In this class we celebrate, analyze, and practice the art and craft of the science essay—that is, humanities-style essays about science and/or the relationship between science and technology and the rest of our lives. Drawing on your own interests and ideas, you will write essays of substance and grace that have science and technology as their subjects. The class's focus is on students' own writing: a considerable part of the class will be given to workshopping writing in small groups and as a class, and to revision of the major essays assigned. To stimulate your thinking you'll read models of a variety of approaches to the science essay, including works by Alan Lightman, Oliver Sacks, Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Pollan and others, noting in particular how they bring scientific ideas to life for readers. Topics for discussion will include (but not be limited to): the nature of the essay; the challenge of explaining scientific concepts; audiences for science essays; science in historical and cultural contexts; themes in scientific biography; and the "non-quantifiable considerations" (Collini) that are necessarily part of conversations about science.

The primary work of this class is to develop skill in writing clearly and effectively, and to help students become aware of their own purposes as writers and aware of the audience(s) they are writing for. You will write 5 essays in response to prompts from me, with wide latitude as to subject and approach for most assignments. Most of these essays will be short, 2-5 pages; the "long" essay assignment will be 10-12 pages. Revision is an important component of this class. All Essays (except Essay 1, a warm-up piece) will be revised once; Essay 5 (the long essay) and one other essay of your choice will be polished further.

There are no tests in this class.

This class will also have a service learning component: We will be partnering with an honors science class at Malden High School to help them research, write and revise an essay on the topic of "Home Science" (our Essay 2 assignment). This project will give you a fresh way to think about how you do research for science writing, how different audiences read your work, and to assess what you've learned thus far about writing and revising essays.

Major Assignments

Essay assignments will be detailed in a separate document. Here's a brief overview:

  • Essay 1 is a 2-page reading response to get your writing muscles warmed up.
  • Essay 2, "Home Science," is a 3-page essay on the science of something you encounter every day, explained for the layperson.
  • Essay 3 gives you a choice: either "Life/Science," an essay that grows out of your own experience, or an essay that focuses on the social impact of some aspect of science or technology on society (5 pages).
  • Essay 4 is a review of a book chosen from the list I will provide you (4-5 pages).
  • Essay 5 will be a longer essay (10-12 pages) on a topic of your choosing.
  • Oral presentations: you'll make short, informal presentations proposing topics for Essays 3-6. Each of you will also lead class discussion of one of our readings.

Reading Materials

There is no textbook for this class. Eight sets of readings from a variety of sources will be assigned during the term.

For Essay 4, the Book Review, I will give you a list of 20 or so books from which to select. You may want to purchase that book, or you may choose to work with a library copy.

I also strongly urge you to purchase a good college dictionary, if you do not already own one. By that I mean, not a pocket dictionary! If English is not your first language, you will need at least two good dictionaries. If you are really interested in good usage, also consider purchasing a dictionary of usage (I'll show you one in class and explain how they're used).

Course Policies


This class is structured more as a workshop than a lecture class. Your responsibility in the class is not only to be a writer, but also to read and respond to classmates' work and to participate in discussions. Therefore, attendance is important.

  • If you miss more than two classes for any reason, you risk getting a lower grade.
  • If you miss a Workshop class, it will count as two absences.
  • With five unexcused absences you will be withdrawn from the class.
  • It is your responsibility to let me know why you are absent and to keep up with assignments when you do miss class.


It is discourteous to your classmates and to your professor. Your grade for class participation will suffer if you are habitually late. Being more than 10 minutes late 3 times = 1 absence.


To participate in class discussions, you must read assignments on time. It is also imperative that you bring a draft to class on workshop days, and be prepared for oral presentations. Deadlines for revisions will be more flexible.

  • I will collect all your work in a simple Portfolio at the end of the term. All work must be handed in no later than Lec #26.


You are required to have one conference with me, but I encourage more. Bring specific questions about your writing, such as how to make an introduction more vivid or how to connect the ideas in your essay. You are also welcome to use conference time to continue discussions begun in class or try out ideas for essays. If you can't make a conference appointment, please e-mail me or call my office and let me know.

  • I will schedule a day of conferences on Essay 5 shortly before it is due; this meeting will be in addition to your one required conference.


  • I will give you abundant comments on first drafts and revisions, and will grade each revised and re-revised draft.
  • Please note that for me to evaluate a revised essay, I must have the first marked-up draft along with the new one, as well as the designated revision cover sheet.

