Book Review: The Mad Scientist's Guide to Composition

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition: A Somewhat Cheeky but Exceedingly Useful Introduction to Academic Writing. Broadview, 2019. ISBN: 9781554814459 / 1554814456. Price: $21.95

By Rebekah Phillips

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition is funny. When was the last time you read an academic textbook and laughed out loud? As a graduate student, I am here to tell you that it’s been a hot minute, which is partly why I loved The Mad Scientist’s Guide.

Many composition textbooks seem to be under the influence of the idea that, in order to be helpful, textbooks need to be dry and formal. Weinstock is in no way dry or formal. He jokes about students’ preconceived notions of college writing, requests that the reader send him a check for $2,000 care of Central Michigan University, and flatters his readers by calling them intelligent and good looking, something this reviewer greatly appreciated. (I will not send him a check for $2,000, but I will be requiring this textbook in my classes, which is the next best thing.)

As you have probably guessed from the title, this textbook is predicated on a gimmick—that of mad scientists and everything that comes with that territory, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the horror movie Psycho. This gimmick is one of only two downsides I see to The Mad Scientist’s Guide. Weinstock chose it to fit in his classrooms, and since he is a scholar of Gothic stories, horror movies, and what our students might lump together into the category of “Halloween,” it is a perfect fit for him. While I love the theme and find it funny in the best way possible, I also worry it might appear kitschy in a class that is not predicated around a professor who studies these motifs. Composition classes with a theme distinctly unrelated to monsters and the Gothic should steer clear of this book. My other concern is that there are a lot of references to Gothic literature, which may or may not go over our average ENGL 110 student’s head. (The same, I will add, can be said for those who, like me, don’t make a habit of watching monster movies.) None of these jokes need to be understood in order for students to follow Weinstock’s descriptions of writing a good essay, but since they do make the book fun and engaging, a lack of understanding might frustrate an unsuspecting student.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide is divided into seven different chapters of varying lengths. The first, “Nuts and Bolts (Mechanics)” focuses broadly on grammar—what nouns, verbs, and adjectives are; when and how to use a comma. Every semester I assume my students know that commas come before a quotation mark, and that colons are used before lists, but each semester I am proven wrong. This is a nice little chapter to have available for students to consult (and to tell students struggling with the placement of a semicolon to turn to page 20), but not one that I would be interested in teaching, as at the end of the day I’m more interested in content than I am in distinctions between punctuation.

For me, it is the middle four chapters that make this book a really valuable classroom aid. Each chapter is given a fun title (Graverobbing, Readying the Lab, Conducting Experiments, The Monster Lives!) with the practical implications of the chapter as a subheader. As someone who has always secretly hoped I might stumble across an arcane book of magic and be able to summon my own Mephistopheles to do my grading for me, these titles give me hope that this book might be able to teach me how to fulfill this dream of mine. It unfortunately doesn’t, but it does teach students in a very engaging, very simple way how to go about incorporating research into papers, which is almost as good as summoning a demon from hell to do my bidding. Using a series of relevant examples, like Slender Man, as well as more classic examples, like Igor, Weinstock explains in the second chapter, “Graverobbing (Finding, Evaluating, and Incorporating Sources),” everything from the differences between primary and secondary sources to peer reviewed sources. He follows this up with a chapter on brainstorming, formulating an argument, and outlining in a chapter titled “Readying the Lab” (which surely must appeal to STEM students who resent the very thought of writing). He includes his own handwritten diagrams of how to brainstorm topic ideas and then offers a list of topics for students to try to formulate their own thesis statements (one of which includes Jordan Peele’s recent movie Get Out). This chapter is much shorter than the first two, but the information in it is good, and it gives the instructor a chance to let the book do some lesson planning for them, as they can steal Weinstock’s list of topics as the basis for a classroom activity.

The fourth chapter, “Conducting Experiments,” follows most closely the model for other textbooks I have seen and used in my life, except it still includes fun black-and-white pictures from Frankenstein, Star Trek, and Friday the 13th to help explain concepts like ethos, pathos, logos, ad hominem attacks, and other rhetorical devices. Weinstock also includes papers about mythical creatures for students to practice looking for examples of synthesis and other rhetorical devices. This chapter is followed by “The Monster Lives! . . . Or Does It?” which is a handy guide to revising papers. Since my ENGL110 class focuses a lot on revision, this chapter is incredibly important, and I’m glad to see it included in this book. It gives advice for going over peers’ papers, reading your own work aloud to make sure everything makes sense, and how not to anger your instructor. He also focuses on retroactive outlining, or what I’ve always called “reverse outlining,” which is something I encourage my students to do; I’m glad to be able to point to an example of what this looks like.

The next few chapters are, like the first chapter on grammar and mechanics, something I will focus on less in class but are still valuable for students to review as they revise. Chapter 6 focuses briefly on MLA, APA, and Chicago format. I’m glad that there is an MLA guide for my students to reference, although I am aware that the MLA portion is only a small part of the book, and that MLA will inevitably update and leave my students in confusion once more. Following this are some sample student papers that are fairly short, and a chapter focusing on last-minute reminders to students regarding how to submit their papers and to double check that they haven’t accidentally used second person. These are all things that I say to students, but I’m happy to have them written down so my students can refer to them at any time of the day or night.

Overall, I love this book because of its accessibility, its ability to joke (and resonate with) both student and instructor, and because it focuses on the things I want to teach (rather than what, and how, I feel like I ought to teach). But as I prepare to teach this book for the coming semester, I worry that its popular culture and literature jokes are for too specific an audience, or that students might not be as charmed as I am with the theme but will instead be turned off. As a young female instructor, I also worry that picking a book that is so obviously meant to be fun will be detrimental to the image of myself I want to project to my students. However, this is also the first textbook that I have read from cover to cover out of pure enjoyment, while also annotating everything Weinstock wrote. It is this last factor—that I could learn from and enjoy it—that sold me on teaching this book.