Poetry and the Scientific Method

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Hillary Gravendyk, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

As a member of the team of teachers leading an interdisciplinary course that combined Environmental Studies and Literature in the fall of 2007, I was initially impressed to find myself in a room full of well-trained environmental studies, engineering, and biochemistry majors who were fearless (it seemed to me) in the face of those mysteries of math and science that had so baffled me as a college student. But I quickly realized that there was one thing about which these poised young scientists were utterly perplexed, even terrified: poetry. When given a choice, they avoided essay exam prompts which dealt with the poems we had been reading and discussing in class; when they were forced to write about poetry they often offered tentative readings cribbed largely from class discussion of the works. Yet when we discussed things like alternative energy sources, they displayed remarkable faculties for careful and critical observation, creative postulating, and persuasive argumentation. How could I help my students use their already advanced skills of observation and analysis to become confident and curious readers of poetry?

I decided to start by offering my students a methodological approach to poetry with which they were already familiar: the scientific method. During an exam review session, I asked them to approach a poem as they might approach any scientific problem:

Define your investigation: Start by coming up with some questions you have about the text — ranging from questions of form to questions of philosophy. These are questions that might guide your further investigation of the work.

Observe: Next, gather information. Use your powers of observation to notice key features of the text. What kind of diction is used? What words or images repeat? What formal patterns do you notice? Make a list of these observations.

Analyze: Collate the observations and the questions; work inductively to determine how the data you’ve gathered might help you to answer the questions you posed of the poem. Alternatively, do your observations help you pose even better or more interesting questions?

Interpret: Build a hypothesis/argument based on your investigative question and the evidence of your observations. Structure your essay in the same way that you structured your investigation of the poem: tell us what you wondered about, what you observed, what you found to be true and what you found to be false. Tell us what conclusions you came to, and what questions remain unanswered.

They had plenty of questions, and once they separated the task of gathering information about the text from interpreting the text, the observations came fast and thick — I could barely get them all on the board. By the time we got to interpretation, they were shouting out questions, coming up with creative and unique readings of the poem, challenging one another and revising their ideas. The room was full of spirited investigators in hot pursuit of answers. That session alone made me feel like the lesson had been a success: my students had enjoyed the process of reading and thinking critically about a piece of literature which had initially seemed intimidating. They’d used their skills to approach something unfamiliar, and felt rewarded by the process of undertaking such a challenge. But if their enthusiasm didn’t fully convince me, their exams certainly did; more than 1/3 of the class chose to answer the exam essay prompt about Gary Snyder’s poetry, though they were given two non-poetic options. To my mind, the essays were livelier, more creative, and took more interpretive risks than any other class work they’d completed.