Submitted by Nancy Williams / Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College on Wed, 06/10/2020 - 19:12
My Notes

I have taught the book Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks in my Inorganic Chemistry course for juniors and seniors for a decade, but the way I teach the book has dramatically changed in recent years.

The book is a (somewhat nostalgic and bittersweet) recollection of Sacks' childhood and his early experiments in inorganic chemistry, and initially we read it on that basis. However, Sacks also talks (even in the first chapter) about his family's identities as "people who do science" and his identity as a Jewish child in 1940s Britain.

Sacks would not have used this language at the time (and perhaps wouldn't today), but he describes the intersection of his boyhood, his Jewishness, his Britishness, and his emerging identity as a scientist. My students, while far older, are at a stage in which they are forming their own identities as chemists/scientists, and we use this book as a vehicle for talking about that. Sacks makes it clear that his developing identity as a scientist is connected to and interacts with his other identities.

I use this as a vehicle for talking about my own background and story as a scientist, and how my chemist identity interacts with my family history, my experience as a queer trans woman, and so on.

I provide discussion questions for the first couple or three chapters, and then sign up students to do the remaining chapters. Our class meets 75 minutes, twice a week, and we discuss UT for fifteen minutes on one of those days.

The book really becomes a good launching pad for talking about themselves, their own processes, and their thiking about themselves, their future life in science, their anxieties, and their hopes. It's a rare chance for them to reflect on their identities as scientists, and a rare chance to talk about their other identities in the context of science.

I find the students are hungry for these conversations.

I try to pick the right moment in the semester to begin sharing, along with the chapters about his boyhood, Sacks' essays for the New York Times at the end of his life, as a recently out gay man, and the essays by his boyfriend after his death. I show them the pictures of Oliver Sacks as a young gay man, living in Venice Beach, CA after moving there from London, on his motorcycle in a leather jacket.

This has led us into conversations about how we manage our identities, how different ones might be more or less salient at different times in our lives, and how those can change and develop as we progress through our careers. They're usually pretty shocked to realize that they had young Oliver pegged as straight, and we talk about assumptions we make about identity and experience.

All in all, it's very difficult for me to say how anyone else should teach this book, because the way I do it is so intensely personal. Yet I strongly recommend it as a way to convene conversations both about inorganic chemistry and about identity in an inorganic chemistry classroom for budding chem majors.



Learning Goals

A student should be able to articulate their own identity formation as a chemist and as a scientist, and describe how that does (or doesn't) interact with their life's experiences, other identities, and the kind of person they are.

A student should become more able to have conversations about identity and science and identity in the context of science.

Students should be more comfortable in talking about their privilege and, to the extent they are willing, their marginalization in science.

Students should demonstrate skills in having vulnerable conversations about identity and science with others who have different life experiences and identities than their own.

Equipment needs

I purchase copies of the book for my students.

Time Required
15 minutes a week for a semester


Evaluation Methods

I choose to not evaluate this in a graded sense, because I want students to feel a lack of pressure and a willingness to be vulnerable, and I find anything involving "points" inhibits that. I evaluate the overall experience by asking students to comment on it in their teaching evaluations.

Evaluation Results

Evaluation comments are extremely positive (and were not positive the year I tried using another book!). Even more striking, the anecdata of students coming back later in their undergraduate careers or even on returning to visit suggest strongly that the Uncle Tungsten discussions continued to resonate with them long after the class ended.

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