Abstract

Co-teaching an interdomain literature and biology course, before, during, and after the COVID-19 protocols led the authors to consider how interdisciplinarity might serve as a means to “de-extinction” for English. The authors, an English professor and a biologist, provide contrasting models representing their distinct perspectives on how English may be revivified through disciplinary integration.

And out of olde bokes, in good feyth, Cometh al this newe science that men lere.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

—George E. P. Box, “Robustness in the Strategy of Scientific Model Building”

Three years ago, I (Sandy) created a “model” in response to an assignment my co-teacher created for our course, From Beast Books to Resurrecting Dinosaurs. My co-teacher is a molecular biologist who, as an undergraduate, minored in English. DNA was “discovered” after I was born. I did not take molecular biology as one of my general education science courses. It didn't exist, except, as I've since learned, as a seminar (0.25 credit) featuring guest speakers every other week; it was hosted by the chemistry department, whose building I never entered.1 So I don't know how I got it into my head to ask a molecular biologist to develop a course with me. Teaching it for the first time, I felt an imperative to do all his assignments to try to understand and apply the concepts he taught; I even submitted the completed assignments to him.

Before the coronavirus altered the educational landscape, our course, focusing on biodiversity and how creatures have been classified over time, began with Aristotle as a foundation, followed by Pliny's Natural History, then onto Albertus Magnus's “translation” of Aristotle's History of Animals, the Bestiary hierarchies and Susan Crane's discussion of its systems of classification, Chaucer's “new science” as represented in The Parliament of Fowls, and onward to Francis Bacon and Margaret Cavendish, among other earlier and more contemporary authors. My colleague would begin with Carl Linnaeus (1758) and Charles Darwin, whose works I felt comfortable with as both literature and science. But once he got to a patent on DNA, and scientific models informed by it, not to mention tables and figures representing “deletions” and “additions”—mutations that would give us the coronavirus—I was out of my element. Doubling bases and blithely creating hybrids offered new intellectual, not to mention ethical, challenges, which I tried to meet when I did the assigned homework.

Doing one course project provided an unexpected source of reminiscence and engagement: in college, I regularly submitted alternative creative responses to course assignments both in and outside my major (and got away with it); and I never intended to specialize in early literature, but rather in Victorian and contemporary works. My own frustrations as a college senior trying to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English should have prepared me for Bryan's initial response to The Parliament of Fowls: finding it intimidating and hard to read, even in the translation I provided. The students, none of whom were English majors that year, found the poem as challenging as I did molecular biology, a subject they had been introduced to as early as middle school. Their exposure to early literature was considerably less robust—typically limited to adaptations of Arthurian literature, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morte Darthur, or The Wife of Bath's Tale.

When I first arrived at Penn State Berks twenty-three years ago, medieval and early modern literature was taught in Survey of English Literature (I). I faced thirty-plus students as a guest teacher in the course, even though none could major in English at our campus. After thirty-five students enrolled in my Shakespeare course, I was encouraged the following year to offer a 400-level Chaucer class and was relieved when eight enrolled. Not bad, I thought; but then, according to the two who stayed, the other six dropped when they saw the book—in Middle English. Within a year, neither Survey of English Literature—I or II—would be offered. Our college's attempt to add an English major would be squashed by the then main campus dean of liberal arts, and that was before the New York Times documented the rising concern with diminishing numbers in humanities, if not quite yet its imminent extinction (Lewin 2013).

Two additional majors in the sciences would be added to our college's small selection of options, and my colleague in biology would draw hundreds into his introductory courses, yet, even so, he expressed interest in combining what he does with what I do. So, you could say, I had to do the homework, at least to understand what I had gotten us both into—and why. My response to Bryan's final project, requiring the creation of a model, was to extend to a university curriculum what we were doing in the course. Model U represented my sense of the need for interdisciplinarity—though perhaps not as typically understood. I have never thought of interdisciplinarity as one course of this and one course of that, or one institute representing multiple disciplines. I knew, though, that I could never become a convincing master of more than my own discipline: offering this course, or another I offered elsewhere twenty-five years earlier, From Alchemy to Chemistry, would not be as compelling, or even possible, without involving colleagues in the sciences. After teaching a course with a chemist and working with a biologist, my sense of urgency to see disciplines relationally only increased. Still, I'm not quite sure what my colleague made of my model that appropriated the language of his discipline and repurposed it—no doubt because he is invariably complimentary (and complementary: he is also a writer).

