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Evolit: Week 1--Getting started

Anne Dalke's picture

Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. Its a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

This past week, you've been told two stories--one (by Paul) about "a work in progress about a work in progress" and another (by me) questioning "what happened to the versus--and the verses." What are your reactions to what you've heard? What are you thinking about both these stories, about their relation to one another and/or to what you already know? (Do you think that poem was really "about" Lincoln?)


kgould's picture

Controversy:Humans are not at the top...?

We spoke in our Thursday class about how the controversy between Darwinian evolution and other religious stories is not that humans emerged from other organisms, which Professor Grobstein said that the Catholic Church now accepts, but that humans are not at the top of these emerging organisms-- that humans are not the epitome of living beings. While I can understand how this could cause strife with religious beliefs, it has never been my impression that the communites in the United States challenging evolution's egibility to be taught in schools is related to a distaste for where humans stand in all of this. More often than not, it's my impression that the people challenging evolution do not simply believe that humans are the end all and be all of... it all, but that there's also no way that organisms could evolve. That this massive world is immutable and unchanging, despite the direct evidence one can observe on the daily news: MRSA and other antibiotic-resitant strains of bacteria, etc.

Is this a misunderstanding of natural selection? Why are people so affronted by the idea that they aren't at the top of the food chain? Does it really lessen their relationship with a higher being or with their faith if they aren't the top of the tree?

Erin Glaser's picture

Personality in Science

As this class continues I find that the gap between science and literature is rapidly closing. Science is a story, literature is a tool for looking at the world; I can't lie when I say that I find all of this to be quite disconcerting. It is so ingrained in us that science has to be... sciency. It must be studious, quiet, sterile. Yet, it is slowly being revealed that this view of science is not at all what is present in the scientific community. Science is deeply personal and highly subjective. Ok, I have seen that in my own readings for Anthropology (whether or not you consider Anthropology a science course, the approach to fieldwork is much the same as with science and has often demanded a sterility of the self) an increased desire to analyze the self along with the material. as one of my readings says, "the effective field worker learns about himself as well as about the people he studies." - Hortense Powdermaker "Stranger and Friend"

My question now is how valuable it is to alter our perception of science from the stereotypical, objective science and the new, subjective view? Yes, we should bear in mind the fact that science is not definite, that it is 'loopy.' But what does subjective science give us that we can't get through our current concept of science? What use is it to inject a scientific abstract with personality and voice? Although Darwin clearly does have a voice in 'Origin of the Species' many found it to be just as dry and difficult to read as any modern scientific article. So, what does science as a story do for the population in general?

Anne Dalke's picture

willingly suspending disbelief?

We had quite the cozy time (it's quite the cozy space) up in English House III this afternoon, sharing (a la Darwin and his pigeons) what it is we fancy (turns out, btw, that very few of us fancy human beings....) and thinking out loud together about (among other things) "the willing suspension of disbelief" that fiction requires and that science....

doesn't? Hm....

ctuckerman's picture

More on thought and reason

I appreciated Professor Grobstein's essay "This Isn't Just My Problem. Friend". As I reflect on my own elementary education, much of it seemed to be more about learning to jump through hoops (such as "the worksheets" he discusses in his essay) than think independently. In general, many seem to opt for conformity, believing it to be the safe choice, since it keeps them in their comfort zone. However, as Prof. Grobstein put it, "I feel safer when there are people around me who can think".

The recent comments bring to mind my father-in-law, a retired physics professor, whose e-mail sig is a quote from the Devil, in Faust, by the author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Do but despise reason and science, the highest of man's powers, and thou art mine for sure", a quote which to me synthesizes science and literature, and is a reflection of the range of interests of the German author, who just preceded Charles Darwin in life, and whose works on plant morphology came to influence Darwin.

mfradera's picture

Thinking out loud

I think I had an incredible moment of thinking out loud when I made a particularly ignorant and unfounded comment in class today about private education fostering more independent thinking. First of all, having attended private learning institutions for most of my life, I not only have a one-sided view of my claim but I know from first-hand experience that independent thinking is a value in theory but not in practice. I recall being taught to be a critical or skeptical thinker, but is this is not the same as independent. Second, my claim that my ability to think more independently at Bryn Mawr is due to the fact that I'm paying for it is also untrue, as I'm mostly here with the help of financial aid.

I don't think there are any institutions that foster or teach independent thinking; I think that other individuals (i.e. other independent thinkers) teach it. I'm not entirely sure it's something that can be taught; I think all humans are born as independent thinkers and that ability is either nurtured or suppressed, either taking root by adolescence or becoming extremely buried, like the human capacity for language.

I don't think more independent thinkers exist in any particular place, but I do think that they tend to find each other. As Ann Carson might say, they recognize each other "like italics." Do I consider myself an independent thinker? I guess so. Sometimes. I certainly gravitated towards a few independent thinkers as friends and definitely "prefer that story" of myself. In trying to recall people who nurtured my independent thinker, I'm able to list quite few, though I think they would call it "creativity" instead of "independent thinking."

All this has brought me to wonder what exactly independent thinking is. It's definitely not the same as critical thinking. Is it simply thinking for yourself? (Though "simply" isn't really a word I should be throwing around here). Is it being conscious of the decisions we do and don't make for ourselves?

So I did some google searching...


Paul Grobstein's picture

thinking out loud about ... thinking for oneself? with others?

"Thinking out loud" has lots of interesting features, amongst which is hearing oneself say things that don't sound quite right in one's own mind. That's a good thing, not a bad one, if one keeps in mind that conversation is, like science and stories, a "work in progress." One can/should use one's own thoughts as incentive for getting things less wrong, just as one can/should use those of others.

And this does indeed seem to me to be exploring in an interesting direction, as did our class discussion that your original "thinking out loud" contributed to. No, I don't think the "private/public" school distinction is the key issue here, nor is a socio-economic distinction. And I think I agree with you that the issue is not quite "critical thinking" vs something else. That seems to me worth developing more, to see if one can get to what the real issue is. Perhaps it is in fact whether institutions of whatever kind do or do not encourage development of "thinking for yourself" (where that is not quite the same thing as "critical thinking")?

It puts me in mind of an essay I wrote shortly after coming to BMC over twenty years ago, called "This Isn't Just My Problem, Friend." Check it out, see if your thinking out loud and mine seem to you to be wrestling with related issues.

Anne Dalke's picture

"the aim of a liberal education": disorientation?!

As Bryn Mawr prepares for our Middle States Review, each of the departments here has been asked to come up with a plan of assessment: what do we ask our majors to do, and how do we measure their accomplishments? This has led (@ least in the English Department!) to many lively debates--since we think much of what is important about what we do is immeasurable, perhaps incommensurate with other things we do (and ask you guys to do).

In today's meeting, one of my colleagues read this statement:

A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

The article (by David Brooks) in which this quote is embedded takes a very different view, one that argues for the virtue of socialization over individualization: “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Read his piece, to see (and say here?) what you think.....

Paul Grobstein's picture

the relation between socialization and individualization?

