In HONR 299: Human Redesign, we will explore how science, literature, and popular culture worked in concert to create a shockingly modern conception of the human being. With the nineteenth century under the microscope, students will see the creation of many of our contemporary academic fields: sociology, physiology, psychology, neurology, as well as cellular and evolutionary biology. Indeed, science would radically alter how people thought about the human being, but so too did culture control the conditions of this scientific imagination. By discussing various texts – from medical treatises, to science fiction, to sensational responses in periodicals
– students will learn that the re-conception of the human was not only an interdisciplinary affair, but was acultural one as well.
Course Overview and Goals
Each class focuses around a specific component of the nineteenth-century human redesign. Typically, students will read a few short excerpts from scientific and literary texts about that topic, and, in class, they will take the lead in discussing these topics and their cultural implications.
The course has three overarching goals:
- Interdisciplinarity: in covering a wide variety of topics and fields related to the human subject, students will develop their capacity to analyze a concept or problem from a variety of perspectives.
- Collaboration: students will become active members in a discourse community, that is, a group of scholars who work together to promote their collective understanding of a topic. Indeed, all academics, scientists, even employees at a corporation are members of a discourse community, and it will be useful for students to learn good practices for collaborative knowledge formation.
- Inquiry: throughout much of the course, students work steadily on a final research project that charts the genealogy of a key topic or concept relevant to the course. In doing so, students have the opportunity to hone their inquiry skills, such as formulating unique research questions, synthesizing diverse or divergent concepts, and effectively distilling and communicating complex ideas.
The students in this course produced strong work, with their final genealogy projects proving quite exceptional. Topics for the genealogy projects included the cell, free will, the role of religion in science, statistics, degeneration, hysteria, and education. In each case, students effectively recognized critical points of intersection between nineteenth-century arts and sciences, as they documented how these topics evolved across the century due to key events and publications.
Not only did the students produce strong work, they also recognized the value of the work asked of them in this course. In their anonymous evaluations — completed by 73% of course enrollees — student ratings for both the course and instructor averaged 4.8 on a 5-point Likert scale for excellence. Students similarly rated the relevance of assignments to course goals and the ability of the course to encourage critical thinking as 4.9 on a 5-point Likert scale of agreement. In their written comments, the most common points of emphasis were the value of student-oriented discussions, interdisciplinarity, and opportunity to pursue individual lines of thought. For example:
- “The course was unlike any other in that it was very analytical and allowed for students to take many different paths and arrive to different conclusions.”
- “I liked most the way it challenged the way I think about things. I typically assess things in much the same way, but this course forced me to look at topics from all sorts of different angles and perspectives, which was difficult but definitely beneficial and important to my development as a student and someday professional.”
“I liked how much this course made me think critically, especially through the use of discussion.”