So, first, the model, whose subject is Chaucer, a writer whose place in English education seems ever harder to sustain, but who, for me, has been essential, adaptable to various environments and needs, despite being too often perceived as a woolly mammoth or pterosaur fragment: evidence of a distant time when those scary dominant species once ruled. I feel a little like the radical scientists who would repopulate our changed landscape with the creatures that became extinct as the world was changed by natural and unnatural events, those in which humans had no hand in the result and those in which they were entirely responsible, whether partisans or perpetrators. In short, Model U (fig. 1) embraces interdisciplinarity and, implicitly, creativity, as a method of de-extinction.2 Responding to the assignment prompted me to think not only about the ways Chaucer could be reclaimed but also how an interdisciplinary approach might provide access to those intimidated by unfamiliar languages identified with specific disciplines. My “creative” approach to understanding molecular biology was to rewrite entries in a course catalog.

Truth was a word that my colleague and I argued over: for the medievalist, Trouthe was a moral value in the Middle Ages, the highest as represented in Chaucer's eponymous lyric poem and in his construction of the Knight in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; for the molecular biologist, truth was the central dogma, DNA, or what science tested and proved. (Bryan interrupts, like a Canterbury pilgrim revealing himself, when he adds, “truth was the realities of the natural world that science aimed to discover and describe, despite never being able to do so with complete certainty.”)

Chaucer's pilgrims are on the way to Canterbury, where the saint Thomas Becket was martyred, and it is he who helped them when they were sick. At Model U, Chaucer is adapted to the “new science” of molecular biology, providing a model for what I couldn't then know we would need: a reexamination of the social dynamic in relation to motivation, illness, and gratitude. I could not do what I hoped students would learn to do—make a viable physical model that somehow showed Chaucer informing molecular biology as together they served the sick, offering scientific methods to salve and save the afflicted. I could only suggest relationships that emerge through a shared language, in which old words are appropriated to serve new needs and illnesses.

The virus has raged over two iterations of our course, forcing its delivery to shift from in-person to Zoom and from Zoom to in-person in the space of a year. Two years of teaching with a molecular biologist during this time has made me realize that English needs to increase its bases and develop its own survival strategy, one that actively engages voices outside the discipline, especially those who are less likely to be aware of how environment informs the existence and success of their own disciplines or how all disciplines contribute to the education of the humans we want to graduate and run the world.3

The impact of the pandemic may have been to contract and devalue, or seem to, what English can do. Yet there are reports of increased general reading.4 This phenomenon may or may not affect the state of English as a discipline. It seems hard to imagine that reading as distraction or comfort will save the discipline, even if there is a halo effect.

So, what I want to consider is “de-extinction”—not a simple concept or process. Bringing something back from perceived extinction, or actual extinction, is not only complex and often costly, it also raises numerous questions: How is de-extinction effected? How is environment accounted for? What would recovery mean—bringing back something that is superficially the same but inevitably different based on changed contexts? In short, what could de-extinction actually mean for English? What accommodations are needed and can be made for reintroduction? These are some of the questions considered below.

I have wondered about who gets to have a say in responding to the changing environment—its tensions, its makeovers—through de-extinction and what it involves: those who manipulate DNA and master technology. True believers. Where is everyone else? Is anyone else necessary? In literature, the terms are reversed: though English faculty determine their curricula, a program's survival depends on many constituencies, including scientists. I have found that those who are responsible for developing vaccines to combat devastating viruses may be the same ones creating models for restoration, reinvention, in short, de-extinction. To some, these scientists may seem to make English, the humanities in general, inconsequential, dinosauric. But that's not what I have found. Rather, those disciplines have helped me re-see my own—that is, early literature. De-extinction constitutes their language. I am appropriating it, with help, to understand what it could mean not just for English, but for our world.

