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CHID 250 E: Special Topics: Introduction to the History of Ideas

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
MGH 241
Joint Sections: 
ENVIR 495 D, C LIT 210 A
Gary Handwerk

Syllabus Description:

                      Course Syllabus: COMP LIT 210//CHID 250/ENVIR 495

                  Literature & Science: Coping with Risk: Composing Our Lives

 Spring 2020                                                                    Professor Gary Handwerk

Tues/Thur 10:30-12:20                                                   Office: A-402 Padelford    

E-mail:                                            Office Hours: Th 1-3 PM on Zoom

Canvas Site:    Office Phone :

TA: Leah Rubinsky (B-534 Padelford                           Office Hours: Wed 1:30-3:30 PM on Zoom

(Note: all office hours will be on-line only, indefinitely and in accordance with public health and UW directions)

About the course:

Modern science is typically understood as a research enterprise, one with practical applications, to be sure, but as essentially a process of investigation into or discovery of facts about the natural world.  It is that, to be sure.  But science is in equally fundamental ways a social, civic, cultural and political enterprise, deeply intertwined with the ways in which human beings define themselves and organize their activities.  This holds true, indeed is especially true, for non-scientists and non-researchers.  Our topic in this course will be this aspect of science: how it reaches into social life, shaping the intellectual frameworks through which we understand our world (and ourselves), affecting public processes of social and political decision-making, and influencing our daily interactions with people and with the natural world in ways both obvious and unobtrusive.

For our core material, we will be looking at a set of what one might term natural history or public science texts.  Each dealt with one or more scientific issues of wide social concern in its era; each was widely reviewed and broadly read; each had significant impact upon how the project of science has come to be socially construed and practiced.  These texts range from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the seminal text for modern evolutionary theory, through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped launch modern environmental movements, to a trio of more recent texts dealing with climate change, ecology and epidemiology.  Although different in substance and in style, all of them share one key feature: unusual rhetorical skill.  All are works carefully crafted to achieve wide readerships and to have a significant impact upon public debate and political decision-making—not only informing or educating the public about environmental issues, but also shaping the deep base of beliefs and values that frames social and political debates about public policies related to those issues.  This element—rhetorical effectiveness—will be our primary analytical focus.  Why, and even more centrally, how did these works succeed in having the impact that they did? 

In school, we often learn science primarily as a matter of facts, information and theories, plowing through textbooks, generally one discipline at a time.  But the influence of the sciences upon us persists throughout our lives and permeates our lives in myriad other ways as well. To approach this topic from the angle of the humanities means foregrounding one particular mode through which science has an impact upon us: the power of stories and story-telling. Some of you may read scientific journals, at least occasionally, dipping into Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine or Transactions of the American Geophysical Union to read an article of particular relevance or interest for you.  But for most of us (indeed, even for many scientists outside of their own disciplinary specialties), science comes to us framed by narrative, embedded in anecdotes or reporting or personal memoir, couched in terms of the ethical or political implications a particular theory or discovery is presumed to have (its plot implications), or set into a broader historical perspective (hi-story, itself a form of story).  As these options suggest, narrative is not a single thing; it has various forms (often termed genres) that function more or less appropriately in varied settings.  So another part of what we will be doing in this class is to hone your awareness of genres—how different ones are constructed with an eye to specific reader expectations, and what devices particular genres employ.

Learning to read these kinds of texts from an alert “literary” perspective is a skill that we can also bring to bear on non-literary texts.  Most kinds of discourse make extensive use of “literary” sorts of strategies, deploying not just narrative structures, but features such as imagery, allegory, tone and other elements typical of literary texts to help them achieve their rhetorical purposes.  Indeed, it is rare that scientific expertise proves to be the sole determining factor even for decision-making about what one might construe as scientific issues—the reality of global warming, for instance, or the decision to protect or not protect a specific endangered species, or the choice to approve (or not) a specific chemical or medication for wide-spread use.  It is even rarer for politicians or bureaucrats or activists to refrain from the slanting of perspective that rhetoric can provide (thus the not-so-distant renaming of global warming as “climate change”).  So the analysis we will practice in this class is in an important way transferable to the reading and the writing you may do in very different contexts.