Maybe they're complementary rather than conflicting, at least in biological evolution? And could usefully be thought of that way in human cultures as well? See "Institutional thinking" and "thinking for one's self": finding common ground.
eolecki's picture

Science-Truth or Story

The idea of science as a story telling at first seemed a little unsettling and indirect conflict with what we have always been told about science.  Science is the truth, science isproven, and it couldn’t possibly just be a story.  But as we discussed more in-depth the idea of science as awork in progress it started to make more sense.  Science is always evolving, I remember from my sophomoreyear when I took biology to my senior year when I took a.p. biology we weretaught about new discoveries that weren’t known just two years before.  Something that is undisputed truthcan’t change and new discoveries can’t be made.  This is why it makes sense to view science as a story that is constantly evolving.   

eolecki's picture

Science-Truth or Story

The idea of science as a story telling at first seemed a little unsettling and indirect conflict with what we have always been told about science.  Science is the truth, science isproven, and it couldn’t possibly just be a story.  But as we discussed more in-depth the idea of science as awork in progress it started to make more sense.  Science is always evolving, I remember from my sophomoreyear when I took biology to my senior year when I took a.p. biology we weretaught about new discoveries that weren’t known just two years before.  Something that is undisputed truthcan’t change and new discoveries can’t be made.  This is why it makes sense to view science as a story that is constantly evolving.   

Anne Dalke's picture

Classlist: A Local Experiment in Selection

Our class list (subdivided between those-who-should-go to English House III w/ me on Thursday, and those who-should-plan-to-stay in the Lecture Hall w/ Paul) is now available. 'Twill be fun to see what further "modifications" result from our initial act of "selection."
Student Blogger's picture

Subjectivity of Science - Week One Response

As a Biology major, the courses that I have taken in college have had a heavy basis on proven scientific data and facts that have been previously accepted and re-taught in curriculum.  This is why this class challenges many things that I’ve learned during my scientific career.  From the subjectivity of science to science telling a story, the ideas of this class have helped me become a better scientist because I am questioning what I am being taught and what I know.  Professor Grobstein’s description of ‘the crack’ was something I found interesting because in science a problem is generally thought to have a correct solution that is widely accepted by the public and the scientific community, which is the basis of the success of many of the current pharmaceutical companies.  I know that there are hundreds and thousands of people that contribute to the development of a new solution to a scientific problem, such as Gardasil for HPV, but coming back to ‘the crack’ all of those people come from a different background and have different educations and experiences that define their ideas of science.  These differences in ideas and ideals can have an overall contribution to the discovery of the solution, and therein lays the subjectivity in science.  As unnerving as that is, I feel as though the subjectivity of science helps in furthering the field.  If everyone was taught the same concepts and did not question the material or let their personal history influence how they understand the material, everyone would be thinking the same and no progress would be made!

amoskowi's picture

Subject- subjective

I've been thinking extensively about the question posed on Thursday- the general issue of what really is the difference, in the end, between science and literary criticism, because although I see them as, as Darwin would maybe put it, homologuous structures, I think they really do engage with different parts of a person's intellect and emotional being. I think the answer lies in the exact role that subjectivity plays in the two different processes, something that with the understanding of the crack we over simplified. I think it's crucial that, in science, that while the process from which we draw conclusions is based on personal preferences and experiences, it is not something that should ideally remain in the end product. Supporting your argument in a literary paper is distinctly different from in a scientific realm because you can still have an excellent conclusion and argument even if the opposite thesis is valid. In fact, I've been told that, in order for an argument to be interesting and worth your time, in most cases one must be able to make a case for the opposite. I'm still working out exactly what this difference means, but either way I don't think it should be overlooked.
mfradera's picture

Poster Boy for Evolution

I probably should have mentioned in my brief self introduction that I'm an Anthropology major. That being said, I was shocked to realize I had never actually read On the Origin of Species (...etc.). I realized that we had talked about it, I had read about it in text books, read other people's take on it, but had never actually read it myself. The same can be said for the poem, "O Captain!". I was the person who sort of shouted out in class, "You learned it in 6th grade," in response to how some people knew it was about Lincoln, but I never actually read it in 6th grade. It's just one of those "American classics" that had somehow snuck into my subconscious. For all I know, I saw it on an episode of Wishbone (a great show, if you haven't seen it).

What surprised me most about Darwin's work is how many other people he cites. Essentially what he does in his book is connect the dots between the work of a lot of different people (what many scientists do), and test it out with the same population of finches over a long period of time to see if his observations are reasonably consistent. Yet, it is his name we remember when discussing or explaining the evolution of evolution. Darwin doesn't even use the word evolution. He is merely relating a theory on the origin of species, (thus his rather lengthy title).

Why do we not think of his contributing contemporaries when we think of terms like "survival of the fittest" and "evolution"? What made Darwin a more enduring cultural memory? Was it because his grandfather was famous? Was it because of his impressive beard? (Honestly, I think it might be the beard. I mean, look at it!) I hope we can talk about this in class.

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Science-driven society

I don't understand why the story of science is to be preferred over other stories, such as overt fiction. I understand that we live in a science-driven society, where even religion must now try to prove its factuality through appeals to history and logic and even quantum mechanics. For this reason, Professor Grobstein's lecture struck many of us as completely revolutionary/ thoroughly countercultural. But based on his observations, which I have taken to be accurate through the process of my philosophical training, a few questions arise for me.

If a narrative such as Darwin's evolutionary one is indeed somewhat close to being "true" which is to say it nearly matches the state of affairs in nature (a representationalist definition), what does this fact accomplish for our species? Can Darwin's story inspire lives of dedication, service, and altruism such as those inspired by the various religious narratives worldwide? Or are Darwin's and other scientific narratives tricking themselves into believing they have found 'truth,' which is to say a less-than inspiring story about human life and natural affairs that tends to promote smug, self-satisfied beings who think they have conquered mystery and can engineer their own destiny and the destiny of life writ large at the helm of the world? My objections stem from Nietzsche's idea of "the last men" who find themselves living in such a society, where they believe they found truth and mystery is dead. Such complacent people think there is nothing left to be done and live mundane, pleasurable but empty lives that Nietzsche derides and uses as a metaphor for the trajectory of our own society. In Nietzsche's view, we need to leave the goddess of wisdom (i.e. mystery, the unknown, truth) cloaked rather than try to uncover her knowledge for ourselves. We should appreciate and honor art, guise, appearance, as ends in themselves, rather than seek the "essence" behind/ beyond material life. "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are justified."

