Monday, July 24, 2023

Weinstock, Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition (2020)

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition. Broadview Press, 2020. Pp. 246, ISBN 978-1-5548-1445-9. $15.55.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

I have taught from Weinstock’s Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition for three years now, and have found it to be extremely useful in presenting the basic principles of academic writing for students, including what instructors call the “mechanics” of writing, including punctuation, paragraphing, and transitions; finding and using sources for research papers (helpfully called “Graverobbing” with a nod to Victor Frankenstein); preliminary stages like brainstorming and outlining; “Conducting Experiments” as a way of developing strategies for informing, persuading, and evaluating; and in a stirring chapter, “The Monster Lives!” providing approaches to revising, peer review, and retroactive outlining; and finally, “Placating Ghosts,” or documenting sources “to Avoid Angering the Dead… and the Living.” In other words, a very conventional approach to forming and formulating an argument… but presented in the guise of horror movie tropes.

These tropes are not merely funny ways of reframing potentially boring material, but often give the reader a new perspective on the process of composition. The controlling conceit throughout is that the writer is a Mad Scientist attempting to create a new being with the parts of fresh corpses; the M.S. uses body parts of previously written essays and studies and creates a chimera from them in a new organization, or perhaps a dragon using parts of previously known predators. A major element needed is the knowledge of how to infuse life into the newly cobbled-together being. I have found that giving the discussion-board prompt “what IS it that makes an essay alive?” has been very helpful in getting my students to think about what they will read—or skip—in an essay.

Since I have used this text in a course that is the third in a series of three courses in first-year composition (my institution is one the quarter system, so we have three ten-week terms rather than semesters) which uses literature as the basis for writing, I did an online search for “Mad Scientist Short Stories” and found a wealth of them, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark” and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” to Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” and Greg Bear’s “Blood Music.” I even found an advertisement for “Mad Scientist writings” on the part of the US Army seeking imaginative help for possible altered conditions in future wars. As Weinstock puts it in his introduction, “Let us combat the dread of writing by writing about dreadful things! Because if we can’t have fun writing about mad scientists, monsters, and the living dead, then all is lost” (xiii).

There are certain formerly accepted rules of usage that have been updated here to reflect the times. For example, in a section titled “I Am Legion: The Singular They” Weinstock points out how what used to be a strictly plural pronoun has been transformed into a nonbinary singular: “Whereas it used to be considered proper grammar to write, “The alchemist mixed his chemicals,” it is now acceptable to write, “Any alchemist should be careful when mixing their chemicals” (6). As with the Biblical quotation “I am legion” above, there are also allusions to various works, both commonly known and arcane. In a sample sentence illustrating the proper use of the comma, Weinstock writes, “Because her appearance turned people to stone, Medusa was unpopular at parties” (16).

Some of the statements reflect what I imagine are Weinstock’s—and my own—frequent frustrations. For example, one subject heading in the chapter “Finding, Evaluating, and Incorporating Sources” is, “A Novel Is a Book-Length Work of Fiction” (46). Slightly later is the instruction, “Do Not Start and End with a Google Search” (48). Continuing with the process of doing scholarly research, the two-part title instructing the student to consult the appropriate online database for the project goes on to “Step Two: Follow Ariadne’s Thread.” For those students not familiar with how Theseus got out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, there is a brief paragraph about Ariadne’s thread, and this is used as a metaphor for consulting the source citations from a useful article for finding other useful materials.

Sample essays by anonymous students are presented for other students to correct, insert transitions, and generally practice peer reviewing and editing, using retroactive outlining when necessary. There is an extended section on peer reviewing, considering what is useful about it, such as “A primary goal of peer reviewing is to learn to think about your own writing in relation to the writing of others” (145). There are a number of practical hints, such as, “Read your essay out loud” (144). Weinstock urges you to “come up with a creative title. Avoid generic titles like ‘Essay Two’ or ‘Frankenstein Essay.’ Imagine you have 100 essays to grade and think of a title that would make you want to read that paper first” (230). In addition, Weinstock advises the student to give the paper file a name that distinguishes it from all the other files being submitted on “essay 1” or the like.

My students have appreciated having a text that costs less than twenty dollars, covers all of the essential points they need for their writing and research, and is written in a “somewhat cheeky” but honest manner with illustrations from classic Dracula and Frankenstein movies. Plus, having a photograph of Star Trek’s Spock to represent logos is classic.

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