Last semester, I taught a 200-level English course called “Genre,” which I themed “Changing Natures, the Nature of Change.” We roamed through centuries and continents to explore how writers’ relationships to “nature” and the environment have shifted. We began by reading lyric poetry, moved to drama, and ended with science fiction. Along the way, I assigned scholarly articles that might help students more clearly understand the rules and abilities of each genre. But, at times, during our discussions, I could see that students weren’t quite grasping what made science fiction different from, say, fantasy or the domestic novel. What, they kept asking me, was lyric poetry again?
I began to reflect on my own knowledge of genre. When I was assigned to teach the course, I’d read almost no genre scholarship. My own dissertation was a genre study—the personal essay—and I was catching up on that conversation, but that, it seemed to me, was different. I felt I knew the essay inside and out not through reading about it but through reading it and through writing it. I have a career as a public-facing creative nonfiction writer and science writer—I published a book on the history and culture impact of air conditioning—and what knowledge I claim about the genre comes from contributing to it.
So why was I trying to get students to write about a genre they’d never attempted to write? Halfway through the semester, I transformed the final assignment into a creative writing task, and not without deep anxiety. How would I grade it? What was I doing, assigning creative writing when this was a literature seminar? Would the less writerly students rebel? Again, how would I grade it?
As it turned out, it worked better than almost any assignment I’ve designed, and I think, in reflecting on it, I might press out a few suggestions for instructors in other disciplines—in the humanities, certainly, but also in the natural sciences.
The assignment was simple. I tasked students with choosing one reading from the semester as an inspirational model. After studying it, the student would then write their own version. It would have a different plot, different characters, different voice, etc. But the genre would remain the same. Perhaps they would re-write the story from a different perspective. Or perhaps they would write their own micro-fiction about planetary exploration. I scaffolded the assignment by having students brainstorm an idea, write several drafts, review drafts with classmates, meet with me one-on-one about the idea, and, all along, write about the process, particularly its challenges.
When the students were well on their way to a final draft of their genre piece, I introduced the final part—and, actually, the true component—of the assignment. I wanted them to write a 3–4 page reflection that explained how their creation was representative of the genre, how it drew inspiration from one of the course readings, and how it connects to one of the claims in the scholarly pieces we read. I told them I was eager to read their creative work, but, really, I would focus on the reflective essays.
The results were compelling. The creative work was of a higher caliber than I expected, but I suspect it was because the task wasn’t simply to express themselves. It was both to draw inspiration from a work we’ve read (which requires close analysis and reflection), to imitate it, and then to work within (and perhaps break) the conventions of genre. The reflections stunned me in their clarity about how genres work, what was possible, and what fell flat in the drafting process. Students confronted firsthand how lyric poetry could become prosaic if they used a jargon-y word or how lengthy exposition in a sci-fi narrative can easily dull the reader. They had inhabited the genre first-hand, and the point wasn’t to create exhilarating works of fiction—though some had—it was to attempt what the authors they’d read had attempted and to reflect on it.
I think we underestimate the potential for creative assignments outside of the English department. First, the original act of creation engages students with a sense of ownership. This is theirs. So students tend to nurture and care for the work that goes into the assignment because they’re invested. Second, focusing on replicating genre gives students models to work from, which avoids the dreaded blank page of starting from scratch. Third, writing with a purpose beyond simply “analyzing” or “reflecting” but actually to communicate to a real person in a specific situation can enhance and clarify this assignment even more.
Let me try to open up that last point for anyone skeptical that a model creative genre might not exist in the natural sciences. Several swim to my head: Biology? Rachel Carson or Lewis Thomas. Physics? Richard Feynmann’s There’s Room at the Bottom or Albert Einstein’s elegant explanation of quantum physics through a train metaphor. Math? Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. I could come up with more examples, but my point is simply that they’re there.
But won’t this take up precious time the students need to learn content? The goal is not to replace content-learning with creative noodling. It’s to use the context of compelling, public-facing writing to allow students to digest and communicate complex concepts to non-experts. I worry, when we teach students to regurgitate dense, academic jargon on its own terms, that students fail to understand how to use, explain, or build on those concepts. They can repeat the jargon exactly by rote, but any patient third-grader can do that. My point is that writing—and, specifically, the principles of writing across the curriculum, which can work alongside creative writing and more expressive writing assignments in non-literature courses—can help students become emotionally invested in assignments that assign them the responsibility to translate the course’s discipline-specific concepts to the general public.
Creative assignments need not be huge, final papers, and they don’t need to be fiction. (As an essayist, I bristle when people assume “creative writing” or “literature” is synonymous with “short story” or “novel.”) They could take the form of weekly, low-stakes first-person reflections on the non-human world outside the students’ homes, a typical genre of earlier generations of “natural historians.” They could take the form of a short dialogue between two competing theorists. Or they could attempt to narrate a dense, physics theory to a child—which requires that students understand exactly how it works, what to include and leave out. Higher-level, abstract thinking is crucial for every discipline, but it’s strengthened by combining it with narrative, with high-functioning thinking of the senses. Our brains do not naturally split into narrative and non-narrative disciplines. Homo sapiens sapiens are, as Sylvia Wynter has noted, hybrid beings, both bios and mythoi, the storytelling animal.
Now is the time. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and lyric writer, graces the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and her book has allowed so many reader to understand the overlapping crises of ecosystem collapse, settler colonialism, and a failing political economy, all from a very human perspective. And Kimmerer’s work is not alone. Plenty of literary examples, both contemporary and historical, can be incorporated into our respective disciplines. The latest Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, edited by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, with pieces on the natural world and the ethics of AI, is an excellent starting place.
After all, isn’t this one of the most pressing issues of our time? Atmospheric scientists, environmental journalists, and science writers are sometimes admonished for failing to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis in metaphor, images, and accessible language that a middlebrow reader can comprehend. Especially for the natural sciences, we need to train our students in rhetoric, genre, and compelling public-facing writing across the disciplines. We need to start seeing our disciplines as interdependent, all of them connected through story.