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English 555, Spring 1998


New Mexico State University

  • INSTRUCTOR: David Fleming, PhD
  • CLASS MEETINGS: TTh, 10:20 a.m. - 11:35 a.m., EN 107
  • OFFICE: EN 218
  • OFFICE HOURS: TTh, 11:45 a.m.-1:00 p.m., & by appt.
  • PHONE: 646-3931 (English Dept.), 646-2239 (office/voice mail)
  • EMAIL:

  • Objectives | Assignments | Texts | Grades | Calendar | Bibliography

    1.  Objectives.

    In an Aristotelian picture of the two, rhetoric is an art of argumentation for securing judgment and action in a situated audience of non-experts (e.g., assemblymen, jurors, spectators) about matters of dispute and deliberation in the civic sphere.  It uses continuous discourse to advance opinions concerning particular human affairs.  Science, on the other hand, is a method of inquiry used by experts (i.e., philosophers) in the impersonal pursuit of valid truth about objective reality.  In this picture, the two are certainly different endeavors, but each has a domain where it is a legitimate form of human inquiry.  Science required better-trained participants and more dialectical interchange in small groups; and it saw its goal as necessary knowledge rather than justified opinion; but the two were capable of co-existence, each having its place and the two even sharing certain practices and values (e.g., the syllogism).  It was with the rise of inductive science in the 16th and 17th Centuries that a wedge was driven between the two, and they began to be seen as incompatible enemies.  With the subsequent rise of plain language, the printing press, and romantic notions of authorship, rhetoric began its modern decline; while the stock of science (and its applied offspring, technology) has continued to rise.

    Since World War II, however, scholars in the humanities have attempted to reverse their marginal status, blurring the line between rhetoric and science and “dressing down” the latter by highlighting the historical, sociological, ideological, argumentative, figurative, gendered, and cognitive aspects of the scientific enterprise.  Taking its cue from contemporary work in the philosophy and history of science and the sociology of knowledge, a new field of inquiry has arisen among scholars in communication and English departments that often goes by the name of “rhetoric of science.”  It presents a very different picture of rhetoric and science than that painted above.  In the last few years, however, this picture has also been called into question; just as the earlier, Aristotelian and early modern one had drawn the line between science and rhetoric too neatly, the picture of science and rhetoric in the humanities had conflated the two against all common sense.  Talking today about the “rhetoric of science” is especially difficult given that each term in the phrase is itself contested.  In this course, we’ll try to figure out just what “rhetoric” and “science” are and what their interface might be.  Rather than assume, as both of the above pictures did, that the relationship between the two is a question already answered (usually in favor of either one or the other), our focus will be on problems generated by their contact.  Easy answers will be unavailable to us.

    We'll approach rhetoric of science as an intellectual topic whose core problem is language use in the sciences.  But we'll try to focus as much as possible on actual scientific discourse and orient things when we can to practical concerns.  The course should be useful for future researchers & scholars, teachers of writing, administrators of writing-across-the-curriculum programs, and professional communicators.  Our test case throughout will be the natural and physical sciences, but we will see three other areas of inquiry as closely related and relevant: 1) the rhetoric of the human and social sciences (and disciplinarity in general); 2) the rhetoric of engineering, design, and technology; and 3) the rhetoric of the professions (medicine, law, etc.).

    The course will proceed in three units, of about 5 weeks each: the first, concerning “big” questions in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science; the second, dealing with particular research programs in the rhetoric of science; the third, concentrating on your own individual research problems.  This is a movement from whole-class reading and discussion to individual research and writing.

    2.  Assignments.

    Graded work in the course will include:

    1) reading and discussion.  I strongly encourage you to keep a journal of reading notes, writing down before each class at least one good question, comment, observation, or problem raised by your reading.  I will often ask for volunteers to report on relevant outside readings.

    2) mid-term take-home exam, probably due after Spring Break (Mar. 10) and concerning the reading, discussion, and lectures of the first part of the course.  You will answer a single question, 5-7 pp. DS.

