Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter    2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 4

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Literature in an Interdisciplinary Science Seminar


Pamela B. Childers, The McCallie School, Chattanooga, TN

Michael J. Lowry, The McCallie School, Chattanooga, TN


Pamela B. Childers holds a doctorate in adult education with a specialization in writing in the disciplines. She is Caldwell Chair of Composition and specializes in research on interdisciplinary writing, writing centers, and faculty development.     Michael J. Lowry holds a National Board Certification in Science, teaches science courses and serves as a class dean. He has long been interested in using writing as a tool to enhance learning and presently is researching it role in cultivating metacognition.



Secondary school students tend to compartmentalize knowledge—writing and literature fit in English class; analytical thinking works in mathematics; research and investigation belong in science class; and cultural studies takes place in history class. But what happens when teachers shatter those assumptions? Are students able to make a paradigm shift? What happens when an interdisciplinary science seminar attempts to connect all knowledge in one course? The study of a literary work in a science course can improve both students’ knowledge of science as well as an understanding of themselves and the culture they study. In doing so, they create a culture of understanding that fosters connections between ideas and intellectual risk taking, while at the same time breaching the gulf of incomprehension that can exist between literary intellectuals and scientists.




“Literary intellectuals at one pole -- at the other scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” C.P. Snow


Secondary school students tend to compartmentalize knowledge—writing and literature fit in English class; analytical thinking works in mathematics; research and investigation belong in science class; and cultural studies takes place in history class. But what happens when teachers shatter those assumptions? Are students able to make a paradigm shift? What happens when an interdisciplinary science seminar attempts to connect all knowledge in one course? Just as Aristotle, among the world’s keenest observers of the natural world, employed literary devices to convey his science, so too do we span the gulf that appears between the disparate poles mentioned above.


We teach such a course, called Oceans: Past and Present, to seniors at The McCallie School, a boys’ college preparatory independent school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In fact, last spring semester we chose to read Carl Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean (1997), a personal narrative that explores science, fishing, culture, and politics. The literary quality of this book became an important part of the selection because Dr. Safina won the Lannan Award for Literature, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, and Pew Scholar’s Award in Conservation and the Environment. We have also used chapters from Safina’s newer work Eye of the Albatross (2002). But these aren’t the first literary works we have used in this course. In fact, the first few years we assigned The Perfect Storm (1997) by Sebastian Junger, another piece of creative nonfiction that focuses on science, fishing, culture and politics; and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995) by Dava Sobel. Then we turned to Rough Water (1999), a collection of excerpts of survival at sea stories, mostly nonfiction, edited by Clint Willis. We have made these changes based on the feedback from our students and have discovered that these texts are an excellent venue in attempting to unify the two poles Snow describes.

In the Classroom

One way we attempt to bridge the gulf between these two cultures of literature and science is to demonstrate the overlap that exists between them. It may seem odd to begin a “science” discussion by reading a poem, but there is no better entry point into exploring the overlap of science and literature than to immerse oneself into a deep examination of a poetic text. Scientific inquiry begins with a question about the natural world without knowing the answers, just as a literary work poses questions about human nature through language and literary devices. The thrill of the unknown exists in both. Metaphor is a powerful tool that poets and scientists employ to create meaning of the universe. In this case, our poem is Alicia Ostriker’s “Move,” printed at the beginning of our text Song for the Blue Ocean. However, our approach to “reading” the poem is unique. Students have already observed one video (“Land of the Tiger: Unknown Seas”), which portrays the life cycle of Ridley turtles off the coast of India. Therefore, we start the reading with a common experience with one of the two species Ostriker uses in her metaphorical piece. As a community, we read aloud the work several times, listening to the flow of the words and walking the landscapes described. To begin our analysis, we challenge our students to describe what they observe in the poem (all statements are valid at this point, from comments such as “There are 11 stanzas” to “The word water is used in three places”). Participants must describe observations, not interpretations. Both poets and scientists know the crucial role observation plays in creating understanding. Before we can create meaning, we must first “see” with clarity. Interestingly, the process of identifying and sharing aspects of the poem prompts others to see the poem in a new light. It is not uncommon for someone to say, “Oh, I didn’t see that in the text!” After several rounds of observations, we shift to the next stage. We prompt our students to ask questions about the text (“I wonder about the significance of ….”). These questions flow from our observations of the text, and in turn, the sharing of these questions sparks further questions. We want to demonstrate that understanding is a social act, requiring the active participation of a learning community (a culture of understanding). Poets need readers to respond to their work. Scientists need a larger community to share and critique ideas. We are modeling the vital role of interacting to create meaning in this exercise.


As a last step, we think it is important that students apply their understanding of the poem in a unique way. We divide the class into three groups, each charged with the task of “performing” their understanding of the poem. Group one is limited to using only visuals (markers and poster board) to convey their understanding. Group two can only use sound (simple instruments), and group three is limited to physical movement (desks for props). They have to cast their understanding through a new lens, using a different mode of expression. This new mode of expression results in yet deeper understanding of the text. We make a conscious effort to create a culture of understanding that values collaboration and intellectual risk taking, two vital skills we apply throughout the course. The “analysis” (and subsequent synthesis) of the poem becomes a way to exhibit the skills scientists and literary thinkers share.


We next move to definitions of culture—one in the classroom, one in the text (describing an ocean community)--one in the scientific community, one in the literary community. We discuss these terms in relation to the activities we have done, the allusions to fishes and birds from videos, to the scientific idea of interaction of species and how words in a poem create a better understanding of ecological interdependence. Ostriker’s use of salmon, the focus of one section of Safina’s book, connects the poem to the actual text before we begin reading. Finally, the preface of Song for the Blue Ocean brings in a personal narrative to relate to ecological interdependence. Through the author’s individual story, he explains his purpose in writing the book, which is a starting point for returning to our own questions.


