Book Review:

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition

Reviewed by Aaron Pinnix

Review of Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock's The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition: A Somewhat Cheeky but Exceedingly Useful Introduction to Academic Writing. Broadview Press, 2019. 264 pp. ISBN 978-1554814459.

Steeped in werewolves, vampires, and pulpy monsters from 1950s cinema, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition provides us with an entertaining and accessible guide for composition courses that will be a boon for college students learning about the expectations of academic writing, as well as for instructors looking to make teaching about writing a bit more fun. Brisk and lighthearted, the guide instructs through witty examples, entertaining and eye-catching images, and fourth-wall-breaking humor that help keep the tone light while conveying a wide range of relevant and important information. The instruction here extends beyond simple writing mechanics to include advice on topics that many first-year college students may struggle with, such as how to write an email to a professor (102) or how to narrow down a library’s online search function to yield a manageable number of sources (48-52). Overall, the text follows a logical progression that congeals into a successful monster-and-mad-scientist-infused holistic approach that helps to keep the material feeling fresh and fun.

Presenting academic writing as akin to a mad scientist performing experiments in a laboratory, the chapters progress through the mechanics of writing, how to evaluate sources, formulate an argument, construct an outline, do peer revisions, and more. Scattered throughout are “Your Turn” prompts, some of which include practice sentences that need revisions, and others of which are short answer or essay prompts that altogether could function as a good base for a horror-focused (or science fiction- or pop culture-focused) composition course. Information is presented in a fairly concise manner, ensuring that students can quickly grasp the material at hand, whether that be the pitfalls and problems of plagiarism (74-76), how to evaluate sources (55- 65), or how to provide productive peer-review feedback (145-163). While containing discussions of grammar and rhetoric, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition is not Strunk’s The Elements of Style or a rhetoric textbook. Rather, the guide functions as an accessible introduction to the whys and wherefores of academic writing for first-year college students and a productive base for instructors interested in building a composition course around horror.

One of the guide’s greatest virtues is how much fun it is to read. For instance, I was entertained by a recurring image of a giant floating disembodied brain with glowing eyes accompanying captions such as “Portrait of the author while brainstorming” (84) and “The author, figured here, excited to begin” (xvi). This sort of cheeky and slightly self-deprecating humor is present throughout the book. For example, in cautioning about the ways that slang can confuse a reader, Weinstock notes, “‘Burn rubber, Daddy-O’ is a kitschy way to tell someone to put the pedal to the metal, I mean to floor it, I mean to depress the accelerator fully. (Slang goes quickly out of date, so any attempt to seem current in a textbook like this is doomed from the start)” (103). Such fourth-wall-breaking humor helps to make what could be otherwise dry material consistently feel accessible. This emphasis on accessibility is present throughout, including in the usage of student-written essays on films such as The Cabin in the Woods and Psycho. These essays not only give students a good idea of the type of writing that is expected of them, they also prove that student writing can be both engaging and insightful.

My only critique is that at times the guide’s cheekiness comes at the expense of precision. For instance, in the first chapter on the mechanics of writing, the term “claws” is occasionally substituted for “clause” when discussing independent and dependent clauses. Perhaps more concerning is the replacement of the phrase “subordinating conjunctions” with the less precise phrase “danger words” (8). This usage of “danger words” is intended to call attention to the fact that words like “after,” “because,” and “until” demand a subsequent section (a dependent clause) for a sentence to function as a complete thought. The phrase “subordinating conjunctions,” however, is absent from this section, meaning that students who would like to explore further may have difficulty finding the information online, while instructors who want to do more grammar review in class will have to navigate between two different phrases—the more widely known “subordinating conjunctions” and the idiosyncratic “danger words.” Largely, though, the guide’s cheekiness succeeds in making the material more accessible, but instructors can expect to have students who have not seen Evil Dead asking them what the dangers of reading Latin incantations aloud are (226).

In all, this book is an easily accessible introduction to academic writing for first-year composition students. Behind the guide’s levity and cheekiness is a real attention to the information that students need to learn to succeed in academia. I suspect that many students will be drawn into the engaging depictions and discussions of monsters, only to find themselves learning how to be better writers. Overall, this guide will be of particular interest to instructors who are considering teaching a composition or writing-intensive course on monsters, mythology, folklore, or even pop culture more broadly. The Mad Scientist’s Guide to Composition would serve as an engaging and entertaining addition to many composition courses.

-28 January 2020