Fortifying its literary roots, Kenyon has embraced the proliferation of science writing programming in recent years, aiming to bridge the gap between the various disciplines of the liberal arts. These efforts culminated on Friday, when the College announced via a news bulletin that the Mellon Foundation has gifted it with a $150,000 grant to support pre-existing programs and future initiatives in science writing.
“I received an invitation to apply to the Mellon Foundation for a grant to fund a program that was important for the College, and this program immediately came to mind,” President Sean Decatur wrote in an email to the Collegian. “The Mellon grant will allow us to bring science writers to campus to offer classes for students, support student projects, and work with faculty in further developing the efforts currently underway.”
The seeds for such an award were sown almost four years ago. In the spring of 2016, Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky and Professor of Biology Chris Gillen worked together to develop a team-taught course in science writing, effectively anticipating the surge in science writing programming that would come in future years. Lobanov-Rostovsky also curated a special edition of the Kenyon Review that fall, entitled “The Poetics of Science” and centered around science writing.
“This has been completely a grassroots effort, and a lot of people have been doing science writing — creative writing in science classes or creative writing about science in other parts of the College — for a whole bunch of years,” Gillen said. “So I think what happened is there were a number of us around who were interested in doing this stuff, and we started to come together. What really formed the nucleus … was the formation of the science writing class.”
Gillan and Lobanov-Rostovsky taught the first iteration of Science Writing (ENGL 404.00) in the spring of 2017 and again the following spring; the course has since been team-taught by Professor of English David Lynn ’76 P’14 and Professor of Biology Robert Mauk. Other science writing initiatives have followed alongside the course: In the summer of 2018, the Kenyon Review added to their regiment of summer programs a Young Science Writers Workshop for high school students. Meanwhile, students proved just as interested in interdisciplinary learning with the formation of Lyceum, the first science writing student literary journal, in the fall of 2018.
From his experience of team-teaching the science writing course and reading student work in Lyceum, Gillen is convinced that students have played — and will continue to play — a central role in making science writing a cornerstone of Kenyon’s interdisciplinary approach to pedagogy.
“We couldn’t do science writing … without the amazing students we have here at Kenyon,” Gillen said. “I think about the science writing class where we asked science students to walk over to Lentz and sit in a writing workshop [and] read their work aloud — that’s hard. And, in the meantime, we’re asking the English majors to become knowledgeable enough about an area in science that they could write about it with authority and creativity.”
According to the Jan. 17 news bulletin, the Mellon Foundation money will be matched with Kenyon funds to provide further interdisciplinary writing opportunities, including a humanities-based science writing curriculum. With these funds, the College plans to develop new science writing classes, coordinate regular workshops and meetings and bring renowned science writers to campus. In addition, they will sponsor recent graduates in science writing to come to Kenyon and teach science writing as visiting professors.
For Gillen, science writing is about more than just training students for future careers in science journalism or writing “the popular book on science that a lot of people read.” While these are certainly important, he suggests that science writing can do more than that — it can inspire us to explore the limitations of genre and reexamine our own disciplines by viewing them through a new lens.
“I think there’s something more to how we envision science writing here at Kenyon,” Gillen said. “It can be a way to probe into deep issues about what it is to be human. By exploring questions in science, we can get at some of the same kinds of questions about humanity or how we live on this planet.”