Office Hours with Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell is co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University and a correspondent and contributing editor for The Atlantic. Shell writes about science and public policy for The New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, and other publications, and is the author of the Atlantic blog To Reason and Beyond. She has written three books, the most recent of which is Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

Ellen Ruppel ShellCourtesy of Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell

What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?

The most important attributes are curiosity and tenacity, and these are skills that can’t be taught, though they can be modeled. We encourage—demand—our students to go to the mat on their research and reporting, to never accept easy, flaccid answers, and to probe. We also demand that they write thematically to convey insight as well as information.

What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?

They must read both critically and widely. Beyond that, they must question. This can happen either inside the classroom or outside the classroom.

What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?

That deep research helps ward off writer’s block, that writing is re-writing, that questioning one’s assumptions is almost always a wise move, and that almost nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface.

What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?

I personally do not use textbooks. I change the reading every year, but focus on great writing/reporting of all sorts—sometimes even fiction.

What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?

Students—like many of us—can almost always benefit by a little more financial support. They need to read, travel, experience the world, and it would be wonderful if they had the support to do so.

What is a science story that you admire, and why?

This question comes loaded with problems: a long piece, a short piece, an investigative piece, a narrative? And what do we mean by “science story”? Katherine Boo’s work is almost always shockingly good, in that it tells the reader as much about him- or herself as it does about the subject of the piece. I think her 2004 New Yorker article “The Best Job in Town” is one of the finest pieces I’ve ever read on technology-driven globalization. Though not technically a science piece, it has all the elements we look for—keen observation, nuanced reporting, elegant prose, and most importantly, insight.

Kim Tingley’s “Whisper of the Wild” (The New York Times, March 15, 2012) is another marvel—of narrative. Beautifully written and evocative, as well as informative. Of course the model for many of us remains John McPhee—“Travels in Georgia” (New Yorker, 1973) is among my favorites, for its structure, insight, and humanity … [It is] a combination profile, expose, and explication that bears witness to essential truths about humans and their relationship to each other and to nature.

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  1. Pingback: Why I Dropped Out of a Science Writing Grad Program that I Loved

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