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The Best of Both Worlds: Brit Lit and Science

By Abbey Becker

Richard Sha

Photo of Richard Sha by Vanessa Robertson

When literature professor Richard Sha started college, he was on track to be a physician. “But organic chemistry was the death of that ambition,” says Sha. He realized the courses he loved most were his literature courses, and during a year abroad in London where he took only literature classes, he knew he’d found a new direction. “I got to do primary research on one of my favorite poets, William Blake. That was it; I had to do it.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s left the sciences behind completely—Sha was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to complete his book, Imagining the Imagination: Science and British Romanticism, 1750-1832. “This book works out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the ways in which Romantic critics think about the imagination,” says Sha. “For the last 25 or 30 years, Romantic critics have been historicizing the imagination, but they’ve historicized the imagination as being about escapism. My approach is to think about how scientists of the period thought about the imagination.”

Sha studied the work of chemist and physicist Michael Faraday and chemist Sir Humphrey Davy and found that when they talk about matter in their scientific studies, they also talk about the imagination. His book will challenge the idea that the imagination is the denial of the physical and the material. “If the imagination was necessary to think about the material and the physical, then we’ve got this all wrong,” Sha explains. “Matter does not become an obstacle to Romantic idealism and the world of ideas. A fundamental re-righting of the ship needs to take place.”

Romantic writers during the same era were immersed in the sciences. Samuel Coleridge attended Davy’s lectures, and Percy Bysshe Shelley ordered books by chemists and physicists. “Part of why people haven’t done this kind of work is because of the sense that science and literature were much further apart than they actually were,” says Sha.

While doing research on matter for his book, Sha realized he needed to consult a trained scientist. He sought out physics professor Nate Harshman with some of his questions, and after numerous talks, the two agreed that science and literature were indeed linked. “I started a conversation with him about the Higgs boson,” says Sha, referring to a hypothetical particle that is used to explain why matter has mass, “and this led to a series of meetings in which we both thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to team teach a course—him on science, myself on the humanities—and see the kinds of questions that both bring to the table?”

After a year of planning, Sha and Harshman finalized their spring 2012 sophomore seminar course, The Two Cultures. The course is based on British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures,” where Snow argues that Western though was split between the sciences and the humanities. “Professor Harshman is going to talk about what scientists are drawn to in aesthetics, and I’m going to talk about why literary critics are drawn to aesthetics,” Sha explains. “He wants to use aesthetics to make claims about the world, and I want to use aesthetics to think about the world. We are not so far apart.”

Sha also teaches Asian American and British literature courses at American, and his goal is the same in each class. “What students have been taught in high school is not thought. Bottom line, they haven’t thought about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it,” he says. “What I try to do is work with what they have, but also show them that they need to think more for themselves. They need to think harder about why they’ve been asked to do the things they’ve been asked to do.”

Once students get a better idea of why they’re being asked to analyze the irony in a book, for instance, both he and the students can benefit. “I taught a class on the imagination, which involved units on neuroscience, the history of philosophy, literature, and psychology,” he says. “It’s really working with a group on these questions and getting engaged in the questions that they want to ask that your work becomes much more vital and alive.”