do your reading; bring the notes and any questions you have to class for discussion with your classmates and the instructors. Help make each class a lively experience for all of us. 

Grading Grading and Assignments

As the title of the course suggests, "Writing About Science" is a writing-intensive. As noted, there will be short weekly writing assignments (sometimes longer), and occasional writing exercises in class. We'll look at things you write in class and critique them as a class, and your participation in these sessions, both as a writer and a critic will be an important part of the course. The culmination of the class will be a longer article, dealing with a subject of your choosing, that presents a topic in current science at a level that can be appreciated by an audience of interested laypeople.  The longer article will be part of an on line "popular science magazine" which you'll plan and produce with the rest of the class. You also should keep an electronic journal (a Word document), recording your thoughts on the readings, research notes, observations you made in class, questions that occurred to you, or anything related to the course. The electronic journal will be turned at the last class on December 10. There will also be a take-home final exam for which you'll be asked to write several short essays about the readings and science writing in general. The final exam will be due on Thursday, December 17, at Noon.

A note on spelling and grammar. I expect that any writing you do outside of class and turn in for a grade has been carefully checked for spelling and proofread attentively to avoid typos, inappropriate word usage, and bad grammar. Your computer can make a first pass at this, but don't rely on your word processor to catch all the errors. It will breeze right by a sentence like "Eye found myself inn deep trouble bee caws aye didn't reed carefully." And your computer can't tell recognize the two errors in "Its clear that the computer loses it's way sometimes." Intelligent reading and intelligent writing go hand in hand, and you want to learn to do both. 

Grading percentages break down as follows: 

Weekly assignments, in-class writing: 60%   

Final Exam 20% 

Classroom participation and journal 20% 

Instructor Instructor for the course and how to reach him

The seminar leader is 

Larry Marschall 
Physics Department 
Masters Hall 206/207 
Telephone x6026 


My official office hours are Tuesday, 1:10 to 2:30 PM and MWF, 9 -11:00 AM, but I am in at most other times except MWF 1-3 PM,  when I am in for class. If you have difficulty in finding me, see me after class for an appointment, send me an email, or talk to the Physics Department Secretary, Judy Jones, in Masters Room 111. 

The Peer Learning Associate for the course is

Cheryl Tevlin, Class of 2010, English Major


Cheryl will be available regularly from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM on the first floor of the library to help with your writing, reading, or any other problems. Contact her by email if you need to see her at another time or if you have trouble finding her.

Honor Code Absence and Honor Code Policies

Class participation is essential in a small seminar setting, and, except for serious medical or family emergencies or religious holidays, I will expect you at every session. Please contact me if there are any problems with attendance, and let me know (preferably in advance) if scheduling problems arise. 

Be familiar with the honor code. All written materials you turn in for this course should be your own work. Make yourself aware proper citation practice when you quote the words, data, or ideas of others. Consult with the instructors if you have any questions; the librarians in Musselman Library are also willing and able to give you help in this regard.