Novels vs Dinosaurs: Narratives of Evolution

“Novels vs. Dinosaurs: Narratives of Evolution in 19th-Century British Literature and Science,” English 162-W2, Writing Seminars in English. Taught by Abigail Droge in the Stanford English Department, Spring 2016. Small seminar with students from both humanities and science majors meeting twice a week for an hour and fifty minutes each day, on a ten-week term schedule.

Course Description

In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to forget the shared intellectual history of science and the humanities.  Being good at coding, physics, or engineering will get you a job, the story goes, while an English degree prompts the inevitable question: “What are you going to do with that?” Yet from the standpoint of the nineteenth century, the academic divide between disciplines isn’t a foregone conclusion. In this course, we will reconstruct a historical moment in which literature and the newly emerging fields of evolutionary science were largely concerned with the same questions: what does it mean to be human?  Where did we come from? And where are we going?  More specifically, what tools and skillsets belong to both the novelist and the scientist? What is the place of imagination in science? What is the role of fact in fiction? With a focus on interdisciplinary and historicist critical methods, we will study the overlapping answers given to these questions by naturalists and novelists. The centerpiece of the course will be a sustained reading of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss alongside excerpts from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Major Texts

  • Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Broadview, ed. Joseph Carroll). ISBN 9781551113371
  • George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Penguin, ed. A. S. Byatt). ISBN 9780141439624
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Oxford, ed. Roger Luckhurst). ISBN 9780199536221
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (Penguin, ed. Patrick Parrinder) ISBN 9780141439976

Learning Goals

  • A fuller understanding of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences
  • An understanding of what it means to place texts within a historical context
  • An understanding of what it means to do interdisciplinary work and ask interdisciplinary questions (both the risks and the rewards)
  • The ability to read a text deeply and participate in challenging critical discussions with your peers, both in speech and in writing
  • An understanding of the values and motivations that are important to you in your work and how to fulfill them

Syllabus Design

This course was taught as part of the Writing Intensive Seminars in English (WISE) program in the Stanford English Department, a suite of courses designed by graduate students in concert with their own research interests. WISE emphasizes slow and deep reading (as opposed to survey-coverage) and careful attention to writing and revision.

Full syllabus available here:


The writing requirements for this class consist of five short braided assignments and one longer paper.

  • Short assignments 1 and 3 – Close Readings (~500 words each): For each paper, choose two moments, one in Origin of Species and one in Mill on the Floss, that you think speak to each other (could be an image, a metaphor, a stylistic tic, a sentence structure, etc). Discuss the implications of reading them in dialogue.
  • Short assignments 2 and 4 – Critical Identity Reflections (~500 words each): For each of these papers, reflect on the type of scholar you’d like to be and the values and priorities you want to bring to your research. The first of these papers will address historicist criticism and the second will address literature and science criticism. Each paper should discuss 2-3 examples from the excerpts we read in class (or sources you find yourself).
  • Short assignment 5 – Close reading revision (~1000 words): Choose one of your close reading papers to revise, in light of the reflections you have made about your critical identity. Include a discussion of how the choices you are making in your reading of a passage reflect, challenge, complicate, or develop the values you bring to your scholarship and how your reading relates to the work of at least one other critic.
  • Research Paper (~4000 words):  Explore the interactions between a fictional text and a scientific text/concept. (Could be any genre or century – paper topics need not adhere to the course texts, although they certainly could. You are welcome to build on your previous papers if you wish.) The preparation for the paper will involve these intermediate stages:
    • Problem Artifact (~500 words): A reading of a key artifact (could be a passage from a primary or secondary text, a historical object, etc) as a demonstration of your research problem. Accompany this reading with a provisional thesis statement. Will be workshopped in class and discussed in consultation with instructor.
    • Evidence Outline: This outline will be a roadmap of the main evidence and main claims of your final paper. It should consist of a curated list of ten passages, five from primary texts and one each from five different secondary texts, that you will use as evidence in your argument. Each passage should be accompanied by a few sentences of reflection on the work it will do in your paper and the claim it will allow you to make.
    • Partial Draft (~2000 words): A draft of your final paper with remaining sections of paper outlined so that another person can understand what you mean. Drafts will be workshopped in class.


Droge, Abigail. “Teaching Literature and Science in Silicon Valley.” Journal of Literature and Science 10.1 (Summer 2017): 58-64.

Literature and science teaching has the potential to address an urgent need for collaboration across ever splintering and specializing literacies, and even a single classroom can act as a ground zero for large-scale cooperation between the humanities and the sciences. I begin the process of understanding what is at stake in literature and science teaching by describing my own experiences at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, California. The opportunities and challenges that interdisciplinary teaching faces here, and the relationship that such teaching has to a surrounding corporate environment heavily based in science and technology, can suggest ways forward for the civic potential of literature and science more broadly. [Read more]