But this is just the beginning of our study of this text. Students now have even more responsibility for the reading, teaching and learning of the scientific, political, ecological and social ramifications of fishing in three parts of our world--the Northeast, Northwest and Far Pacific. Divided into three books, teams of students take charge of presenting their book through interactive activities, followed by a reading assignment for the rest of us before they give us a question to discuss in a text-based seminar (See explanatory note below). The team does not participate, but they do lead a follow-up debriefing to summarize the key points of their book. As each group approaches its book in a different way, we all learn more through their assignments, readings and seminar topics. For instance, the group on the Northeast assigned us to be either environmentalists or fishermen. We had to determine how we would defend our side through examples from the text. The next day at a Town Council meeting, a member of the group listened to our defenses, and selected an outside observer to determine the results of the debate. Each side presented its proposal for fishing off the coast of the Northeast and defended it. The outside observer and the “judge,” one of the members of the team, made a decision that turned out to be a compromise. Next, the team then summarized the key points of this book and gave us our reading assignment before the text-based seminar on the following day. Another group led us to solve an “economic mystery” in which we had to decipher clues related to ideas suggested in the text. Each group tries to improve upon the techniques used by the first group when presenting their material. During this whole process, students also record the way they interact in their group, what they have learned through the text-based seminar and how the ocean impacts their lives in Chattanooga through journal entries. In several cases we engage the groups in an oral interview, debriefing the experience but at the same time connecting it to the text. It is an essential “last step” when reflecting on the process.


Bridging the Gap


What we have discovered through this entire process is the similarities between literature and science. For instance, in Ostriker’s poem, she deals with the unity of life, a very important aspect of scientific study. In fact, unity of life in the ocean is an essential part of our study in the course. Also, scientists use literary metaphors such as tapestry of life to discuss how when one thread comes undone, then a whole ecosystem collapses. Both the poet and the biologist are keen observers of nature, looking for the patterns and trends in life, always searching for deeper meaning and questioning. Both Ostriker and the scientist observe the turtle and its return to its place of birth; yet they end up talking about humans as well. One is contemplating human’s meaning in the world, while the other is considering humanity’s place in the world. These concepts are ones we hope our students gain from such integrated connections.


Are students just learning about science, politics, ecology, and society through the use of literature in an interdisciplinary science course? We hope not. We have watched the respect each member of a group shares with his team members, and the intensity with which all have become involved in their projects. They listen to one another and respond with challenges or elaborations from the text in the seminars.  They learn to understand a broader picture, recognizing that “adversaries” have more in common than originally thought. As C.P. Snow bemoaned the fact that the two poles of literary intellectuals and scientists were separated by a gulf of incomprehension, our students have discovered that the gulf can be breached and meaningful insights can be had. By creating a culture of understanding dedicated to making connections across ideas and celebrating the commonalities that exist among seemingly disparate strands of thought, we hope to realize C.P. Snow’s goal of unifying the poles.



Junger, Sebastian. The Perfect Storm. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

“Land of the Tiger: Unknown Seas.” Narr. Valmik Thapar. Nature. PBS. WGBH, Boston. 1998.

“Open Ocean.” The Blue Planet: Seas of Life. Narr. David Attenborough. BBC/Discovery Channel. New York: BBC Worldwide Americas, 2002.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. “Move.” Green Age. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

“National School Reform Faculty.” Harmony School Education Center.1 Oct. 2003. 30 Oct. 2003 <>.

Safina, Carl. Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival. New York: Henry Holt and

Co., 2002.

---. Song for the Blue Ocean. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997.

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Willis, Clint, ed. Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea. New York: Balliett & Fitzgerald, 1999.


*Explanatory note - Text-based Seminar Guidelines come from the National School Reform Faculty and have been distributed through the Critical Friends Group. The purpose is “Enlargement of understanding of a text, not the achievement of some particular understanding.”

Participants are given a reading to do before the seminar, then they are given an open-ended question to discuss referring specifically to the text. Those giving the assignment do not participate but instead take notes to lead the debriefing that occurs after the seminar. They also map the patterns of participation by members of the seminar. Teachers do not lead the discussion nor do they participate when they give the assignment. Students are evaluated based on their making references to the text, participating actively in the discussion, listening to each other, and building upon what others say.


Whether it’s a turtle who drags herself

Slowly to the sandlot, where she digs

The sandy next she was born to dig


And lay leathery eggs in, or whether it’s salmon

Rocketing upstream

Toward pools that call, Bring your eggs here


And nowhere else in the world, whether it is turtle-green

Ugliness and awkwardness, or the seething

Grace and gild of silky salmon, we


Are envious, our wishes speak out right here.

Thirsty for a destiny like theirs,

an absolute right choice


To end all choices. Is it memory,

We ask, is it a smell

They remember,


Or just what is it—some kind of blueprint

That makes them move, hot grain by grain,

Cold cascade above icy cascade,


Slipping through

Water’s fingers

A hundred miles


Inland from the easy, shiny sea?

And we also—in the company

Of our tribe


Or perhaps alone, like the turtle

On her wrinkled feet with the tapping nails—

We also are going to travel, we say let’s be


Oblivious to all, save

That we travel, and we say

When we reach the place we’ll know


We are in the right spot, somehow, like a breath

Entering a singer’s chest, that shapes itself

For the song that is to follow


Alicia Ostriker