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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Should have cited: Poetics of teaching

Updated: Aug 22

I’m an omnivorous reader [1], and as I progress through one project and then the next, I regularly bump into essays, peer-reviewed literature, comics, etc., that relate closely to past threads of interest, my previous publications, and even languishing projects I someday mean to return to. I recently read just such a paper, and it got me thinking.

The paper is titled: "The poetics of teaching."

“Like poets, effective teachers communicate ‘a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience’ […] Good teaching, like good poetry, pushes against the cutting edge of human experience, opening our eyes to fresh perspectives on the world. Bad teaching, like bad poetry, remains stale, unimaginative, and mind-numbingly predictable.”

~Helen Sword, 2007

Sword’s central contention is that literary studies (and other humanities disciplines) have a central strength: “interpretation and criticism of various kinds of texts, including cultural artefacts (sic) such as films, advertisements, and visual art.” She describes how instructors demonstrate the scholarly work of interpretation and criticism, and the disciplines' expectations that students learn to do the same through discussions and written work (essays, primarily).

In essence, she describes the training I received as an Environmental Studies major who waffled between that major, environmental engineering, and several art majors and minors during my 4.5 years as a first-generation undergrad. As an environmental studies and art student, I learned a vital way of looking at, understanding, responding to, and even pushing back against the material and intellectual creations of the world. This understanding and skill set have been professionally valuable and personally meaningful for me many times since.

These skills have also been the source of great interest (and, initially, puzzlement) for me as my career has increasingly veered into the realms of science and academia. I learned and continue to encounter a grim reality: science students [2] in the U.S. do not get taught this work of engaging with and reacting to texts through their own discussions and essays which receive iterative feedback about conceptual, structural, and expressive efficacy (or lack thereof). And yet, these students are expected to be highly accomplished at just these tasks. These expectations are extensive, daunting, (and generally not met) by late-stage undergrad and certainly by grad school or for anyone who pursues research or communications careers.

However, Sword isn't really talking about what's lacking in STEM training. She asserts that there’s a major downside to humanities/critical tutelage: the focus on criticism drives students to recite others’ ideas undermines students’ capacity to create their own intellectual work. Even though she's not talking about STEM students, I see that concern bear out each time I teach a course in which students must differentiate between their own opinions and the actual statements in source documents, or must leverage sources to craft their own communications efforts. These dilemmas hold (initially) true in science communication courses I teach (both undergrads and grad students struggle with this work). The same challenge arises in scicomm workshops I facilitate and even in creative-science hybrid programs I run.

Because few of the people I teach and coach are humanities students, I’m not convinced that Sword’s concern is an issue specific to the humanities. [3] And, indeed, I’m more interested in the value that can be added for our science students when we integrate the humanities’ apprenticeship-style instructional modes into our teaching practices in the sciences.

And, indeed, Sword is calling for exactly the kind of growth in critical thinking and creativity in learning/research that we look for in our science students:

“Poetry’s etymological roots lie in the concept of making; to make a poem means to bring into the world new uses for language, new ways of describing physcial existence, new ideas about what it means to be human.”

We could so easily swap poetry and poem for science and these goals would hold true to much of the curiosity and delight in learning and exploring unanswered (and even unanswerable) questions that we hope our students will experience through scientific investigation.

And certainly, I desire as much for the students I teach — as I facilitate for them experiences of self-efficacy, of potential for personal growth and discovery, of science knowledge itself as a transferable skill — as Sword calls for in her poetics of teaching:

“A poetics of teaching, then, privileges not only mastery but innovation — not only the transmission of existing knowledge, but also productivity and change.”

There is no discipline-exclusive claim on what she calls pedagogical making, and I celebrate and appreciate her framing of the intellectual work of teaching as such:

“Every act of pedagogical making — the writing of an innovative assignment, the delivery of a well-crafted lecture, the facilitation of a lively class discussion — contributes a complex and dynamic intellectual product to the world. But the true value of poetic teaching becomes evident at the moment when we place our students, too, in the role of poets, coaching them in creative as well as critical thinking.”