Comparative Literature 210 will be a writing-intensive course, but in a class as large as this one, much of the writing will necessarily be informal, low-stakes, ungraded writing.  You will be writing in your e-journal on a regular basis for every class.  That writing will provide me with one key measure of your engagement in the course and your active reading of the texts we will be covering.  For this informal writing, PLEASE SET UP A WORD DOCUMENT TITLED WITH A FILE NAME LIKE THIS: Your name.your course number (thus: handwerk.cl210, rubinsky.envir495), which you will be asked to submit via e-mail, NOT on Canvas, on a regular basis throughout the quarter.  You will be doing your response writing outside of class electronically and at varied times, but you MUST cut-and-paste every entry into your e-journal.  You will also be doing: 1) a series of three longer, graded analytical essays, and 2) a response essay on Refuge, and a final self-reflective essay about your experience in the course.  Finally, you will have the option to revise and resubmit one of your three longer essays.

COVIC-19 Addendum: All that I say above in general terms has special salience in the year of COVID-19.  We have all seen first-hand how science, psychology, economics, human behavior and politics intersect…not always to the benefit of any of them.  The texts and assignments in this course, revised in some significant ways to reflect the on-line format and the current situation, can all help us train ourselves in how to make connections across these disparate spheres of life—to com-pose our lives, as I put it.  This, in turn, is a key piece of learning how to cope with the rapidly shifting and deeply uncertain world we now inhabit.

Course Texts:

Course Readings available on Canvas Web site (in the Files section, organized by folders according to author name)

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Graded Work:

            Analytical essays (3): 1 pp., single-spaced, no-margin              20% each; 60% of final grade

            Attendance, e-responses, participation, Refuge response      20% of final grade

            Journal/Self-reflective essay                                                                   20% of final grade

Journals: The writing journals will include two kinds of informal, ungraded writing.  The pre-class e-posts will primarily be responses to question prompts on the reading we will be covering for the next class, or involve modest on-line research on a related topic.  The post-class writing will be more personal in nature, reflective about your own past experiences with science and science education, your understanding of and experience with nature, or texts and topics from that day’s class. 

Analytical essays will be graded on a 10 point scale, with 9 = 4.0, 8 = 3.5, 7 = 3.0, etc.  Late papers will have 1 point deducted per day that they are late.  You will be writing three of these, each a one-page, single-spaced, no-margin paper (roughly 1100-1500 words), on topics circulated a week before the papers are due).  You will have a chance to revise one of them before submitting your portfolio.  . 

Course Learning Objectives:

  • Practice of and metacognitive reflection upon active reading skills, with attention to rhetorical strategies and purposiveness
  • Responsive, interrogative analytical writing, based on careful reading of texts and assignments
  • Understanding of how science enters into public, civic discourse
  • Awareness of the role played by stories and by narrative structures in shaping public interpretation of scientific issues
  • Familiarity with key issues and debates with regard to environmental topics such as pollution, climate change, evolution, epidemiology and conservation
  • Comprehension of the Principles of Narrative Analysis and ability to apply them effectively
  • On-line objectives: learning to participate actively and effectively in virtual discussion groups, learning to make more effective use of virtual communication tools, self-reflection about the nature and effectiveness of on-line instruction

Other Essential Information:

  1. The amount and the different kinds of writing you will be doing may make this a challenging course for you. In addition, the active close reading that I expect may be something that you have not had much occasion to practice.  So I encourage you to ask questions in class chat rooms and to contact me or Leah Rubinsky in on-line office hours for further help if needed.  It is your responsibility to come to us with issues you feel are getting in the way of your effective learning.   
  2. The median grade for the course is likely to be close to the norm for classes in the humanities at UW, somewhere around 3.3. That isn’t the bottom grade; it’s the median. This means that it is possible to get a grade below 3.3 even though you have been doing all of the assigned work and submitting everything on time. 
  3. Attendance and participation are required. Moreover, they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. I will take roll in on-line sessions and keep track of participation in on-line discussion groups and will use short electronic response comments and your e-journal to help me

Academic Integrity:

We assume that students will complete all assignments and other course components in good faith and by doing original work. The Student Conduct Code outlines the following forms of academic misconduct:

  • Plagiarism
  • Multiple Submissions
  • Cheating
  • Electronic Devices (including responding to PollEverywhere from anywhere other than the classroom)
  • Unauthorized collaboration

Failure to adhere to this code of ethics will result in referral for possible disciplinary action as described in the Student Conduct Code. At the University level, submitting anyone else's scholarly work as your own, without proper attribution, is considered academic misconduct. Plagiarism, cheating, and other misconduct are serious violations of the University of Washington Student Conduct Code (WAC 478‐120). You will ALWAYS be expected to properly credit the ideas and words of others in your papers. Remember that plagiarism can include using someone else’s words without proper citation, using someone else’s words with citation but without quotation marks, and paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citation. 

It is presumed that your writing and the work you submit in an exam, is your work alone. You will be reported to the committee on academic misconduct for violations of academic integrity, and will very likely receive a zero for any assignment found to violate these standards. This may result in your receiving a zero for the class.

We expect that you will know and follow the UW's policies on cheating and plagiarism. For more information, see the College of the Environment Academic Misconduct Policy (Links to an external site.).

Disability Accommodations:

It is our goal to insure that our learning environment is accessible to everyone.  If you have a disability and need special accommodations for note taking, untimed exams, or any other aspect of your coursework, please contact Disability Resources for Students, (206) 543-8924 (V/TTY),  If you have a documented disability, we will receive an e-mail from DRS that discusses your accommodations.  We are happy to work with you in any way that we can to facilitate your learning in this class! 

Religious Accommodations: 

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy ( (Links to an external site.). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form ( (Links to an external site.).


                Course Calendar: COMP LIT 210/CHID 250/ENVIR 495

                        Literature & Science: Coping with Risk: Composing Our Lives

March 31         --         Via Zoom:  Course Introduction and Tech Practice

Readings for Weeks 1 & 2 are all on the course Canvas Web site

  • Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (some required, some optional)
  • Zimmer, Evolution (optional)
  • Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (required)
  • Phelan, “How We Evolve” (required)
  • Rachel Carson, Silent Spring 1 (“A Fable for Tomorrow”)

April 2             --         Darwin…in brief


April 7             --         Leopold, “The Land Ethic”

April 9             --         Phelan, “How We Evolve” & Chapter 1 of Silent Spring


April 14           --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

April 16           --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring


April 21           --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

April 23           --         Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

APRIL 26       --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #1 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas…and yes, I know this is a Sunday)


April 28           --         The Weight of Numbers: Environmental Epidemiology

April 30           --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water


May 5              --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water

May 7              --         Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran like Water

MAY 10          --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #2 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


May 12            --         Global Warming/Climate Change:  Changing the Narrative

May 14            --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming


May 19            --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

May 21            --         Stephen Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming

MAY 24          --         ANALYTICAL ESSAY #3 DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


May 26            --         Weart contl; Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Siege of Miami” (Canvas File)

May 28            --         Composing Wholeness, Re-Composing Ourselves: T. T. Williams,        Refuge


June 2              --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

June 4              --         Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

JUNE 6           --         JOURNALS DUE (by midnight, via e-mail)


JUNE 12         --         RESPONSE ESSAY on REFUGE DUE (by midnight, on Canvas)


Principles of Narrative Analysis

(Or, What Good Readers of Narrative Read For)

I:   Principle of Narrative Economy—“Every Word Matters”

II: Principle of Narrative Juxtaposition—“Location, Location, Location”

III: Principle of Narrative Coherence—“Everything Fits…But Some Things

Fit Better Than Others”

IV: Principle of Narrative Completeness—“Now You See It…Now You Don’t”


The above principles constitute the core of our methodology in this class.  We will be discussing what they mean and how to apply them both in reading the texts in the class and in writing about those texts.  Thorough understanding of these principles and the ability to apply them effectively is one of the key learning objectives for the class.



Catalog Description: 
Examines a different subject or problem from a comparative framework. Satisfies the Gateways major/minor requirement. Offered: AWSp.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
January 30, 2020 - 9:11pm