How Can I Teach Curiosity?

In my history of the scientific revolution course I have devised an assignment that asks the students to select, describe, and analyze a primary source from our (Haverford’s or Bryn Mawr’s) special collections. The book, pamphlet, or letter has to have been written/published during the period covered in the course—roughly 1500 to 1700—and has to be related to science (broadly understood). Some aspects of the project are pretty easy: What is the text? Who is the author? When and where was it published? Etc. Other questions require that they do more work: What other texts did the printer produce? Who paid for the work? Who read the text? When and where? How does the text relate to other works by the same author or other similar works by other authors? Are there any marginalia? Etc. Over the next five weeks students will try to answer as many of these questions as they can. They will then use their analysis of this document as the starting point for their research papers.

The biggest challenge for this assignment seems to be teaching them how to be curious. Or, to put it more specifically, how to formulate and ask questions. For example, the other day we looked at a copy of Newton’s Principia mathematica that contains some marginalia. They seemed uninterested in the marginal notes or how they could be used to understand how a particular person had read the text. When pressed, one student offered: I guess somebody wrote in the margin. While I wasn’t expecting fully formulated book history type questions, I had hoped that they might think about whether or not the person who had written his name in the front of the volume might also be the person who had annotated the book. Or to ask if all the notes were by the same person. When we looked at a few different kinds of notes, e.g., “vid. errata” or “N.B.” or they occasional keyword, they seemed at a loss as to what to do with them.

That same day we compared copies of Sacrobosco’s De sphaera, Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, and Newton’s text. The first was a little school textbook. The Copernicus and the Newton were larger format texts. The different sizes of the texts, both their formats and their lengths, didn’t elicit any comments or questions.

What surprised me was the students’ lack of ability to or lack of interest in noting these features—marginalia, owner’s signature, size and format. How do you teach students to be curious about these things? And what else do they miss because they are not encouraged to ask questions?

My goals for this assignment include getting the students to see that knowledge is always embodied in particular forms, that readers encounter those texts in particular contexts that shape how they interact with them. And those readers often leave traces of their readings that help us understand how they made sense of, or did not make sense of, the texts. Further, by struggling with primary sources—unsanitized, marked up, defaced, misunderstood, etc.—they can gain an appreciation for the strangeness of the past. Students can also begin to recover some of the effort readers expend to make sense of the texts. Rather than see Newton’s or Copernicus’s text as fundamentally right, they get a chance to see how 16th- and 17th-century readers thought they were right or wrong. They get a chance to see how much effort was exerted to make a point, sometimes a counterintuitive point.

But to achieve any of these or related goals students need to be able to ask questions of the sources. They need to be able to see the sources as more than imperfect versions of some Platonic text in which the pellucid light of truth was sufficient to compel all readers to understand and accept the arguments put forth. And that’s where curiosity and questions come in.

History of science is certainly not unique in requiring some curiosity on the part of its students. However, it seems particularly susceptible to an assumption of progress and contribution. Whereas it makes little sense to ask if Marlowe or Shakespeare “got it right” or to ask which king was closer to the“Truth,” students want to hear about how particular actors contributed to modern science or to modern mathematics. They want to asses the Galileos, Gilberts, Keplers, Hookes, etc. in terms of right and wrong. And while they seem to be able to say the right thing when sitting in class and discussing some point, they were singularly flummoxed by the actual primary sources.

How then do we encourage curiosity? How can we instill habits of questioning in 18–21 year olds? Without some sense of wonder or surprise, some desire to ask questions, how much and what exactly can we really hope to teach them? Any thoughts or suggestions welcome.

[This was originally posted as “How to Teach Curiosity in the History of Science” at PACHS. This semester I am revising and re-empolying this particular attempt at encouraging students to be curious and, perhaps, wrong. So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on it again.]

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