This is not to say that science cannot promote positive goods in the world as well. However, I think it would be beneficial to take into account the fact that science is a human creation like any other and to appreciate it in that context, rather than burrow our noses blindly in pursuit of truth and think that we can uncover something literally true about the nature of reality, objectively. As I said in the first class, we are by default subjective beings in the way we are embodied, so anything we perceive will not only be through our subjective "crack" of culture, worldview, etc, but also through the human lens and resulting organs, senses, cognitive processes and so forth. We physically cannot perceive some things that are "objectively" there, for example high pitched frequencies that only dogs and other animals can detect. Who is to say that our human senses are capable of discerning everything that is? Moreover, constructing experiments as if there is an object that can be known is biased from the outset. Heisenberg showed that the very presence of the observer affects the outcome of an experiment, so the very framing of the experiment in the above sentence creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's enough ranting for now. I'd also like to add on the point of science-philes vs. science-phobes that I used to tell people I wanted to be a physics major, only I wasn't smart enough so I had to settle for philosophy. I now realize that physics along with the other sciences only have their own interpretations of the world as well; it doesn't mean that scientists have some special mystical knowledge that the rest of us aren't privy to. In fact, I think it's kind of cute how scientists think they know things for sure. Taking science classes after my philosophical training has shown me that scientists take many more things on faith than they would like to admit.

As a final thought, if we are a science-driven society with a belief in science, why aren't we listening to the scientists?

"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course . . . No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished."

-1600 Senior Scientists from 71 countries, including half of all Nobel Prize winners, November 18, 1992; "World Scientists Warning to Humanity"
unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Week one response

I found the previous class a little confusing. I have to admit that I don't entirely understand the significance of "O Captain! My Captain!" in the discussion of this course. Was the point that a story evolved from the poem based on our previous knowledge and experience of the poem?

I also felt that making a versus between personal and taught interpretations of poetry was confusing. Everybody is taught how to seems to me a basic foundation of the educational experience. There is a permanently existing tension in education between what is internally and externally derived. Our professors are still teaching all of us to interpret. How can there be a non-taught interpretation of a poem? 

I hope to discuss these questions in more depth in later conversations about poetry. 

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Week One Response

I had two distinct thoughts I wanted to share on this past week's discussion. The comparison of Obama to Lincoln was an interesting one, made, at least in my opinion, more for the media to add a twist to their stories than off any real similarities. Coincidences abound, certainly, but origins in Illinois can hardly be used as a basis for such a comparison. Both are great men in their own right and to say Obama is a continuation of Lincoln takes from him his own personal accomplishments that make him the leader he is. Certainly it's possible, even likely, he took cues from Lincoln, but being influenced by someone is by no means the same as being the continuation of someone.

In relation to evolution and stories, this brings to mind whether stories of Lincoln have been cleaned up, selectively remembered, etc., as was mentioned in class, and if so, whether people would feel the same way had they the full story. In a sense, this public memory of Lincoln is the evolution of his story.

Secondly, I wanted to mention, as several others have before me, the poem O Captain! My Captain! and the personal vs. "taught" readings. While I, too, had heard the underlying story of Lincoln, I read this poem differently every time I pick it up. I think that as an individual acquires more experiences, their perceptions change, or evolve, one might say. The intent of a poem is separate from the reader's response to it, something high school teachers seems to forget on a regular basis.

Rachel Townsend's picture

Poetry, O Captain, and the "truth" of science

I've been very interested in the different reflections on reading "O Captain! My Captain!" here on the board.  I, like many people who have posted about the poem specifically, had not read the poem before class on Thursday. Many people have said that when it was revealed that the poem is about Lincoln that they were disappointed or felt that they were wrong for what they thought the poem was about upon their first reading.  The thing about this that interests me is that many people felt that they had to give up their interpretation of the poem once they were told what it was about, but isn't the point of poetry that it isn't explicit? It seems to me that Whitman must have written a poem in response to Lincoln's death for this reason, rather than just writing a speech or other prose, so that it could be able to honor Lincoln but also not be explicit about its subject. As we talked about in class in relation to Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem, many people thought that the reason her poem failed was because it was too explicit about its subject.  Shouldn't we be celebrating that we all had different initial interpretations of the poem and that those interpretations continue to be valuable even after we learn that the poem was written in honor of Lincoln? 

Our discussions about the nature of science have made me think about what I was taught in high school about how we can only ever prove things false but never to be true. So then the things that we take as "truth" in science are really just the closest approximation to the truth that we have come to. I just thought I'd throw that bit in to the mix as well!

lewilliams's picture

My Captain

There are many responses here that bring up the poem, "O Captain, My Captain." I want to write here as someone who HAS read the poem before that class, but did not know that it was "about Lincoln" until then. I understand the distaste many of my classmates feel for being told what the poem is about-- there's something cheapening about it. Suddenly a poem that seemed so deep and personal seems commercial. I first heard reference to "O Captain, My Captain" in the movie, "The Dead Poet's Society." I choose to associate the poem more with that because of my own personal experience/story.

In that same class period, we were asked to determine whether or not President Obama is a continuation of Lincoln. I have a question to ask as a response.

Are we not all in a continuation of Lincoln's story and all of those of the past?
Is our story not a shared one?

On the comparison of Poetry and Science:
I can see many similarities between the two.
1.) You can look at us all as readers. Scientists are trying to interpret and form conclusions about the world, just as readers of poetry are trying to do the same with words on a page.
2.)You could look at both as the result of humans trying to interpret and form conclusions about the world-- science and poetry are just two different end results of this practice.

I'm also currently taking Prof. Beckman's Conceptual Physics class and can see many similarities in the course philosophies. This new way of looking at science is intriguing. I'm looking forward to reshaping my own story this semester.

kbrandall's picture

The "loopy" definition of

The "loopy" definition of science that began our first class was one that I had never heard before coming to Bryn Mawr, but that my Intro Bio lab teacher introduced to us last term and that I thought was fascinating then. It was a revelation to a "purely" science class then, but I think it is even more interesting when evaluating the scientific process and literary process side by side. I definitely think that there are important distinctions between a scientist and literary critic, and between what a critic does and what an author does, but I have no idea how to clearly express what they are. I hope we can return to the topic in person.

When I was trying, in class, to define the difference between a creative author and a critic, what I realized instead was that they have more similarities that I'd thought. A critic bases his or her words on another work-- but aren't most authors as well hugely influenced by what they've read, and their reactions to it? The link between a new creative work and old writings  isn't quite as obvious, but I think  it's just as important. In this way, both the author and the critic are similar to scientists. They all base new writing/ experimentation upon an older tradition, whether the end result is confirming it or rebelling against it.

Professor Grobstein said that the most important observations are the ones which disprove old theories. Often the most important/ famous new books are ones which break with old styles, or transform them. But also, it takes some time for a new scientific theory to become accepted, and for any book to be considered a "classic," part of the essential knowledge. So the more I look at the two processes, the more related they seem.

skhemka's picture


This class has so far been a really new and interesting one. I came to the class without any clue as to what was expected of me or what I could contribute. I am still figuring that part but the lectures and the discussions have got me thinking about science and literature now.

I have been thinking about how stories and science go together and I cannot come to think of any place where there isn't a story. Science isn't as factual or rigid as it seems. In my opinion even a lab report is telling a story. A story about the person who thought of working in the lab with certain things. Those certain elements that form the "experiment". The failures, the tension, the struggles and the successes of the person(s) are involved in making that lab report and that is a story. That lab report is only edited enough to remove the personality from it and thus hiding the story to the rest of the world but that does not mean that there isn't a story there.