The beginning is observation. What that means is not self-evident across disciplines.

Admittedly, on its face, it's a peculiar pairing. For the past several years, I (Bryan), a molecular biologist, have been co-teaching with an English professor who specializes in early literature. From Beast Books to Resurrecting Dinosaurs (“Beasts”) is an interdomain general education course in which students explore the methods by which Western civilization has described and explained biodiversity: early attempts by Aristotle and Pliny to organize life, the medieval bestiaries’ examination of nature in the context of Christian historia, Linnaeus's taxonomic system and Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree, and the purposes and methods of molecular and synthetic biology. When presented chronologically, it's a syllabus in which my initial feeling of dislocation eventually yields to something like recognition, although not exactly a sense of returning home, even as I teach material that I first learned over thirty years ago, that I studied in graduate school and have published and patented on, and indeed, that I've taught many times in other courses. Combining literature with biology defamiliarizes the science; a hybrid creature is neither one nor the other, but something new—not altogether new, but an amalgam that renders both parts strange. Teaching an interdisciplinary course has led me to consider similarities and differences in the methods and objects of inquiry; to see reading as observation, writing as experiment, rewriting as replication and refinement; to ruminate on the nature of truth.

In science, a model (fig. 2) represents something that's difficult to observe or experience directly in order to explain (and investigate) how it behaves or functions (or might behave or function). The model may be naturalistic (like a computer rendering of bonded atoms in a macromolecule), intentionally idealized or stylized (DNA doesn't actually look like a twisted ladder with colored rungs), or analogical (the nucleotide components of DNA are like letters, genes are like paragraphs or chapters, chromosomes are like books in a genomic encyclopedia of life).

In the first semester of teaching our Beasts course, I asked students to construct a physical, mathematical, or conceptual model that represented something significant we had studied that term. The assignment followed a joint lesson on metaphors and models that put May Swenson's poem “The DNA Molecule” and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase beside James Watson and Francis Crick's double helix, a lesson that induced me to ponder the importance of metaphors and models in scientific thinking—Theodore L. Brown (2003: 25) argues that a model can be treated, essentially, as an extended metaphor—and the comparisons and connections that metaphors and models invite. Reflecting on connections seemed apt for our course and our students.

After the semester ended, I created my own model to represent and further explore the content and our students’ experience of Beasts. I was spurred to make the model partly out of guilt that I hadn't yet done what I'd asked my students to do and that my co-teacher had done straight off. And I wanted what they'd gotten—the engagement and access to creativity that was apparent in the depth and variety of the students’ responses and in how my colleague had transformed the assignment into an opportunity to reflect on her field, higher education, and learning itself.

I based my model (fig. 3) on Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, which we read in the middle of the term and which marked our course's transition from literature to biology in its presentation of a hierarchy of birds that links older categorizations of creatures to taxonomies generated by the “new science” anticipated in the poem's opening lines.5 In a poster and supplementary interactive digital media, the “fowls” in my model were depicted through evolving labels (e.g., poetic names, Latin binomials, DNA barcodes); descriptions (what they say in the poem and what is said about them, key morphological and behavioral characteristics, genomic sequences); and visual representations (woodcuts, scientific illustrations, photographs, renderings generated by artificial intelligence). Various classification schemes, or “parliaments,” arranged the birds according to classical and medieval hierarchies, Linnaean systems, and phylogenetic trees and networks. Thus the model combined historical perspectives with contemporary ones, and literary with scientific, and it encouraged the viewer to reexamine the birds and ways to connect them as well as possible relationships among the connections themselves.

