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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
21. Lucy Holds The Football Again
My last romantic assault on the citadels of biological education came after I returned from Germany as a Humboldt Preistraeger. While I was gone my department of Genetics and Development had been declared unmanageable and unsalvageable by SOLS Director Sam Kaplan, who had just taken over from retiring Director Joe Larsen. I had found support for my biases for historical and philosophical approaches within the programs of Science, Technology and Society. Other members were attempting to employ those perspectives within the general education context (above), but I believed that basic undergraduate education might also be salvaged from the incursions of narrow disciplinary programs
A new introductory biology sequence, was to be required of all undergraduate biology majors in their second year of instruction, following a full year of college level chemistry. The basis of the two-semester course was to be the historical development of the major concepts underlying modern biology. Recognizing that my own resources were too limited to encompass the breadth and depth of the challenge, I sought sympathetic colleagues. Essential among these was Chip (Richard W.) Burkhardt, Professor of History, whom I had come to know and respect in the STS program. Chip was an expert on Lamarck, taught a much appreciated course in the History of Biology, was writing a book on the History of Ethology, and was an honorary member of the Department of Ecology, Ethology and Evolution into which I had been dumped after Genetics and Development was dissolved. (Chip’s book on the history of ethology was favorably reviewed in both Nature and Science in 2005, the year he retired). Chip also directed the University Honors Program for many years.
Another sympathetic colleague was found within SOLS, Stewart Berlocher in the Entomology Department. Stewart was a specialist in insect speciation and enthusiastic about the history of evolution. He was a skilled raconteur and capable of charming students into understanding. The last member of the team to design and deliver the new biology sequence was Dean Glawe. Dean was a member of the Department of Agronomy in the College of Agriculture, a specialist in the taxonomy of fungi, and broadly interested in the history of biological thought.
When Biology 119-120 (?) was proposed to the faculty of SOLS, it elicited much comment, and considerable hostility. A common objection was that “students aren’t interested in history”. When the proposing faculty suggested that a pilot course might be offered as an “experiment”, the experimental biologists had difficulty opposing its introduction on a one-time basis. So, in 1988-89 (?) the course was taught to a class of only 200 (?) students. The instructors enjoyed teaching the course. The student responses on evaluation were positive, and steps to scale up the program were initiated.
One serious technical difficulty remained. An estimated 800 students were expected to elect this course in each semester, and no suitable lecture hall was available. Discussions with the administration led to the suggestion that the University Auditorium would be suitable if it were refurbished and equipped with modern audiovisual equipment. The administration agreed to undertake that renovation perhaps in part as a response to the challenge to invest in undergraduate facilities. The drawback, however, was that such renovation took time. The introduction of the new integrated conceptual program was deferred a year while the modern Foellenger Auditorium took shape.
As the construction continued, another issue was finally faced. Who is going to teach the program, and who will pay the costs. Unskilled in such discussions, and frankly not very interested, I left such considerations to “the administration”. As the time grew nearer to the start of the program, I was called to the office of Lowell Getz the Head of the Department of Ecology, Ethology and Evolution. Lowell, whom I had taught in a genetics class at Michigan, and whom I had supported for an appointment to Illinois, broke the bad news. “ The auditorium is ready for the instruction of the new biology sequence. Unfortunately, the only faculty member who is available to teach the course is you. None of the other departments in SOLS is able to provide a suitable faculty member, and no faculty members from outside the school are considered available and suitable. The faculty members within the school have not been trained in the philosophical and historical perspectives required, and don’t have time to learn this material. It’s your course.”
Getz realized that the news about the faculty was not welcome, but assured me that other resources were to be adequate. I could have as many teaching assistants as I asked for. Academic professionals could be employed to manage computer assistance programs and audio-visual facilities. The budget was not an issue. The building was prepared for 800 students, but I would occupy the podium without a team of scholars to share responsibility for the content and its presentation.
A few days later I informed Getz that I would not be around to teach the course. I would be turning 65 in the fall, and had been trying to formulate a suitable undergraduate education for biologists for 40 years. I wasn’t up the job anymore. The stress of the struggles had worn me down. Within the next few months I developed high blood pressure, gout, an impaired immune response, and early one Saturday morning the next spring was taken to the emergency room with septicemia from a pneumonia infection I was unable to handle.
The School of Life Sciences has been kind to me in retirement. I have had adequate space to wind down my research program, adequate support to set up my web site, to write occasional papers and keep up professional connections. The university that I leave is different from that I began teaching in, not necessarily better, but different. I have tried to keep it from becoming as different as it is, without much success. But I enjoyed doing what I could.