Now coming to the reading of the poem "O Captain, My Captain!" which I found really fun because it reminded me of third grade where we were made to read poems together so that we learned to get into sync with others and increase our coordination. But I would have never guessed that the poem was about Lincoln, it seemed more about some young, passionate and daring explorer's death. Being told that it was about Lincoln just made us re-read the poem and search for clues or hints that would link to Lincoln. But it was all a matter of being told, because if someone would have told me that it was about " Alexander the Great", I would have searched for clues to prove that!

As for puns, I am not sure this is like a good one or that it even is a pun but  here it is. I am indian and in the morining i was walking with two of my other indian friends and we were all wearing red jackets. So someone called out and was like,"You all look so red today." and so my friend replied by saying, "Yeah, we are red Indians". This is my contribution to the puns.


Marina's picture

Some thoughts.

The comparisons of Obama and Lincoln are valid on some levels such as their background (both Illinois senators) and their emphasis on unity, but that is as far as the comparisons can go at this point. It is just too early to be comparing such a historical and well documented figure such as Lincoln to newly-elected president Obama.

At one point in the discussion this week, it was pointed out that form could be a distinguishing area when it comes to science and literature. This idea had occurred to me as well because I often think of literature as a more free-form, flowing mode of expression whereas science is a highly structured form with concrete answers and facts. My past views of the subjects were changed completely when Professor Dalke pointed out that literature also has a specific form. For example, works of poetry and essays often follow a specific organization using certain rhyme schemes or formats etc. On the other hand, my belief that science was a highly structured and concrete field was also changed completely as Professor Grobstien pointed out that science is a inductive "loopy"  process that does not deal in truth. In some ways, this weeks discussion has flipped how I have thought of these two subjects.

The discussion of "Oh Captain, My Captain!" was especially interesting because I had read the poem before but was never taught that it was written about Lincoln. I thought it was written about a personal experience of loss maybe involving a family member or a close friend. However, once that it was pointed out that the poem was written about Lincoln it made sense as some of the lines hint at the captain being a more influential and powerful figure. However, I still think the poem can be applied to personal situations despite the fact that it deals with the death of Lincoln.

enewbern's picture


I have never had literature and science compared side by side in quite such a way before. I realized about halfway through the discussion that I had always seperated them as completely different ideas, but I really had no basis for this seperation except that I had been told that they were different concepts by my teachers. Upon evaluation of the class discussion, I can no longer beleive that it is a absolute truth. Since both subjects contain a great degree of subjectivity, due to "the crack" which I think exsists in both subjects and probably subjects to a certain degree, there really isn't a great deal of difference in the way that they operate. Students of literature look for the new and revolutionary to the same end as students of science. They both want to create a new idea to build upon.

I was also struck by how interpretations were vastly different. The discussion involving Lincoln and Obama as well as the "O Captain! My Captain!" poem really did exhibit some difference of experience. I for one had never read the poem before and would not have thought of Lincoln as being the subject of the poem if it hadn't been brought up. I had realized a certain degree of parallelism between Lincoln and Obama but I have to agree with the comments in class about it being hard to make so many connections and assumptions since they were inagurated under different circumstances and the time period that they revolve around are vastly different. It is hard to draw anything conclusive on so thin a basis.

I have really enjoyed the discussion this week and look forward to having new ideas to contemplate for the upcoming semester.

merlin's picture

What is the difference

What is the difference between a well-written poem and a 'bad' one, and what allows for the critique of all literature so that one might say for certain it is a quality piece?Is this truely possible, or can one individual say it is genious while to another, it's just rubbish? Maybe both opinions would be plausable because of the way in which one looks at it from her own unique perspective.  Asking if a poem has too much of this or to little of that all seems quite subjective, and we're influenced by our own interpretation of its meaning. Not having known the poem we read was about Lincoln, I actually enjoyed it moreso than I did after the identity of the Captain was revealed. Maybe it is the mysterious figure's ability to capture an imagination that makes it all the more intriguing. To another, the poem could have had more meaning and purpose when the imagery of the captain's death was considered with the thought of Lincoln in mind.

Saying to a professor that my poetry skills are those of a true literary master would be laughable. There are works of literature which the academic world generally accepts as great. Maybe there isn't necessarily a checklist for what makes a piece of work brilliant, but the scholarly community can say if a piece of work is good and why.

In science, it seems that good or bad is not nececessarily whether a hypothesis is proven (as discussed with Grobestein) but whether or not it follows the scientific method and thoroughly does away with  extraneous variables, has random assignment of condition, has a clear hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis on a preferably large sample (in addition to many other criterion). This seems to me like more a check-list form of critique than the aforementioned literary analysis. It must also be noted, though that subjectivity IS a very real (and yes, important) aspect of science as well (also discussed with Grobstein). I found the whole subjectivity portion of lecture to be quite interesting. Although it is applied in quite a different way when it comes to the scientific process, an absence of individual perspective would arguably be pernicious (a new word I learned today from my english-major friend :-)

rmehta's picture

Still confused, but still thinking

I have never thought about Science and its comparison to Literature in the way that we have discussed this past week.  Over the several Biology courses that I’ve taken, my professors have pushed us to see past the writing on the page and analyze the “truth” behind what the author has said, find what evidence is used to support the idea, and deduce if that evidence fully supports what was stated. After Professor Grobstein’s lecture, while seeing Science as inductive and continually morphing mirrored how I was taught to approach a scientific theory.  However, when reading a research paper for another science class, I had always had a basis of knowledge from which I could pull to analyze the author’s conclusions.  In that science class, amongst the students and the professor, we all shared a common understanding of the basic facts: what a gene is, carbon can form 4 bonds, etc. These statements are basic, solid facts. Because of these facts, saying “nothing is true” seems far-fetched to me.  Is a list of facts still a story? Does a story always need to have an opposite that could potentially be true? (As it probably shows, I’m still a bit confused with all this.)


“Does being taught how to read a poem invalidate your personal connection to it?”  This was one of the questions Professor Dalke posed in Thursday’s lecture.  This question was posed after we had collectively read the poem.  When we all were reciting it, I found myself listening to my neighbors more than paying attention to what was on the page in front of me.  I was more focused on the synchrony of our voices than that of our words.  There was no one out of synch and no one who chose to read the poem in a different tone.  We were all taught the same rhythmic pace for this one poem.  This distracting synchronism in some sense lessened my connection to the poem, but I wouldn’t say it invalidated it. However, at the same time, being taught in “6th grade” the significance of Whitman did make me want to emphasize certain portions I knew were important.  Being taught the importance of Whitman helped me develop a personal connection to the poem. 



epeck01's picture

1st response

In our discussion about comparing scientists to literary types (either authors or critics of literature), we forgot an essential point of difference.  Literature normally does have a definitive answer, or at least an intention.  We can actually ask a living author what message they meant to convey, what techniques they attempted to use, etc...For science however, there is no figure that holds answers.  To some, this figure is g-d (here's the "versus"...) and for others it is a universal and unchanging truth. Despite whatever one believes the source of truth to be, it is unknowable, while literary sources can be known.  Because of this major difference, although I see the many simmilarities, I am not sure that I can "buy" the story that the two are so alike.
selias's picture

teaching poetry, and all things

In our second class, Professor Dalke made a point about whether telling someone what a poem is about will close off their ability to interpret the poem in their own way (at least I think she was arguing in the affirmative for this).  At first I agreed with this statement.  As someone who had never read the Captain poem before, I was trying to figure out what the poem meant when someone in the class told us all it was about Lincoln.  When the student said that, I gave up on trying to work through my own analysis and just accepted the Lincoln story. The simple explanation that the poem was about Lincoln did close my mind off to finding meaning in the poem in my own way.