Her sentiment is at the heart of my teaching philosophy. My entire goal is to coach students to develop an awareness of tools, habits, and theoretical constructs that enable them to carry their science knowledge out into the world as a toolkit for the better good of society and the planet. We cannot use the deficit model — merely fill students’ short-term memory with mountains of facts and disembodied formulas — and expect them to be able to take that information out into the world in an efficacious or ethical fashion.

Sword’s paper provides several examples, whereby she makes clear that we agree that student-as-poet is a construct as readily applied to engineering, law, and math students as to any literature student. Similarly, we agree with others she cites that artistic, imaginative, poetic — in essence, creative — thinking is as readily available and essential to STEM fields as it is to arts and humanities. This is an argument I have made for years; I am grateful for the space and privilege of academia that these intersections are now also a way of thinking I study and frequently facilitate for others.

In essence, students must get their hands dirty with the very work that we are having them learn from. They must learn by doing. And, we can use the deep synergies between art and science to make such learning accessible and integral for both our students and ourselves. Indeed, we can become readers and makers of the poetry [4] of our own disciplines. Doing so will carry us a long way towards prioritizing such experiences for the students and junior colleagues we teach and mentor.

But, what I'm most interested in from Sword's piece on The poetics of teaching isn't actually the essential need for hands-on learning in all educational settings. It's the reality that we have colleagues on every campus who are steeped in the work and teaching of how to critically engage with texts, analyze the relevance of such texts to our own arguments and research efforts, and then write our own texts that communicate about how all this work connects. We're fundamentally missing this training in the sciences, and it's only a few buildings away.

Right now, I'm co-writing a book that aims to build a particular kind of bridge over this gap. Our book will pull together decades or research from the humanities about how to help developing writers become better writers. We're writing this book because these fields of research (e.g., Rhetoric and Composition, Writing Studies) have been around for a long time, but still, we hear colleagues and students in the sciences wail and gnash their teeth over the seeming-impossibility of helping someone else get better at writing. What's striking to me, as I reflect on Sword's article, is that we don't, currently, include any discussion (okay, very very little) of the critical role played by reading and reacting to what we read in becoming a better writer. So, this post is both a should-have-cited for that old poetry+science paper and a to-do list item for the book. It won't be a double should-have-cited.


Why I didn’t cite it

Once upon a time, I co-authored a paper about using poetry to teach, study, and share science. [5] I was just learning about the expansive realms of modern poetry, and I’m not sure I had yet written [6] anything except middle school rhymes. I was also pretty early in my career transition into academia. I hadn’t yet spent a lot of time thinking about (let alone becoming a researcher, coach, and consultant about) effective and inclusive pedagogy in higher ed. All that to say, I didn’t know about and probably wouldn’t have been ready to appreciate this post’s focal paper: The poetics of teaching. Scrolling further back in time, I had just graduated with my undergraduate degree when this article was published, and I was squarely in a rut with Transcendental poetry. At that time, I didn’t even know (though perhaps I should have?!?) how to look for peer-reviewed literature. Certainly, it never would have crossed my mind to search for publications at the intersections of poetry and pedagogy.

Who wrote it

This paper is written by a poetry professor from New Zealand who has since become a well-known researcher and author about academic writing that folks actually want to read.

Full citation*

Helen Sword. 2007. The poetics of teaching. Teaching in Higher Education 12(4): 539-541.

*If you aren’t able to access the paper, let me know; I can email you a PDF.



1 …and an omnivorous writer, researcher, cook, artist…the list goes on.

2 Granted, there are a few exceptions, but the general rule stands.

3 Of course, she's not talking exclusively about STEM students. Indeed, parts of her paper deliberately expand the focus to other disciplines. However, I'm specifically interested in the humanities' training in textual analysis and criticism. That skill and process is expected of science students but rarely taught.

4For a start, you can subscribe for free to the Poem-a-Day feature from the American Academy of Poets. Exposure to the wide scope of what poetry is and can be is a powerful model for expanding our sense of what is possible in our own disciplines.

5 Let me know if you can’t access the paper; I’ll email you a PDF.

6 I’m currently doing the final revisions on a book-length poetry manuscript I’ll be trying to get accepted for publication by the end of the year! 🥳I also have had a poem published in an anthology, and I’ve fallen deeply into appreciation with many threads of contemporary poetry.

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