Cynthia Wall Makes the Familiar Strange and the Strange Familiar in 'Weird Science' Literature Course

June 2, 2009 — In Thomas Shadwell's 17th-century play, "The Virtuoso," a character mimics the basic moves of swimming breast-stroke style from watching a frog. Instead of getting in the water, he demonstrates lying belly-down on a table.

Robert Hooke's engraved book "Micrographia" celebrates the flea's "curiously polish'd suit of sable Armour" with a huge pop-up illustration.

These are just two examples of how the growth of "natural philosophy" – or scientific observation – in the 17th and 18th centuries was reflected in the literature of the time. The phenomena are the subject of "Weird Science," a class taught by University of Virginia English professor Cynthia Wall.

The class, which runs through Friday, takes students on a voyage through the literature from several hundred years ago – a time of great discovery.

"The scientists, or 'natural philosophers,' of the 17th and 18th centuries were discovering the miracles of new worlds through microscopes and telescopes, and they wanted to make accurate observation and description a cultural habit," Wall said.

The 13 students – about half of whom are English majors – are exploring these new genres of natural philosophy writing from sources such as The Royal Society and essays by Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke.

In turn, she asks her class, "What kind of observer are you? What do you notice or pay attention to in the world?"

"If you cultivate the habit of paying close attention to your world – whether it's nature, art, politics, economics, religion, baseball or literature – you're better at interpreting it. And you'll never get bored: nothing is ordinary when you look closely at it," said Wall, a specialist in Restoration and 18th-century literature.

At the same time naturalists were describing new worlds, "writers like Jonathan Swift and Thomas Shadwell were making fun of them," Wall said. Other readings and performances have included Susanna Centlivre's play, "A Bold Stroke for a Wife," Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" and opinion pieces from periodicals that would be called tabloids today – The London Spy and The Female Spectator.

In addition to reading and discussing these works, the students give presentations and performances, displaying their own observations and interpretations.

Abdullah Khalil, a third-year chemistry major, wrote a parody of a poem describing cigarettes with scientific accuracy and typical metaphors of the period – "She is a cunning temptress …"

Blair Blincoe, a fourth-year student also majoring in English, said she liked the exercise of going outside and picking a natural object to write about. Sharing what they wrote, she could see how people's observations differed, she said.

Three groups of students acted out the same characters in the plays as another way to show different interpretations.

Lesean Carey, another English major, liked portraying and watching others' portrayals of the characters, saying it helped her understand the language and ideas of the time.

Students also have used close observation and analytical reflection, applying them to their own experiences, including painting, running, practicing punctuation, teaching horseback riding to underprivileged children and competing in cheerleading, Wall said.

Writers from this era "show us how simile and metaphor, along with the microscope and telescope, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar."

— By Anne Bromley