But as we began to further discuss what it happens when someone tells you what a poem means, I thought back to an English teacher I had in my junior year of high school.  In that class we read "Song of Myself" (also by Walt Whitman...I see now that there is a lot of Whitman in my life), and our paper assignment for that unit was to take one of the stanzas and write a thesis paper analyzing  it to find it's meaning.  Well, I was completely stumped.  At that point in my life, I had no patience for finding meaning from poetr.  I preferred narratives and long sentences to "abstract"combinations of words, which is what I felt poetry was.  I went in to see him for help, because I had gotten almost nowhere on my own.  He presented me with what he thought the stanza was about.  I could have written my paper trying to write towards his conclusion, but he then did something which still stands in my mind as one of the best examples of teaching I have ever encountered - he took me through the stanza, pointing out what made him believe that his conclusion about what was being said was the valid conclusion.  This was the first time I was taught how to actually find meaning in a poem, and it made reading the poem more exciting and rewarding because I was able to see how Whitman was able to get a point across in his poetry.  After going through the stanza with my teacher, I realized that I did not agree with his interpretation of the meaning.  I was then able to write a paper that went in a different direction in an intelligent way (by proving my point through my own personal analysis of the poem, modeled after what he showed me).

After remembering about this English teacher and my experiences with poetry in his class, I was hesitant to agree with the idea that hearing someone else's interpretation closes off other interpretations.  It often helps me to use someone else's interpretation as a starting point to my own ideas about a poem. After all, I'm still not very patient with poetry, and it's difficult for me to come up with meaning to a poem all on my own.  But it is also true that explaining the meaning of a poem can close off someone's mind, as I became closed off to the Captain poem after hearing it was written about Lincoln.  I think the difference between the two scenarios is twofold: first, my English teacher showed me where his interpretation came from whereas in class I was simply told, and secondly I think I was more interested in  "Song of Myself"than the Captain poem.  I think this can apply to science as well.  The way to get people interested in your findings or interpretations of a certain issue is to present in a way that not only clearly lays out your own logic, but leaves the whole conclusion up for revision later on.  Without explaining, one could come across as condescending, and a lot of people close off and become defensive and unreceptive when they are confronted with that tone (well maybe I am being to general here; I myself close off when someone explains things to me in a condescending way and I am assuming that other people respond the same way).

Tara Raju's picture

Week One

Unlike some of the other students in the class, I have been fortunately exposed to Professor Grobstein’s thoughts on the scientific method. When I first heard his thoughts on science being more of a “story” then truth, like many of you, I resisted, quite strongly. Science has always been a matter of truths, facts, conclusions and certainties.  After thinking about this framework of thought for a while in Philosophy of Science course and being reintroduced to the framework in this course, it has led me to seriously question the way that science is viewed as a subject. There are an infinite number of I believe now that there are fewer certainties and more questions than ever.  

The poem that we read in class was unique in two ways in that it represented two different things- the first being the uniformity in reading and the second being the distinct manner in which it was interpreted. When the class read the poem out loud, the pauses, rhythm and inflections in voice were fairly uniform to a point where even Professor Dalke referred to it as a “chant” of sorts. The student’s uniform knowledge of form, structure and punctuation and poetry in general made that possible. But, when asked to interpret the meaning of the poem, the student’s opinions differed. We all observed the same rules of English/poetry but then went on to summarize the rules differently. The “crack” in the thought process is evident in a myriad of disciplines and what I think we all witnessed is the “crack” that is evident in poetry interpretations. I suspect that the example in the class serves as a microcosm of the cracks that are evident in the entire study of English and consequently other humanities.  

I am not sure whether this is one of the many parallels between different subject matters or if I am completely making this up; but, I recall Professor Grobstein saying in class that there is no wrong answer…


ibarkas's picture

Some starting thoughts...

As a science student, listening to the first lecture on the nature of science as “story telling and story revision”, I was taken aback by this initial description of science.  I believe that as students of science, we often fail to realize what science truly is, or perhaps, the way in which science is presented to us during these four years prevents us from ultimately reaching this conclusion on our own.   When we are asked to perform experiments in lab, or when we use the “Socratic method” in our science classes, we are ultimately being asked to question in order to reach an ultimate conclusion-a conclusion that we are expected to accept as truth and that will provide the basis for further study.   For us as students, within a classroom setting, science is always a method for us to reach an ultimate truth-one that has been proven and we are expected to accept.  What we fail to realize; however, is that science is not truth, but in fact a “work in progress.” as stated by Professor Grobstein.  I believe that as scientists, we always have this underlying feeling that we are working towards something, that science never ends because there is no ultimate truth-otherwise, there would be no science, but it is difficult to realize that as students because we are constantly working towards uncovering a truth within the classroom.

Going into the next class with this new view of science, I found it difficult to accept it when it was stated numerous times that a difference between science and literature included science’s attempt to “prove”.   I find that science does not attempt to “prove” anything because there does not exist an ultimate truth to prove.   The idea of proving something, to me, involves already knowing the truth, and working backwards to understand why it is so.  I believe that science, however, works towards something that does not yet exist.  As we move forward in science, we cannot say that what we previously knew was wrong and what we know now is right, but rather what we know now is less wrong than what we previously knew to be right.  For example, the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe was an idea that was thought to be very right, and any ideas that were presented against it were considered very wrong at the time.  Therefore, I believe we can make no conclusive argument that we have proven anything in science, but rather, that we have reached ideas that we believe to be less wrong than previous ideas.  So the argument that science proves, while literature is more subjective does not seem entirely accurate to me.  One argument that was presented in class; however, that I did find very convincing was the argument that ideas in science need to be replicated in order to be accepted; whereas in literature they do not.  I do agree that this is a difference that needs to be accounted for in the “versus” between science and literature.  However, there is an inherent similarlity between science and literature that is also presented with this argument.   If we analogize the scientist to the literary critic in order to make this comparison, it is evident that the literary critic, like the scientist needs to, in particular situations, analyze the text in the way in which the writer intended for the text to be analyzed.   Furthermore, ideas in literature, like in science, can be analyzed in n numerous ways –in the way the writer intended, the way in which others have analyzed the text, or in the way in which the reader wants to analyze the text.  For example, when analyzing “O Captain! My Captain!” some analyzed the poem in the way it was intended by the writer, while others presented their own interpretation.  Similarly in science, there are numerous ways in which observations can be analyzed; however, I believe it is this aspect of truth that prevents scientists from presenting ideas as do literary critics.  Science is expected to be working towards some type of truth.  It is this idea of truth within science that provides some sense of security for people.  I believe this is why in science, the idea of replicating ideas is so important.  Otherwise, scientists are literary critics-they analyze observations. 