George E. P. Box (1979: 202) asserted that “all models are wrong”—a reminder that models are merely models, approximations. At the time, I thought the model I'd made represented Interdisciplinarity, some wise and powerful figure standing between science and the humanities. And then COVID-19 arrived, with its jumbling of lessons and pedagogies that caused my co-teacher and me to reexamine and remix everything in the course over the next two years. No longer did Beasts neatly contain the literature in one half of the semester and the science in the other. Not to say that Aristotle's observations and Albertus's experiments weren't scientific, or to forget that we had read Ruth Padel's poetry about Darwin's experiments alongside his own report of those investigations into the biogeographic evidence for evolution. However, shaped by the remote learning environment necessitated by COVID, our Beasts course evolved into one that now more tightly interwove the material, the methods, and the instructors. As a result, I've come to realize some limitations of my original model: integrating the two cultures rather than merely juxtaposing them has led me not only to a new appreciation of literatures of the past but also to a new understanding of my own field and how I teach it.

Early undergraduates in biology classes, at least those that meet in the lecture hall rather than the lab or the field, often are led to train much of their attention on concepts: that DNA forms a double helical structure made of four nucleotide bases with distinct chemical complementarity, how the precise pairing of the bases permits the propagation of genetic material, and the way the sequence of the bases encodes the properties of life. Textbooks and instructional videos aliquot this content into digestible chunks of text and colorful diagrams and animations, and then instructors reiterate the concepts with lectures, clicker questions, and think-pair-share activities. Objectives are stated explicitly, comprehensively, and up front. Assessments tend to determine whether students can reproduce ideas and approaches they already have seen or heard about or have been guided to understand rather than find new applications, connections, and combinations—they measure whether students can do and make what's expected of them rather than do and make something unexpected.

This does not describe Beasts, however. My co-teacher, and co-teaching, gave me new perspectives on science and ways to teach it. In Beasts, I've come to ask students to practice methodologies more often than to memorize facts: what's important in the Linnaean system isn't so much Latinized names per se, but the classification enabled by binomials and nested boxes. For a student, there's power in knowing the name of something, but also in doing the naming, and in constructing one's own systems of classification. I assign primary texts, not only from old books (for me, things from the previous century or two are old) but also from contemporary scientific journals. I select articles with less jargon, but I don't feel the need to fully explain the work of the giants on whose shoulders the modern scientists stand. “Content coverage” is beside the point, and not just because the course spans more than two-and-a-half millennia. I've learned to trust students, to let them wander, to let them wonder. I've discovered how much they learn from each other, too, when they form a community, when they present and perform their work, and when they begin to welcome instead of resist the chance to collaborate with one another. I've found space for discussing the relationship between science and society: in recombinant DNA work and cloning, in dreams—and reports—of synthetic life. Attempts at de-extinction of the passenger pigeon aren't simply another application of genome engineering techno-wizardry but also cause for a sober interrogation of ecologies and ethics, as well as, perhaps, a quest for redemption. I've experienced the joy—for students, in the making; for instructors, in the receiving—of creative work that prompts the pupil to write an origin story, to imagine a world, to build a model.

I haven't yet constructed my updated model of Beasts, but when I do, it probably won't represent what I think our students have learned, but rather what I believe I have learned—about teaching, about learning, about how we might approach the problems that presently beset us—through the course, and through the model of interdisciplinarity itself. The usefulness of models lies in their ability not only to communicate but also to stimulate further investigation. Science means more than knowledge; it is connected and complementary to other ways of seeing, questioning, experimenting, and analyzing, ways that may help us study life on its different levels: our biosphere with its myriad ecosystems, each comprising habitats and communities of organisms that themselves are composed of organs, cells, molecules. Molecular biology has produced amazing discoveries by isolating individual components and studying them to understand how they work. But a collection of atoms, no matter how large, does not a world make; it's the way the parts are arranged and interact that leads the staircase of nucleotide bases to cells, organisms, ecosystems, life. Biology and literature have their respective niches in academia's ecology, but they have one another, too.

How to represent that? In the making of that model, I'm fairly certain, there will be more meaning to be found.

