A Hands-On English Class Explores Religion and Science
Posted on December 20, 2017by Hannah Silverstein
Christie Harner’s “English 52” class designed a public exhibition for a Vermont museum.
The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium is an imposing, church-like structure in downtown St. Johnsbury, Vt., that houses the eclectic collection of 19th-century industrialist Franklin Fairbanks—think taxidermied polar bears, an assortment of mineralogical samples, tapestries made of insects (yes, insects), and cultural artifacts from all over the world.
In short, a perfect place for students of the Victorian scientific revolution to install a group exhibition exploring the cultural impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
The class, Christie Harner’s “English 52: God, Darwin, and the Literary Imagination,” worked all term on the project, and in mid-November trekked an hour north of Hanover for its opening. (The show runs through early January.)
“The natural history museum was a 19th-century invention. It makes sense to continue our class conversation in a forum that is both Victorian and contemporary,” says Harner, a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing.
Harner’s course immersed students in 19th-century British literature and culture. In addition to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, they read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (“one of the strangest children’s books you’ll ever read,” Harner says), and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, among others.
And for two months, they planned the Fairbanks exhibition, selecting its theme—A Dialogue on Our Origins—taking field trips to the museum to consult with curators, and developing individual projects to share their knowledge with a public audience.
“What was so fascinating about this project is that we had to integrate everything that we learned in the course and produce a very public final product. That’s something I had never done in a course previously,” says Nicholas Vernice ’18, a biology major from Garden City, N.Y.
Vernice designed a poster that compares the Victorian public’s reception of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory of population growth to the reception of Darwin’s theory, published 40 years later.
“Malthus was an English cleric, and his work was responded to much more positively and in a religious context, although it relied on the same principles that Darwin also spoke of,” Vernice says. “When Darwin took the same theory and applied it in a more secular light, he received a very different reception.”
Joseph Kiang ’21 focused his project on the modern creationist movement. “In modern times we see a lot of ideas like a flat earth or neo-creationism, and we also have prominent scientists saying that creationism and evolution can never interact. I want to examine that and see whether or not there is still some kind of common ground we can go to,” he says.
Lindsay Kusnarowis ’20 calls her project “Products of the Imagination”—inspired by a quote by a 19th-century zoologist who dismissed the theory of evolution as a “product of the imagination.”
“I thought the phrase was interesting because it has a double meaning. In the context of the quote, it means something made up, sort of a flight of fancy. But from my perspective, the scientific process is a product of imagination—a tremendously creative, imaginative process,” says Kusnarowis, who is thinking of declaring majors in cognitive science and English.
Hannah Hoffman ’19 used Photoshop to create perhaps the most visually striking work in the show: a mosaic image of Darwin created from smaller images of the religious and scientific figures who influenced him. From across the gallery, visitors see the giant Darwin portrait, but as they approach, the smaller images become visible. Each image can be flipped up to reveal biographical information about the person shown.
“I was really struck that so many of these people who influenced Darwin were also religious figures,” including Darwin’s uncle, Erasmus Darwin, who “interpreted the Bible very literally,” Hoffman says.
“I hope this project got students to think about what it means to be a producer of culture rather than a recipient of it,” says Harner of the Fairbanks Museum show. “So many of the figures that we’ve read are not easily classifiable as scientist or religious figure, and we keep talking about how they’re all participants in this discourse together—including the novelists and the artists like William Morris. I want them to feel like they are a participant in that discourse, and what it means to create something that participates in it.”
The Fairbanks Museum staff has been enthusiastic about the collaboration with Harner’s class. “For us it’s great to be able to have something new that highlights a little bit of the history of our museum,” says Leila Nordmann, the museum’s director of programs.
In December, Nordmann says, high school students from St. Johnsbury Academy will be visiting the museum to develop their own humanities projects, and she hopes the exhibition will give them a sense of the possibilities. “It will be nice to be able to show them what the Dartmouth students have done,” she says.
Of the experience of preparing a museum exhibition with his classmates, Kiang says, “For an English class this was a lot more than I’ve ever done. Just the shaping of the exhibit and how it all came together was a really awesome creative process.”
Hoffman agrees. “I definitely have not had an English class that was this hands-on before. It really made me appreciate the process of creating literature.”