Lastly, I walked out of class on Thursday with a question which involved our reading of “On the Origin of Species”.  We were told to read the book as a novel.  I seem to be  having trouble with that because I am not sure what reading a scientific text as a novel really means, as it is hard to get passed all the scientific jargon and look at it as simply a work of literature. 


kcofrinsha's picture

Week 1

After the first week of classes, I find that this class still confuses me. My head is full of thoughts about comparisons, the nature of science and the humanities and Darwin's On the Origin of Species. However, I can't yet picture how they all fit together into one class. I feel as though I've been given pieces to a puzzle, but I can't yet see the picture they make when fit together. Hopefully the class will become clearer in the near future.

So far I have found this class fascinating, even if I do have trouble seeing where it is going. I was pleasantly surprised by On the origin of species. I expected it to be impossible to understand and incredibly boring. It ended up being fairly easy to understand and much more interesting than I exopected. I'm looking forward to seeing where this topic takes our class in the weeks ahead.

fquadri's picture

Week One Response

I’ve always seen common people act as scientists in their everyday lives by performing small experiments: babies crying to see if someone responds or someone dressing a certain way to see if they attract attention. People conduct experiments after making some observations and see how that follows through, everyone has done it, so that part came as no surprise to me. However, I’ve never seen science has “loopy” and subjective until listening to Paul. It’s understandable that science is loopy and certain hypothesis and summaries are modified when given new information and it’s fascinating to know that there is no final answer or end to loopy science, there’s always new observations to turn to. Yet I’m still a little bothered by this, and you can blame it on my traditional thought on science. Because science deals with real world applications from stopping global warming to creating new technology to saving lives via medical procedures, I’m a little uncomfortable that there is no correct answer, objectiveness, or truth in this field. It’s an idea that I will have to get used to but it explains why sometimes science may not always work, and such an explanation is crucial to understanding the art of science.


As for the talk about poems…. I had forgotten that O Captain was written for Lincoln. While reading it, the last scene of “The Dead Poets Society” was replaying in my head where all the students in Robin Williams’ class stand on their desks and address him as their captain. The poem can be interpreted in many ways from a sailor addressing his captain to a citizen addressing his president to a student addressing his teacher. That’s what makes this poem great to me: The fact that it can be interpreted in numerous and various ways by numerous and various people. To me poetry doesn’t have a “right answer”, so just because the poem was written for Lincoln doesn’t mean that the reader can’t make his or her own interpretations out of it.



Over the weeks, I forgot how Obama has been compared to Lincoln in the past. Even I once used this comparison when the democratic nomination was up in the air for Clinton and Obama; I had gotten the idea from the recent issue of TIME magazine at the time. Both were inexperienced senators from Illinois who were going to step into their office with huge challenges. However the challenges are different. Lincoln had to tackle on the task of uniting a divided country and leading it through a bloody civil war. Obama’s tasks involve reviving the economy, reforming healthcare, dealing with the conflict in the middle east and in other areas of the world, and more. Because of the economy and other hardships in the country, I’ve said his presidency may be like FDR’s. Roosevelt came into office during the Great Depression and fixed the country in many ways. Even TIME magazine agreed with me on this when one of their front covers showed Obama dressed up as FDR (the idea was interesting, the picture a little weird). However when I really think about it, I don’t think Obama’s presidency can be compared to any other presidency in the past. His win itself poignant and historical itself, and his challenges involve big changes in our backyard and beyond that. To me, it seems more than what any other president has had to have done before and other sources have cited similar opinions. But in a way, I believe he’s a continuation of Lincoln in the sense that as a president, he wants the best for the country and he will do whatever he can to make sure that happens.

jaferr's picture

Week 1 Response

Professor Grobstein's explanation of "loopy science" reminded me of Karl Popper's Philosophy of Science, in which a theory can never be proven to be absolutely true, but theories can approach the truth through falsification of previous theories. Basically, when one theory is proven false, the resulting theory is closer to the absolute truth than the previous theory, and the theory that results from proving the second theory false is even closer. Popper also argued that experimental results supporting a theory are essentially worthless in terms of scientific progress, and that scientific progress can only be made through the falsification of previously believed theories.

As of right now, I don't entirely understand why Lincoln and Obama have been so extensively discussed in our classes so far. However, I can see why they are relevant through Lincoln and Darwin's shared birthday and comparisons that are currently being made between Lincoln and Obama, and I am interested to see how these two figures factor into our future discussions.

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 1

This week we defined the story of science as an inductive process. Science is a "loopy" unending process of revisionism, in which successful empirical scientists question observations. A good scientist summarizes their observations and recognizes that inconsistent observations are the most important ones. Because cultural and personal background influences observation there are critics of the story of science. Zadie Smith claimed, "Writing is not science," while Dr. Paul Grobstein claimed "scientific statements are...provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives." This left the class to question, is independent analysis better than the guidance of formal interpretation?

I believe that formal interpretation is an important component for learning. With formal guidance the reader has context to appreciate literature. For example, most of the class understood "O Captain! My Captain" referred to the death of Abraham Lincoln. However, I had a black and white interpretation of the poem until Dr. Dalke explained that Walt Whitman's poem was an apostrophe.  Again, I read the poem for context and questioned the interchangeable use of captain/father. Only after direction from the professor was I able to appreciate the poem as it was originally intended. After the discussion of "O Captain! My Captain" I understood the course's definition of science. My observations followed a process of revisionism and the most important ones led me to question the context of Whitman's poem.

ccrichar's picture

"O Captain! My Captain!

My personal experience played a role in my interpretation of this poem.  I served in the US NAvy for eight years and the imagery that came to my mind had to do with my own experiences.  In the military the President of the United States is addressed as Commander in Chief and not Captain.  When a ship goes down or rather sinks from damage, the Captain of the ship goes down with it wether dead or still living. That is the tradition.  So, Lincoln does not come to mind for me when reading this poem.  However, I do not think that Whitman was a sailor and had all this knowledge but earnestly meant to portray something that would try to make one think of Lincoln and his death in a romantic way.  I think Whitman's efforts worked. 

aybala50's picture

Imagining poetry

You definitely make a good point about how one's own experience influences their interpretation of the imagery of a poem. So I guess, even if the meaning of a poem is completely ruined for someone, when explained what the poet had intended to say, even with vivid description everyone will always have their own imagery of the poem.
eawhite's picture

First Week's Response

I'm still scratching my head from the first class - trying to compartmentalize not only the material presented but the way in which it was presented. I came into this class with a preconceived notion about what would be taught. Was I ever wrong! I need to disregard all my prior notions and come to class with an open mind. However, I do have a few comments to make.

