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Class Links Science and Literature

By Tara L. Colon, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

Rarely does a class combine science and Renaissance literature.

And rarely does an English class attract biology concentrators.

English 120s: "The Literature of Science in the English Renaissance," taught by Professor of English John D. Guillory, does both.

The class explores the relation between writing and science in the 16th and 17th centuries, when scientific discourse was just beginning to emerge. For example, students will learn how the poetry of John Donne blends the goal of seduction with an awareness of scientific theory.

According to Guillory, a scholar of Renaissance literature and literary theory, "literature and science define two huge elements of modern experience."

Guillory's current work is on the history and sociology of literary study as a discipline.

"One of the things I discovered working on this subject is that literary study was much more closely allied with what was called `science' in the 18th and 19th centuries as it as at present," he said.

During last Thursday's seminar, the twenty undergraduates and graduate students in the course listened to a lecture on Aristotle's theory of matter, Marlowe's Faustus, William Gilbert's De Magnete--a scientific text published in 1600.

Guillory used Marlowe to illustrate the "desire for knowledge" that was thriving in the 16th century, and said Aristotle's ideas shaped the scientific ideology of the period.

The link between science and literature is what makes the course different from most English classes, Guillory said. It explores topics including magic and science, the status of poetry and rhetoric in science, the distinction between matter and spirit, and the political and social interests of scientific writing.

Guillory said he hoped students in the class would "suspend the categories [of] science and literature and look at these texts as a set of writing strategies, with various purposes."

"The literary purposes and scientific purposes might not be so much in conflict as we might think," he said.

Guillory also said he wanted to design a course where students might see what in these Renaissance texts determined the subsequent history of their reception.

"I hope students learn to be better readers, more historically informed and more self-reflexive about the categories that determine how we read," he added.

In addition, he said he hopes students develop an appreciation of the texts themselves.

"There are a number of quite interesting Renaissance scientific works that should be of interest to students of literature, as well as literary works that participated in the general struggle of early modern writers with questions that came to be considered scientific," he said.

Unlike most English seminars, the class attracts students from concentrations outside the humanities, like Katherine A. McDonald '00.

"The subject matter of Renaissance thought has interested me for a long time," she said. "As a Biology major, how science emerged through writing is of particular interest to me."

Guillory is also teaching English 90fw: "Renaissance Lyric from Wyatt to Marvell" this semester.

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