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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
1. The Taxonomy of Biologists
Let me begin my discussion of the changes in biological education by commenting about the names of the departments that I have inhabited and the programs in which I have participated. The biology courses I took at Oklahoma Baptist University, in Shawnee, Oklahoma (1943-46), were all in the Biology Department; the school was too small to split the subject further. Among the 300 or so students at OBU at the time most were women or ministerial students. A few of us were secular 4F males. In 1946 I began as a graduate student in the Department of Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington, and I was graduated with a PhD in Zoology from that institution in 1951. My first job after the degree was in the fall of 1951 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was installed as an assistant professor in the Zoology Department. When in 1959 I accepted an appointment at the University of Illinois, my title was Professor, still in a Department of Zoology, but the taxonomy of biology departments was just about to change. The label Zoology has virtually disappeared from the academy since that time. Subsequently without any substantial change in my laboratory location or teaching functions the letterhead on my stationery has read sequentially, the Department of Genetics and Development, the Department of Ecology, Ethology and Evolution, and finally the Department of Animal Biology, though that department received its name after I retired. I have no documentary evidence of having received any title from that final academic unit though the adjunct staff treats me with smiles, grave respect and efficient help. My laboratory when I had a functioning research unit - was at first physically associated with a Department of Microbiology, later with the Department of Zoology, and still later with the Department of Entomology. My administrative titles, in approximate order, and often overlapping, have included Coordinator of Undergraduate Biology Programs, Director of Biology Honors Program, Cell Biology Graduate Program Director, Acting Head, and Interim Head of the Department of Zoology, and Director of Interdepartmental Genetics Graduate Program.
Therein lies a tangled tale. The second half of the 20th century was an interval during which the substance of biological education was being constantly rearranged and the faculty recombined. The reorganization reflected in part the demographic realities of rising populations of college students and of college faculties, but also of increasing amounts of biological information and of the engines that generated it. Derek J. De Solla Price the noted historian of science - showed that scientists and their products have been doubling about every 15 years for over 300 years. Academic space had to be provided for the increase in scientific knowledge, of journals, books and specializations. An early sociobiological whimsy suggested that a basic functional unit of a human organization consisted of the “natural hominid unit”. This was supposed to consist of a dozen male primates and their female and juvenile associates. That hypothesis is questionable, but when a university department grew to more than a dozen faculty members (mainly male in those days), it seemed to manifest a tendency to split.
C.O. Whitman, the Chicago professor who helped establish the practice of experimental biology in America, and not so coincidentally the Woods Hole Biological Station in Massachusetts, commented on the fragmentation associated with growth. In his youth, he noted in a lecture in the 1890s, that he had read all of published science. In his maturity he had to give up on chemistry, physics and geology. In his later years he was having a hard time reading everything that was being published in biology. The first assortment of biological faculties in universities had occurred early in the 20th century and yielded fragmentation products mainly based on kinds of organisms. Departments of Botany, Zoology and Bacteriology were the usual results.
These organismic departments, however, grew in size and had come to seem both too large and somehow unnatural. As evolutionary studies gathered momentum, as common mechanisms derived from common ancestors became recognized, the classification of information on the basis of the organisms studied came to be considered a less useful way of organizing knowledge. The practice of splintering academic departments into taxonomic units often separated people with similar interests in teaching and research. New theoretical developments particularly in biochemistry and genetics tended to cut across taxonomic boundaries. A person couldn’t teach genetics, my primary discipline, without reference to peas and corn, but the teacher of genetics also needed to talk about mice and fruit flies, and fungi, and bacteria and their viruses. Much of my own teaching career can be summarized as an often aborted attempt to “put biology back together”. (Colleagues from threatened taxonomic units have brought forcefully to my attention the fact that the organization of biological subject matter is far from an “academic” exercise. The packaging of subject matter may be a tactic for preservation, or of destruction, of threatened disciplines when the exploitation of a fashionable innovation requires access to limited resources. Darwinism is alive and well in academic institutions, with little reference to intelligent design.)