Teaching Evolution via Infectious Diseases: Smocovitis talk at #Evol2013

I’ve noticed at past meetings that there is always one talk that I wasn’t originally planning on attending that ends up being great. At Evolution this year, that talk was one by Betty Smocovitis in the SSE Education Symposium. She gave a talk about a class she teaches on the History and Evolution of Infectious Diseases. I hadn’t noticed the talk in the program, in part because my plan was to spend the second half of the morning on Sunday in the “Disease Ecology & Evolution I” session. But, that morning, when I was looking at the talk titles for that session, I realized that the session was actually on climate change and had just been mislabeled. So, after a quick skim of the rest of the program for that morning, I decided to sit in on the Education Symposium instead, largely because I was intrigued by the title of Smocovitis’s talk. Before long, I was very glad I went!

At the start of her talk, she gave a brief introduction to what she sees as problems related to undergraduate education in evolutionary biology. One of them is that much evolution education uses the “deficit model,” where we assume that students just need to “know more” in order to accept science. This model assumes that students are blank slates, which, of course, is not true (and, moreover, is elitist and doesn’t work). As Smocovitis pointed out, everyone has beliefs and assumptions, and these are important in terms of student learning. Another problem is that educators often try to find ways to make evolution simple; Smocovitis’s argument is that evolution is NOT simple – it’s hugely complicated. When we try to blend entertainment with science, it’s easy to end up creating caricatures that are inaccurate (which she referred to as the “Jurassic Park Effect”).

Smocovitis then got into the specifics of a course that she teaches on the history and evolution of infectious diseases. She went through the different topics that she covers in the class, and gave examples of how she covered them. It was incredible! By the end, I wanted to take her class, and I know I wasn’t alone. In fact, the first “question” from the audience was “You are so awesome!”

What made it so inspiring?

First, it was clear that Smocovitis is really passionate about the topic, and that she finds it fascinating herself. In response to that “You are so awesome!” question/comment from the audience, she emphasized that it’s okay to be passionate about what you’re teaching. During the talk, she gave an example of how things like AIDS were personal for her – she lost friends to that disease. Her engagement with the material was really clear and really, well, infectious.

Second, she had fantastic visuals. It’s clear that she’s spent a ton of time collecting these. She showed the classic images such as this one of Doktor Schnabel von Rom:


(image source)

which shows the outfit that doctors wore to try to ward off the plague. We think that this person looks kind of ridiculous, but Smocovitis then switched to an image of people responding to an Ebola virus outbreak; there is a lot of similarity. She showed posters aimed at servicemen in World War II warning them about “dirty girls” who carry STDs. She also showed pictures of chandeliers made with bones of people who’d died of disease. In short, the visuals were really, really compelling.

Third, it’s clear that she is really good at making analogies and telling anecdotes that will help students engage with and understand the material. When teaching about tuberculosis, she shows art that was inspiring by consumptives, who were considered beautiful. The idea that something like TB could be considered beautiful seems crazy, but she then pointed out that considering the pallor of TB to be attractive is very similar to heroin chic. Suddenly, it made much more sense! When she teaches about the germ theory of disease, she points out that beards went out of style because they were thought to hang on to disease. This got a good laugh from the audience at Evolution, given how common beards are among evolutionary biologists. It also led to this entertaining tweet:

Fourth, clearly I’m biased, but infectious diseases are fascinating and it’s easy to use them to be engaging. This was one of her main messages: she argued that she tries to shift the icons of evolution from finches and moths to infectious diseases like smallpox. She has a good point: students are much more likely to engage with pictures of a child infected with smallpox than they are with a picture of a light moth on a dark tree.

Finally, she gave us all her tip for winning teaching awards: Monty Python! She said that appreciation of Monty Python references is the only thing that has remained constant among her students over the past 30 years. Which, of course, led to this tweet:

As I wrote about yesterday, I am currently in the process of designing a new class (which will focus on disease), and this talk gave me lots to think about and was very inspiring. I guess, if nothing else, I need to go find some Monty Python clips for it!😉

One thought on “Teaching Evolution via Infectious Diseases: Smocovitis talk at #Evol2013

  1. Pingback: Friday links: synthesizing data on “synthesis” in ecology, new blog on women in science, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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