    3) presentation on a controversy or problem in the rhetoric of science.  This will be a 30 min. lecture built around a key article, paper, or book chapter that has generated controversy.  Examples include:

    -- the Sokal affair
    -- popularizing science
    -- science and feminism
    -- science and the Holocaust
    -- textbook presentations of science
    -- the Two Cultures
    -- expert-layperson relations (medicine, etc.)
    -- science on trial
    -- style of scientific prose
    -- the rise of the experimental article
    -- the scientific journal
    -- the Challenger debate
    -- technology transfer

    4) a final research project.  I see five main options for this project: a paper exploring a historical, philosophical, or critical problem; one employting textual or linguistic analysis of scientific discourse; an empirical or quasi-experimental study; an observational or ethnographic study; or a teaching plan for a 15-wk college-level course on rhetoric of science.  We’ll go through the project in various stages:

  • a. announcement of interest, topic, question, situation
  • b. report of initial reading and observations
  • c. formal statement of research problem
  • d. submision of preliminary plan
  • e. submission of status report
  • f. a public presentation (during final few weeks of semester)
  • g. final paper (due during exam week, 10-20 pp DS).

  • 3.  Texts.

    Readings in the class will come from the following texts:
  • Darwin, Charles.  The Origin of Species.  London: Penguin, 1968.
  • Gross, Alan G., and William M. Keith, eds.  Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Invention and Interpretation in the Age of Science.  Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1997.
  • Harris, Randy Allen, ed.  Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies.  Mahway, NJ: Hermagoras Press of Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  3rd ed.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
  • Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar.  Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts.  2nd ed.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.
  • Megill, Alan, ed.  Rethinking Objectivity.  Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
  • Shapin, Steven.  The Scientific Revolution.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
  • These texts are required.  In addition, I may put supplementary articles and chapters on reserve in the library.  Finally, I will provide you with a list of articles and books recommended for individual reading.

    4.  Grades.

    I use letter grades on papers but translate these to numbers for computing your final grade.  Final grades will be computed using the following formula:
  • Reading & discussion  15%
  • take-home mid-term exam  25%
  • presentation  15%
  • final project  45%
  • Final Grade  = 100%

  •  5. Calendar

    Week 01 Th Jan 15 introduction
    Week 02 Tu Jan 20 Darwin
     Th Jan 22 Darwin
     F Jan 23 Last day to add a class
    Week 03 Tu Jan 27 Darwin
     Th Jan 29 No class
    Week 04 Tu Feb 03 Shapin
     Th Feb 05 Shapin
    Week 05 Tu Feb 10 Kuhn
     Th Feb 12 Kuhn
    Week 06 Tu Feb 17 No class; Megill
     Th Feb 19 No class; Megill
    Week 07 Tu Feb 24 Megill
     Th Feb 26 Megill
    Week 08 Mar 02 - 06 Spring Break
    Week 09 Tu Mar 10 Exam due; Latour & Woolgar
     Th Mar 12 Latour & Woolgar
    Week 10 Tu Mar 17 Harris
     W Mar 18 Last day to drop with a “W”
     Th Mar 19 Harris
    Week 11 Tu Mar 24 Harris
     Th Mar 26 Harris
    Week 12 Tu Mar 31 Gaonkar
     Th Apr 02 No class, CCCC (Chicago)
    Week 13 Tu Apr 07 Gaonkar
     Th Apr 09 Gaonkar
     F Apr 10 Spring Holiday
    Week 14 Tu Apr 14 Individual projects
     Th Apr 16 “”
    Week 15 Tu Apr 21 “”
     Th Apr 23 “”
     F Apr 24 Last day to withdraw from the university
    Week 16 Tu Apr 28 “”
     Th Apr 30 “”
    Week 17 Tu May 05 “”
     Th May 07 Last day of regular classes
    Week 18 May 11 - 15 Exam week; final papers due
     May 16 Commencement
     May 19 Final grades due