The quality of your writing will be the primary criterion for your semester grade. I'll also take into consideration effort and improvement, especially as demonstrated by revision, and class participation, including your participation in workshops and your oral presentations. Note that revision does not mean correcting errors nor simply polishing prose; it means re-seeing the entirety of your essay.

What do letter grades mean? "A" work is so accomplished in skill, substance and style that it would delight an editor. "B" work is good, solid work. "C" work is satisfactory but with little to recommend it. "D" work meets the requirements of the course by the skin of its teeth and by the reader's open-hearted charity. "F" is reserved for work that does not satisfy the requirements of the course. Oral presentations will not receive letter grades but will be marked √ (OK), √+ (very good) or √- (weak) based on preparation, cogency and coherence.

Essay 2 15%
Essays 3 and 4 (20% each) 40%
Essay 5 25%
Class participation, oral presentations and essay 1 20%

Note: At the end of the term I will ask to see a Portfolio with all your drafts, to better judge your progress and accomplishment—so keep all your work!


Using someone else's language and/or ideas without proper attribution is academically dishonest. As members of this class and the larger scholarly community you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty. While a good deal of collaboration is encouraged in and out of class, failing to acknowledge sources or willfully misrepresenting the work of others as your own will not be tolerated. Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically for this class. Plagiarism can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, suspension or expulsion from the Institute.

The booklet Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students explains these issues in detail, and you are responsible for understanding its contents. We will work on citing sources in class and discuss ways to acknowledge them properly. When in doubt, consult with me.

Note: For this class and most classes, it is not acceptable to hand in a paper that you wrote for another class, even though it is your own work. If you are ever in doubt, ask your instructor.


A Final Note: I am happy to hear from you by e-mail with questions and comments about class, and will respond as promptly as I can. However, I will not read drafts submitted electronically except by prior agreement with you.


This schedule is our road map for the semester. I may need to amend the schedule, so use it as a guideline, especially for when essays are due and for our workshop days.

Homework is always due at the next class meeting, unless otherwise noted.



Course overview

What is a "science essay"?

Homework 1 out

Audience: grabbing the reader

Literary techniques: scenes, imagery, characters . . .

Voice and tone

Science and life—the "non-quantifiable"

Homework 2 out

Homework 1 due



Why do science? Who does science?

The writer as a "character" in his essay

Homework 3 out

Homework 2 due


Workshop essay 1

The Home Science essay; Natalie Angier, "Red"

Homework 4 out

Homework 3 due

5 Workshop essay 2

Homework 5 out

Homework 4 due

6 Workshop "Home Science" with Malden HS

Homework 6 out

Homework 5 due


Writing scientific controversies

The question of fairness

Making complexity clear

Asking the right questions

Homework 7 out

Homework 6 due


Science v. myth

What's at stake?

Making complexity clear

Prewriting for essay 3, life/science or social impact . . .

Homework 8 out

Homework 7 due


Public health and individual patients

Involving the reader

Homework 9 out

Homework 8 due


The Pill: TV program as science essay, part I

Discuss The Pill and "John Rock's Error"

Homework 10 out

Homework 9 due


Technology and culture

Hear proposals for essay 3

Homework 11 out

Homework 10 due

12 Workshop essay 3

Homework 12 out

Homework 11 due

13 Workshop essay 3 (cont.)

Homework 13 out

Homework 12 due


Book review as essay

Tight focus and wide significance

The language of judgment

Homework 14 out

Homework 13 due


Strategizing the longer research essay

Questions about essay 4, book review?

Homework 15 out

Homework 14 due

16 Workshop essay 4

Homework 16 out

Homework 15 due

17 Workshop essay 4 (cont.)

Homework 17 out

Homework 16 due


Present proposals for essay 5

Homework 18 out

Homework 17 due

19 TV program as science essay, part II: Origins (video and discussion)

Homework 19 out

Homework 18 due


Share outlines/intros in small groups

Individual conferences for essay 5

Homework 20 out

Homework 19 due

21 Workshop essay 5

Homework 21 out

Homework 20 due

22 Workshop essay 5 (cont.)

Homework 22 out

Homework 21 due

23 Work on re-revision

Homework 23 out

Homework 22 due

24 Guest speakers: Robert Kanigel and Marcia Bartusiak of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing

Homework 24 out

Homework 23 due

25 Watch science documentary: Amazon logo Leonardo's Dream Machines. PBS Home Video, 2006.

Homework 25 out

Homework 24 due


Hear favorite essays and discuss

Course evaluations

Homework 25 due