There are lots of things that it would be nice for ecologists to know more of. Natural history. Math. Programming. Statistical techniques. The mathematical foundations of statistics. Philosophy of science. Genetics. Evolution. Other things.
If you’re like me, you probably think ecologists should know more about at least one of those things, and don’t think ecologists should know less of any of them. After all, you often hear people say “Ecologists should know more about X”. But you never hear anyone say “Ecologists should know less about X”. Which is a problem. If you want ecologists to be trained in more of some things than they currently are, without being trained in less of anything else they are currently trained in, then you want the impossible. Well, unless you also think that undergraduate and graduate programs in ecology should last significantly longer than they do!
Don’t misunderstand, it’s fine for people to say what they think ecologists should know more of. That’s an essential part of revising curricula. But the other half–the less fun, but equally necessary, half–is deciding what to drop in order to free up time for the stuff you want to do more of. Anyone who’s taught a class has had the experience of agonizing over not being able to cover lots of fascinating and tremendously important material, because there’s just not enough time. But I think we sometimes forget that time constraints also operate at the level of entire curricula. So it’s fine to say that ecologists should know more of X. But if that’s all you say, well, that’s the curriculum design equivalent of wishing for a pony.*
Of course, when people say “Ecologists should know more of X”, they aren’t necessarily commenting on the design of ecology curricula. In my admittedly anecdotcal experience, sometimes it seems like they’re really saying, “I know a lot about X, and so it really bugs me when people who know less about X make mistakes that could’ve been prevented had they known more about X.” Of course, nobody ever continues, “On the other hand, I know nothing of Y, and so am totally unaware of all the mistakes people make due to their lack of knowledge of Y, and so can’t really judge the relative importance of knowing X vs. knowing Y.” And sometimes what they’re really saying is “I know more about X than the average ecologist, which is good because the optimal amount to know about X is whatever amount I personally happen to know.” And sometimes they’re really saying something else. But for purposes of this post, I want to take statements like “Ecologists should know more about X” at face value, and think about the hard choices of curriculum design that follow from such statements.
After all, the world is changing, technology is changing, etc., so maybe ecology curricula do need to change to keep up (they’ve certainly changed in the past). Maybe we really do all need to know more about X, in which case we need to make some hard choices and figure out how to free up the time for everybody to learn more about X.
So let’s talk about those hard choices. As a conversation starter and mind-focuser, below is a little poll. It asks you to name the one thing you think it’s most important for ecologists to learn more of, and the one thing you think ecologists should learn less of, in order to free up time for them to learn more of whatever it is you think they should learn more of. Both questions are required, so you can’t complete the poll by just wishing for a pony and saying what you think ecologists should learn more of. If you don’t think ecologists need to learn more of anything, there’s an option for that (in which case you’re allowed to say they don’t need to learn less of anything either). And if you think different ecologists need to learn more of different things, or less of different things, you have that option. That’s the option you’d pick if you think ecology should involve lots of collaboration among differently-trained specialists. But reasonable as that last option might well be, I’m hoping you don’t all chicken out and take it. 🙂
Note that you can think of the poll as encompassing undergraduate and graduate training collectively (which is how I think of it), or as focusing on one or the other (e.g., because you think undergraduate curricula are fine but graduate curricula need revamping).
p.s. Before anyone complains about the way the poll is structured: yes, I obviously could’ve structured it differently. But no structure would’ve pleased everyone. I went with this poll because it seemed like a fun conversation starter, which is all it’s meant to be. It’s not a scientific sample from any well-defined population. Also, this poll was easy to write; you get the polls you pay for on this blog. If you don’t like the poll, no worries, just ignore it. You can still comment on what changes you’d like to see to ecology curricula–but no wishing for ponies! 🙂
*Of course, you can also argue that ecologists should learn the same things, but better or differently than they currently do. See for instance Fred Barraquand’s comment on a recent post. That’s an important point, but it’s orthogonal to this post.