Syllabus (2012) – graduate seminar

Biocultures: A Seminar

English 355, Vanderbilt University — A graduate seminar on science and literature.  Taught by Jay Clayton.

Since the heyday of the science wars in the 1990s when radical critiques of science provoked a backlash in the scientific community, a shift has occurred in the relationship between science, medicine, and the humanities.  New models range from cognitive studies and evolutionary psychology, which tend to emphasize what science can contribute to the humanities, to models that emphasize the way literary studies can affect scientific and medical practice by influencing public policy.  In the latter case, focusing on the social, ethical, and cultural implications of science gives literary scholars an opportunity to intervene in established interdisciplinary conversations that have real consequences beyond the academy.

In this seminar we will concentrate on dystopian fictions and films such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), Kazua Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010),  as well as other recent novels such as Ian McEwan;s Saturday (2005) and Richard Powers’s Generosity (2009); science fiction stories by Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress, and Greg Egan; and theoretical texts in science studies by Lorraine Daston, Lennard Davis, Peter Galison, Sander Gilman, John Guillory, Evelyn Fox Keller, Nikolas Rose, Steven Shapin, Priscilla Wald, and Lisa Zunshine.

To provide hands-on experience in interdisciplinary research methods, students will join research teams in a medical school laboratory with the goal of identifying a literary work that explores the social or cultural implications of the lab’s investigations in areas such as breast feeding, cancer research, contagious diseases, vaccine safety, genetic screening, cloning, organ transplants, pain, and sexuality research.  Students will learn how grants are developed in the sciences; how multi-disciplinary teamwork occurs in the medical world; and how to generate papers on social, ethical, and cultural issues raised by science and medicine.

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