Literature as Hypothesis

Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona, and writer-in-residence at Hollinger Elementary.

Before I started my MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona, I worked for two years in science outreach through the Arizona Science Center.   I traveled around the state, visiting schools, clubs, and libraries with our portable science kits and demonstrations, trying to spark the public's interest in science and its many applications.  I learned a number of crucial lessons, including not to chew gum when handling liquid nitrogen, but one of the more frustrating ones was how difficult it is to change the public perception of science as a field which requires a great deal of education to understand. The students were a little more pliable when it came to convincing them that they were already scientists; it was the adults that were brick walls.  I can't tell you how many times an instructor or somebody's mom would come up to me after a program and say, "That was so much fun; I wish I could do more of that with my kids, but I'm so bad at science."  If I tried to point out that they had just easily understood the basics of electron motion through copper wire or the basic functions of the digestive system, they demurred and shut down. "I just don't get science," is the common refrain of most teachers with no formal training, and it is, quite simply, not true.  You do get it--you just don't know it yet.

Science is natural to human thinking; it is something people practice every day, completely unaware that they are doing it.  When you get up on a July morning and reach for your tank top without checking the temperature or even looking out the window, you are practicing science. You are using the cumulative knowledge of past evidence via observation in order to make a decision.  You are using inductive logic. It's entirely possible that it could snow in Arizona in July--except that past evidence indicates otherwise, and past evidence is a reliable indicator of future events.   You know it has never snowed in July, and that therefore it probably won't this year, either.  This process of inductive reasoning is the basis of all scientific inquiry, and it is inherent to good writing. Characterization, observation and description, logical argument, dissecting texts, and drawing conclusions based on analysis are all scientific elements, and it is a disservice to literature to try to separate these two subjects which rely on each other so heavily.

I know that creative writing runs up against similar obstacles of public perception: writing is often considered a sissy, emotional pastime requiring no formal study and offering no tangible benefits to society.  I had a wrangler ask me what I studied while on a trail ride in Sedona; when I told him, he looked at me quizzically and asked, "Why?"  ("For the money," I said, "Duh.") I hope, my darling educators, that you know this perception to be the blatant lie it is.  Reading and writing and analysis of literature allow for complex thinking techniques to develop. Students can hone their preciseness, their logical thought processes, their causal understanding, and their interpretive skills by learning to analyze a text, all of which are necessary skills when examining scientific data. Clear writing leads to clear thinking, and clear thinking leads to good science.  The better a scientist I become, the better my writing gets.

I don't know how to go about changing these misconceptions in the classroom, but I do know that it is necessary in order to achieve true interdisciplinary work and provide our students with indispensible critical thinking skills. Writing about scientific topics is good, but it is not enough.  There must also be an understanding of doing science on literature and in essays: there must be the basic questioning of assumptions, the clear logical inferences, and the analytic breakdown of literary "data" in schools.  Often these skills are not even addressed in the science classrooms, much less in English or social studies, but they are a requirement when it comes to producing creative and critical thinkers.  Just this last week a group of adult students asked me, "Why should we care about literature?"  It caught me off guard at the time, and I didn't have an answer and could only encourage them to express their dislike intelligently.  If I could have another round with them, though, I would broach the idea of literature as hypothesis and encourage them to read and write in order to understand the world around them.  If students can learn to find logical holes and biased language in persuasive and expository essays, they can learn to find them in political speeches and newspaper articles.  If they can learn to tell a story believably, they can learn to recognize an unbelievable story as it's told to them.  And if they can learn to recognize other people's worth as thinkers, they will increase their own.

Created on: 
Monday, January 30, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents