Feel free to link to this assignment, but do not copy it onto your own Web site. You may print it out in its entirety and distribute to students, but please give me credit and cite the Web address: http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/metaphor-97.htm
This assignment was written for science majors in various disciplines. However, it can be easily adapted to any discipline.

Virginia Montecino, George Mason University, e-mail: montecin@gmu.edu

Writing About Metaphors in your Discipline

Goals of this assignment include:

  • to become more familiar with the terminology in your field of study
  • to develop more awareness of the complexities and nuances of language
  • to become more familiar with terms in your major
  • to experiment with style and voice
  • to synthesize information
  • to use evidence supported with documentation
  • to write a clear, graceful essay that displays the other goals of this assignment.
We use metaphors all the time to help define our natural and scientific world and explain our behavior and attitudes. As Anne Eisenberg says, "Once metaphors were the stuff of poetry not proteins - but no more. You are just as likely these days to run across them in a scientific review as in a sonnet. Despite the 300-year effort by Hobbes, Locke and a legion of logical positivists to confine them to the English classroom, metaphors are suddenly inescapable in technical prose. From chemical scissors and solvent cage to optical molasses and squeezed light, from DNA fingerprints to read-only memory, metaphor is out of the scientific closet" (Scientific American, May 1992, p. 144).

Begin your exploration of metaphors with some from your personal experience. Many people think that metaphors are only used in poetry and literature. We use them so much that we are not even aware we are doing so. What are some metaphors you use in your everyday life? Give examples of them and elaborate on their meaning. Are you aware that you are using metaphors? Do they lose their meaning when they become clichés?

Then transition to how metaphors are used in your major.  Identify some metaphors in your major and discuss a few in detail. What are they attempting to help define? Elaborate on the concept and how the definition helps to explain the concept. Do the metaphors help explain a concept to non-specialists? Or are the metaphors used among people in the discipline who have a common language to discuss complex concepts? 

Can metaphors simplify concepts too much? Do they serve a necessary function even with their limitations? Do metaphors have cultural contexts?  What are some of the advantages of using metaphors? What might be some dangers and disadvantages? 

Look closely at some of the terms and concepts used in your field. Which ones classify as metaphors? 

Read articles on metaphors relevant to your field, then explore a couple of them more comprehensively.  Here are some online readings and a bibliography on metaphors: "Metaphors in Various Disciplines" http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/metasites.htm).

The index in a text book in your major can also be a great source.  Also, you can find terms and concepts in a specialized dictionary or encyclopedia , such as:

For natural science and medicine - Biolexicon: A Guide to the Language of Biology, Henderson's Dictionary of Biological Terms, Encyclopedia of Chemistry, American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine. 

For applied science - Dictionary of Computing, Encyclopedia of Electronics, McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Magill's Survey of Science: Life Science Series, Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology.

What did you learn about metaphors from the information on the sites? Were some of the examples of metaphors too complex for you to fully understand? If so why? What does this say about audience? Were you surprised at how much metaphors are used in your field of study?

Feel free to experiment with style and voice in this assignment. Don't be afraid to let your own "voice" come through. The style and structure is up to you. A bottom line requirement is that what you say is clear, well thought out, in correct English, and shows a serious effort at critically examining metaphors. Beginning with metaphors from your everyday experience will help situate you in your analysis. It is important that you examine a few in detail and back up your points with evidence when discussing metaphors from your personal experience and metaphors in your field of study. It is not sufficient to just mention the metaphors; you must explain what they mean in relation to the concepts the metaphors are supposed to help clarify. When you use examples and evidence from sources, be sure to give credit in in-text citations and a bibliography. Also include URLs (http: addresses) where appropriate. 

For readings for this assignment, check out this list of Web resources on
"Metaphors in Various Disciplines" (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/metasites.htm)
and the Metaphor bibliography (http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/metabiblio.htm).

© Copyright 1997 Virginia Montecino
Virginia Montecino | E-mail: montecin@gmu.edu