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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
6. Curricular Development at Illinois
The first educational project I undertook when I joined the School of Life Sciences at Illinois was the consolidation of the courses in genetics. At the time I arrived two genetics courses were offered within the School, one in Botany and one in Zoology. They were both offered at 10 o’clock in both semesters; both used a text written by Adrian Srb and Ray Owen, General Genetics, the most popular text nationally that presented modern experimental genetics. Both were lecture courses with 3-hours credit. Neither course was accepted for credit except in the department offering it. John Laughnan a distinguished corn geneticist - taught the Botany genetics, and I taught the Zoology course. Laughnan and I proposed a new course, Biology 210, to replace both the previous genetics courses. It was acceptable for credit in both sponsoring departments, indeed in all of the departments within the School. Laughnan taught the course in one semester and I taught it in the other, releasing both of us to offer other courses in the semester when we were relieved of duties in general genetics. Later we undertook to cross-list the genetics courses in Animal Science and Dairy Science in the College of Agriculture.
This erosion of departmental boundaries was accepted, I discovered later, not because of an impulse to reintegrate biology, but because the change entailed economic incentives. Courses were evaluated, and departmental budgets were constructed in those days primarily on the basis of “instructional units”, i.e., (the number of students electing a class) times (the number of credit hours involved). Biology 210 provided 3IU’s per student to the sponsoring department. Pooling the classes was possible because the IU’s were distributed to the departments teaching the courses. The numbers of students electing a genetics course eventually increased from dozens each semester to hundreds. More advanced courses in genetics could be offered without hiring more staff. I began teaching a course in Genetics of Microorganisms every year in my off-semester. And I induced Sol Spiegelman in the Bacteriology Department (later Microbiology Department) to share the lectures (and the IU’s), while I went off to other projects. The budget game on instructional units was modified to encourage advanced courses even for smaller class sizes; upper class IUs and graduate IUs were weighted differentially. As science departments began to acquire more and more research funding from outside sources, the significance of IUs and of undergraduate teaching diminished. I suspect that the economics of humanities departments, where grants provide little counterweight, are today still constrained heavily by instructional loads.