I think the reference of linking Obama and Lincoln or Obama and J.F.K. are absurd. Doing so is unfair to him and also sets him up for failure. My personal fear is that people are seeing him as the new Messiah called upon to deliver us from evil and fail to understand that he is an unseasoned short-termed senator who got lucky and made it to the White House. This could be very dangerous for the United States on many fronts.

O Captain! My Captain! was a beautiful reflection of an individual's mourning process. I never read this in school or if I had it certainly was too long ago to remember. Nevertheless, the fact that some referenced this as a poem about Lincoln did not alter my personal emotional response. That info just became additional data to store.

I am enjoying reading Darwin. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia featured the Darwin traveling exhibit a couple of months ago. I was able to see his original field notes as well as some of the differing species he collected and wrote about. All very interesting.

Linking science and literature is a very new concept for me. It will certainly take some time for me to internalize this concept. Many people think, myself included, that if someone has a bent for the sciences they don't for literature and vice versa.

jrlewis's picture

Our conversation in class

Our conversation in class this week addressed the issue of how to define what is science and what is not.  In philosophy of science, this is referred to as the demarcation problem.  A similar problem arises in discussions of aesthetics.  It is an enormous question, encompassing science and everything else simultaneously.  For the moment, I will offer my thoughts about the potential parallel between science and literature. 

Continuing with professor Grobstein’s thought that the scientist is analogous to literary critic.  Specifically, that scientific writing and literary criticism follow the same or very similar form.  They consist of explicit references to a particular object of interpretation, a piece of writing or natural phenomenon.  The author is attempting to present their story in such a way that the reader can understand the story and how it was constructed from the available evidence.  The explicit nature of the connections facilitates the reproduction of relevant observations.  The content and structure requirements of scientific writing are not specific to papers about natural or physical topics; I am talking about good analytic writing. 

On the other hand, literary writing contains implicit references to observations.  Part of the role of the reader, literary critic is to interpret these references.  To create a coherent account of the relationship between the literary object and the set of references that the critic finds significant.  The idea of the critic selecting significant references is indirectly related to the crack in Grobstein’s story of science.  They both permit cultural and personal biases as part of the process.  I think the work we did on Thursday with the poem was consistent with process or loops outlined in the model of science as a story.  When the object of interpretation is of nature as opposed to human origins, then the act of interpretation is science. 

There are other types of writing; the relationship between scientific writing and literature is not binary.  I would like to include at least another category of writing.  This form of writing would be more for the purpose of informal communication, written as opposed to verbal, conversational.  As for literary writing, I am remaining silent on that topic for the moment.  Mostly because there is an essay I want to quote and I left the book at the farm…  I am curious to see how useful my distinction between scientific and nonscientific writing proves this semester.  

lparrish's picture

there's truth in comedy, but not in science!

I was having a bad night and I hate going to friends to help cheer me up because it seems selfish and I don't want to risk putting them in a sad/bad mood. So I listened to stand-up comedy. The comedian was making a joke about beliefs in evolution and creation. He said that he didn't believe in evolution for two reasons: (1) "I'm from The South [laughter] and (2) I'm goin' to heaven [more laughter]". Comedy is usually funny because it is rooted in some truth. It got me to think more about the ways that thoughts/beliefs are "pushed" upon us due to our social surroundings. As one of the professors of this course is both spiritual/religious AND from The South, I realized that this topic could be one that hits close to home for many people in the class. We are probably affected by our surroundings more than we realize, just as Professor Dalke's example of Abraham Obama probably had quite an impact on the people who walked past it from day to day.

While I have no comedians to quote in responding to Professor Grobstein's lecture, I can say that I have never before heard that science was not truth. I have always heard of science being truth or the pursuit of the truth. A more subjective view of science makes the entire subject more open for exploration in my mind. Hearing his explanation of science/scientific method as the opening topic in class has made me go into this course with a completely different view of something that always seemed rather closed-off.

Relle's picture

I was fascinated by the

I was fascinated by the discussion, in our last class, of literary criticism being close to science (as we're viewing it for this class).I spent some time with the Darwin, trying to apply that idea. It seems as though the theory is that we would take a "story" (such as that of evolution), and attack it from various angles to see if it holds up. If we were to attack it from the angle of literary criticism, we might start by trying to determine what Darwin's personal biases are, and how that affects his writing. We might go into his history as a writer and his biography as a person (as many do about Shakespeare and his sonnet) and see how we can read the theory of evolution based on his own history. As it happens, that might be difficult, seeing that his original voyage on the Beagle was apparently meant to be one of proving religious theories, rather than evolutionary theories.
I confess I had trouble using some of the things I've picked up in theory and criticism classes, such as analyzing a motif, or trying to examine evolution from the point of view of a certain group. I look forward to exploring this idea more and hopefully getting a better grasp on how criticism and science correlate.

kgould's picture

In our last class, we

In our last class, we discussed the differences between literature and science. I find it interesting that the general view of science writing is formulaic and stilted –only meant for scientists and their colleagues. I find this contrary to my own view of science writing; I see it as a way of presenting science in an understandable and interesting way. Take a look at Mary Roach’s Stiff and Spook, or any one of Oliver Sack’s books; it’s anything but like reading from a lab manual.

Also, I've found it interesting that many people are ready to compare President Obama to Abraham Lincoln and other past presidents. Isn't it a little early for that? Obama has promised change from the Bush administration, and that's certainly what America needs right now, but nothing has changed yet. President Obama hasn't even been in office for a week and we're already melding his image with Lincoln or Washington (the cover of the lastest New Yorker). The U.S. has a tough road ahead of it. Things are not going to change instantaneously. Let's be fair and give Obama some room for error; things are hardly going to be perfect over the next few years with the current state of our economy and the country as a whole.

mcurrie's picture


Our first discussion with Professor Grobstein was probably one of the most eye opening discussions I have every heard.  After conforming to the scientific process taught to me since elementary I was a little uneasy thinking outside of the box.  After each explanation of what science "stories" were, being inconsistent and untruths I kept questioning what does not fit? For instance I know that organisms grow and get bigger. Is not not a truth that has been proven? Or is there another "story" that disproves this truth.  I guess once my world becomes turned upside down when hearing the opposite of what I have been told I get worried.  I feel that we need to comfort of knowing our so called "truths." Like I know that the sun will come up or that the skies will clear after a storm.  Or even that there are no monsters under my bed.  To hear that these are only stories that can be disproved takes away my comfort.  Maybe the benefit of reaching outside my comfort zone I will be able to figure out things for myself and asking the questions that make me uncomfortable. 

