Wordsworth in a Math Bubble
This semester I’m teaching a course entitled, “Poetry, Art, and Science in the Age of Wonder” at Georgia Tech. At Tech, there’s no such thing as an English major, and so teaching a humanities course poses some unique challenges. How to make literature compelling for science and engineering majors is one of the questions I frequently ask myself when designing courses. Richard Holmes’s recent The Age of Wonder presented me with an excellent opportunity to combine my students’ interests with Romantic literature. So far this semester, we’ve been reading Holmes’s book and the experience has been, well, wonderful. The text has proven enticing for my students; it’s also a great example – as a notable and bestselling book – of the contemporary interest in and relevance of the Romantics.
One of the concerns I’ve had, however, is that the book is long and detailed, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing Holmes but less time than I would like discussing Romantic poetry. I tried to rectify that this week by bringing to class a copy of William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned.” I handed out the poem after we had discussed Holmes’s chapter on “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul.” This chapter, more than any of the others, considers why the Romantic poets have frequently been seen as anti-science. I felt that “The Tables Turned” would allow students to dig into those assumptions and see first-hand how complicated Wordsworth’s response to science was in the poem.
In discussion, students targeted the famous line, “We murder to dissect.” Students also started to ask questions, such as, “if the poem is so anti-science, why does Wordsworth use ‘we’ in that line? Shouldn’t he say you?” Then students noticed the grouping of “science and art” in the last stanza, realizing quickly that much like science, poems also dissect objects of beauty for analysis in their own way. I was pleased with this discussion, but I also wanted to see how far we could take our analysis of the poem. I asked students to indulge in a creative thought experiment: if they could represent the poem as a work of visual art, any kind of work of art (a painting, a digital project, a comic book), how would they do so?
Students were quiet at first, but then they started to get excited. Really excited. I couldn’t keep up with the hands in the air. Lots of students proposed depicting a dreary lab with a window out on nature; others started to get more complex. One student said she imagined Wordsworth trapped in a bubble made out of math equations floating over a sublime landscape. As the students tossed ideas around about what the poem would look like, they engaged in compelling analyses of the poem: one student, for example, said he worried that representing the lab as dreary and nature as wonderful recreated a dichotomy between science and art that perhaps Wordsworth hadn’t quite meant to create; perhaps we could combine them by making the lab instruments double as natural objects. A tree could be a beaker, a leaf a sheet of lab notes.
All in all, it was a great discussion, and students got to get excited not only about the poem but about their creative capacity for analyzing and representing it. This kind of excitement is important in my course not least because throughout the semester, students are working in groups to develop technologically innovative online exhibitions of Romantic poetry, creating just the sorts of images they imagined in class this week. But I will save those details for another blog post. In the meantime, I’m wondering what other kinds of creative strategies folks have used to get students engaged in discussion, and I’m especially interested in considering the benefits (and perhaps also the drawbacks) of asking students to perform this kind of synaesthesiac experiment – would this experiment be possible to try with music, for example? Or film? Or other mediums?