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  • Literature for Specific Purposes:A Literary Approach to Teaching Ethics in Science and Technology
  • Kathryn Strong Hansen (bio)

"Scientists need the same skills as humanists to cut through misleading observations and arrive at a defensible interpretation, and intellectual cross-training in the humanities exercises the relevant portions of the brain."

—Thomas Cech1

Education in science and technology faces a constellation of problems regarding how students master the nontechnical skills that are essential for the successful execution of their professional duties. In particular, educators struggle to provide sound training in ethics, and in this essay I focus specifically on engineering education.2 I here propose a schema with which to teach ethics by marrying humanities methods with engineering concerns, primarily through the targeted selection of literary texts, direction of subsequent discussion, [End Page 337] and construction of assignments to meet discipline-specific learning outcomes. As a scholar trained in literary criticism but who works at a technical university, I draw on my unique background to bridge what are often viewed as radically disparate areas of study. What I discuss in this essay is part of a larger project that takes an interdisciplinary approach to teaching science and technology that I call "literature for specific purposes." This phrase consciously echoes the name of the "language for specific purposes"3 approach, which teaches language within the context of a scientific or professional discipline. By uniting the focused approach of language for specific purposes with the opportunity for discussion afforded by literary interpretation, the literature for specific purposes approach provides a beneficial framework for the teaching of many discipline-specific concerns, and I discuss this by using ethics as an example.

Because the language for specific purposes approach is an overt model for my approach, defining that approach is necessary, as is explaining how the literature for specific purposes model departs from it. The term "specific" is key because, in the language for specific purposes approach, "teaching activities are specific to the subject matter being taught."4 That is, the disciplinary context dictates all elements of course construction. This approach emphasizes instructors' focus on "the gap between learners' current and target competencies,"5 and relies on clear learning outcomes to drive course, text, and assignment selection. Moreover, instructors must enter "as a stranger into strange domains—academic and occupational areas that may feel quite unfamiliar."6 Therefore, in these "specific purposes" interventions, instructors rely on the content knowledge of experts in the discipline in the course planning, using their own expertise to select methodologies for learning. Where the two approaches differ most is in the texts that form the basis of their work. Language for specific purposes primarily uses authentic examples of texts that students will encounter in academic or professional work. In contrast, literature for specific purposes uses carefully selected literary texts [End Page 338] that meet the learning outcomes and course goals. For instance, if issues of professional authorship are key, students could read Percival Everett's novel Erasure (2001)7 about a fiction writer who has falsified an identity in order to be published. Or, for a narrative involving the fitting of results to a predetermined conclusion, Roald Dahl's "Taste" (1951),8 a short story about wine experts competing to show who has the greater knowledge, could be used.

Literary thinking (the careful examination of plot, character, narrative, and other literary elements to come to a greater understanding about key issues in a text) lends itself well to ethical thinking (the careful examination of actions and beliefs to come to a greater understanding of morality or rules of conduct),9 but it is important to tailor literary exploration to the needs of the discipline in which the ethical study is sought. Therefore, to target ethical aspects that will resonate with students, course goals must be developed in concert with instructors from the students' discipline.10 Peter Read has argued that course design in language for specific purposes should "involve three main stages: analysis of learner needs; definition of course objectives; translation of objectives into pedagogical practice,"11 and those stages apply here as well. Effectively analyzing learners' needs for instructors outside of the students' discipline would be difficult, so...


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