Throughout A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the eponymous character challenges the values of the putative Arthurian court, first through trying to retrain its citizens and, finally, through a declared war. He is determined to destroy all of knighthood: he has developed modern—nineteenth-century—weapons that he uses to exterminate platoons of medieval knights. He is not a reader; he's an engineer. But Mark Twain was a reader, one who used a medieval book—Malory's Morte Darthur—together with political economic theory, technical expertise, and mathematics, to address vital issues of his day. Though his main character, the Yankee Hank Morgan, constantly criticizes what he takes to be the values of the Middle Ages embodied in two estates, that of court and church, Twain makes clear that there is a force no less powerful than monarchy, established religion, even modern weaponry: namely, magic, however much his main character disparages it and Merlin, the most famous of its practitioners.

For Bryan, Hank, Merlin, and the Arthurian knights themselves are models as his discipline might use them: representations, approximations, and a means to greater understanding—of STEM, literature, and the conflict between them. He asks, “Is there an ultimate reconciliation? Or is that where the model is wrong?”

Twain suggests the limits of privileging one way of seeing and understanding over another in his final dramatic scene that will juxtapose the advances of science and their effects with that of literary magic and its powers. Hank and his fifty-two boys are able to fight thousands efficiently with the latest technology, including an electric fence that kills instantly, freezing the knights in position before they can even cry out in pain. But they are defeated by what neither he nor the boys he has trained can recognize: Merlin disguised as an old woman. They don't know the tropes. They don't question who she is or whether she is who she says she is; they don't delve beneath appearances. Twain knows he can kill off his own characters, that humans die, but that all the engineering know-how in the world is powerless over archetypes and their magical resilience.

The future cannot be seen by mortals. Whether the pandemic contributes to a resurgence in the discipline and a recognition of interdependency is yet to be determined. In biology, I was told, de-extinction is also called resurrection.

Notes

1.

Greg Thomas, in an email to the author, 11 May 2021, was kind enough to locate this information from an old catalog that has not been electronically archived. He is technical assistant in the office of the Pomona College registrar.

2.

The letters in parentheses represent general education requirement indicators: GA for arts, I for international, Q for honors integrative courses.

3.

See, for example, Sophie Gee's (2021) review of The Modern Myths by Philip Ball, which notes, “The real payoff from Ball's account of how mythic narrative relates to modern science” is in seeing “the endurance of myth as resistance, to the certainties that accompany empirical knowledge and scientific reasoning.” See also Alan Liu (2022: 1, 4), who identifies three questions that were part of a Whatevery1Says project, beginning with “What does it mean that in the news the humanities seem to have no object except books, while the sciences are object-rich?” and ending with “And why in these newspapers is the humanities ‘crisis’ invisible?”

4.

See, for example, Khatib 2021.

5.

The three panels provide simplified examples from the model. In the top panel, woodcut images are from Cecco (1514), accessed through the Provenance Online Project; the classification scheme is from Chaucer (Librarius edition); the color image of geese is from the Harley Bestiary (“Geese,” n.d., 54); and the goose description is from the Aberdeen Bestiary (“Goose,” n.d., 53r). In the middle panel, the tree diagram is from Darwin's Notebook B (1837) accessed through https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Darwin_tree_cut.png; bird images are from Bewick (1797–1804), accessed through https://archive.org/details/historyofbritish11797bewi/mode/2up; the color Cuculus canorus image is from John Gould (1832–37), accessed through https://archive.org/details/birdsEuropeIIIGoul/page/240/mode/2up; and the classification is from Linnaeus (1758). In the bottom panel, the pigeon vector images are adapted from images at https://publicdomainvectors.org/en/public-domain/; the central bird image was produced by Autodraw by Google Creative Lab (autodraw.com); and the DNA barcodes of the band-tailed pigeon Patagioenas fasciata (Record GBIR9546–19) and passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius (Record GBIR10557–19) are from the Barcode of Life Data System v4 (http://www.boldsystems.org/) (Ratnasingham and Hebert 2007).

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