Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills
Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten
David L. Nanney
Draft - 02-10-06


The School of Life Sciences (SOLS) at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign was organized in the late 1950s as a confederation of the five departments of biology in the College of Liberal Arts.  For nearly half a century SOLS was a microcosmic projection of the drama in biological education and research in the United States.  Nearly half a century, early in the 21st century, SOLS dissolved into two separate Schools.  The following account personal and prejudiced narrative of one individual’s experiences in biological education in this context.

In a previous exercise (“Candide in Academe”) I gave an account of some of my experiences as a research biologist in the communities of American universities – again mainly in the second half of the 20th century.  My purpose was, and is, to reflect the perceptions of a somewhat naïve participant and observer through a dynamic period in the history of the biological sciences. Here I take up a parallel story and summarize my experiences in biological education during some of the same time period. The scene is limited by the institutional settings in which I was engaged – mainly the “Big Ten” Universities of Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.  As of this writing the stories are entangled with multiple referents – with teaching and research, with biology and medicine, with the academy and the real world out there.  Maybe by the time I have finished writing, I will be able to sort out the relevant sets.

The comments are stimulated by and constrained by the documents I have encountered while trying to clear out my professional papers from the retirement office generously provided to me by the Department of Animal Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I hope to append some samples of these documents that I find still interesting in an archaeological setting – like a cuneiform text or a Mayan stele. The authenticity of my stories is not established by those documents, because I have used them primarily as reminders.  I am not an historian by training or temperament.  The exercise is more of a memoir than a history, and deeply flawed by historians’ standards. The first draft of this essay (Charging Windmills) I distributed to a number of colleagues, hoping to solicit corrections and additions, with some meager success.

One must, I suppose, question why anyone would bother to write such an account, much less read it when it is written.  The cynical one word answer to the first question is of course “Vanity”.  A more sophisticated response, though not necessarily a more correct response, involves the supposed value of  “the examined life”.  The story told is not presented as a unique or heroic human experience but as a characteristic tale of an interesting time and place, meriting attention in the same way, perhaps, as the diary of a settler travelling across these western plains in a Conestoga wagon over a century earlier. I look back to the frenetic action and sometimes stressful relations of a busy career and wonders what it was all about.  Some learned fellow, which one I have forgotten, commented that “I don’t know what I think about something until I have read what I have written.”  The primary person expected to learn something from this exercise is the author.  Whether anything will be left over for a casual reader is questionable.