In our second discussion Professor Dalke again made me question what I have been taught.  When talking about Lincoln I always think about elementary school.  When I was young my teachers would tell me wonderful things about Lincoln, Columbus, Jefferson, etc.  All of the people that inspire others.  I placed each one on a pedestal until I learned in middle school that Lincoln never thought of abolishing slavery, Jefferson had a mistress, Columbus enslaved the Indians and all of my pedestals crumbled.  When comparing Lincoln and Obama, I don't see the similarities yet.  Obama has only been in office for a few days and still has time to leave his mark.  I feel that it's wrong to compare Lincoln and Obama just because they both are from Illinois.  Then we enter into poetry.  To me I am not very fond of poetry and do not like trying to figure out the meaning.  I like to read poetry but not analyze it.  With poetry because there is no definite meaning I feel that it lets people down.  There are some that like to have a clear understanding and meaning to things and with poetry there is never one meaning.  Poetry is then avoided in order to avoid straining ones brain and getting a headache. When reading O Captain! My Captain! I at first just believed the poem to be about a ships Captain.  After our discussion I could see the evidence of the poem being about Lincoln but I also think the poem could be about anyone.  I feel that the poem could be a tribute to anyone that was a mentor to another, whose loss would be felt by many.  Whoever has inspired or aided you in becoming who you are, this poem is for them.  I can't wait till our next class after reading some of Darwin's work.


amirbey's picture

Loopy science

I thought that I was not going to enjoy this course as I would enjoy the rest of my scientific classes, but when I attended my first class of "the Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories" I realized that I was going to love it! I particularly enjoyed professor Grobstein's lecture on the loopy science. I thought it was captivating and I understood really well this new concept of science in which it consists of constant new observations and deductions. In fact I had heard that humans could never be correct about an assumption but that they had to prove the wrongness of a theory.  For instance, we assumed that Pluto was the ninth planet of our solar system, but after many observations, we discovered that it was orbiting in a different trajectory and due to other observations, we could prove that the first assumption of Pluto being a planet was wrong.  We are now sure that Pluto is not a planet, but we cannot be sure of what Pluto really is!

I thought that this section of the class was fascinating! I guess it was also thanks to the way professor Grobstein talks; I felt like he was narrating a story to us, and since I love listening to stories, I kept myself focused throughout the entire class.


aybala50's picture


This was the first time I have ever read the 'Captain' poem and it did not occur to me at all that it could be about Lincoln and as a matter of fact, it upset me when I was told it was about Lincoln. In my mind this poem was a more personal experience than a kind of connection to a former president. When the poem was being read, I was thinking about people I respect and love that have fallen. The whole poem, to me, was a metaphor and all that I had to do was apply it to myself. 

Because of this I want to say I don't like it at all when I am told what I am supposed to get out of a poem. I would much rather enjoy poetry by making a poets work my own by relating to it. I know that the poet wasn't talking about anyone I know, but does it really matter? Why does a poet write? To be read, maybe, to convey emotions, to make a point... I love reading poetry, but only if I can betray the ideas of the poet and make the poem my own. So, I was very much disappointed that the poem was not mine, but rather was Lincoln's, as evidence seems to show so. 

jrlewis's picture

It was also the first time

It was also the first time I can remember reading the 'Captain' poem.  My emotional response to it was all about the death and father description.  Probably because my father died last May.  My mind was racing on to metaphors for disease and illness.  So when we were told that the poem was about Lincoln, it was like a slap in the face to me. 

For a moment at least.  Then I began trying to reconcile my reaction to the poem to others reaction to the poem.  It turned into some sort of synthesis about social ills and the challenges faced by politicians.  Not necessarily coherent...  

I think it did help me to hear other's, including the author's, interpretation of the poem.  It broadened my perspective and the concepts I was entertaining in my mind.  So maybe for me, it was useful, which is not to imply anything about the correctness of my own interpretations.  

Jackie Marano's picture

My Darwin Experiment

      I was very interested in how my own personal experiences influenced my interpretation of the 'Captain' poem that we read together in class on Thursday; I have for many summers sailed competitively in boats, so the imagery, the vocabulary, and the maritime nature of the poem brought me into my own reality. I had never read this poem before, so when someone said it was about Lincoln, I started to doubt my interpreting ability...did I selfishly root myself in my own world at the expense of the poet and his intentions? I realized, after we talked about puns, that this was not the case, and that perhaps this is what is to be expected when the Lincoln context is unknown.

With this said (and in the context of our discussion of the differences between scientific and non-scientific writing) I decided to perform an experiment: I randomly selected a paragraph from a page in Ch.2 of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' I read it to myself, asked myself to interpret what I had just read. I actually struggled with this a bit because phrases such as 'greater than the average' and 'less than usual' and 'generally' led me to believe that there is, indeed, a 'wrong' way to interpret this I should really just believe what Darwin tells me so I don't get too lost or uninterested! Even specific vocabulary or conclusive words like 'indefinite' and 'unknown' or '...and thus' led me to believe that those who choose not to rely on the greater collective of stories to which Darwin refers (some people must have written a 'story' about the average values of something at some point) will have incorrectly interpreted the material (at the author's expense indeed). I think in this way, scientific writing is more noticeably authoritative or regimented...but I'm still pondering all of this. Lastly, to finish off my experiment, I read the text surrounding my random passage for the context. Since my interpretative process involved being directed to a definitive greater context, there was no 'shock factor' at all. But this experience was different than my 'Captain' experience. It seemed impossible to ignore the greater context...even if I don't fully understand it or haven't been exposed to it. But if I had ignored Darwin and his references and the context...I think that would have been less satisfying of an experience...

dshanin's picture

Science and literary criticism

Listening to Professor Grobstein's description of science made me feel like I was in a church listening to pastor.  In his sermon, Professor Grobstein, provided the most well-reasoned rebuttal to the common objections of the uninformed to science.  I wonder how a creationist would have reacted to it.  Science, for all of its laws and theories is more fluid and open than any other discipline I have encountered.  Anybody can challenge and potentially change any doctrine, no matter how established so long as they follow the framework of experimental research. 

This is in stark contrast with Professor Dalke's discussion of literature and literary critics.  I was struck by the parallels drawn between scientists and literary critics.  I feel this is a somewhat faulty comparison.  Literary critics have only the status quo to guide their judgment of original creative works; scientists too, are critical of current and past thinking but their criticism is directed towards the future.  A scientist is only critical of an older theory when presenting novel information that suggest otherwise, while a literary critic views the past literary canon as an absolute and unchanging.   Literary critics value a work in terms of how well it relates to what has been done before while scientists value a new discovery in terms of what it may lead to in the future.  

I feel there is much stronger parallel between authors and scientists.  Both use the past as a framework for their own beliefs, ideas and innovations.  There is no higher an honor for scientist than to create a theory that is tested and argued about long into the future, I believe the same is true for authors, where real success involves becoming the benchmark by which future critics will judge the next generation of writers.      

mfradera's picture

"Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

"Looking forward to seeing where we go..."

So am I, seeing as I'm still a bit fuzzy on the destination, but that's kind of why I chose this class. Right now, I'm kind of approaching things the way I learned to understand Physics in Prof. Beckman's Conceptual Physics class a couple of years ago. Some of my friends called it a "fake" physics course, or an "un-science" class, but I quite liked looking at physics as  a way that mamalian bipeds try to make sense of the information coming at them.

Similarlly, I'm fairly comfortable with thinking of science as less abuot truth and more as an indictive process. At least, (to use the language we used on Tuesday), I prefer that story.

I learned a new word the other day that I think describes process and development of science; strabismic. Normally it means cros-eyed, but it can also mean intellectually perverse. I prefer that definition.