Earlier this year, I needed to cover Intro Bio for a colleague on very short notice due to an emergency. I needed to give two lectures, back-to-back, first thing Monday morning. When I got the email on Sunday, I pulled up the syllabus to see what was on schedule for the week. One lecture was on populations and, while there wasn’t time to prep the students for my preferred population lecture oriented around Pablo Escobar’s hippos, it was straightforward enough for me to work from the existing slides. The second lecture on the schedule was a community ecology lecture. When I pulled up the slides, I saw a lot of emphasis on details that I prefer not to cover — including on people like Clements vs. Gleason. I was a little surprised to realize that, while I taught very similar material just a few years ago, now I felt like it was going to be really hard to cover that, since I now feel pretty strongly that freshman don’t need to know anything about Clements or Gleason.* Apparently I have fully embraced the less-is-more approach to teaching. Instead, I decided to skip ahead one lecture to the behavioral ecology lecture (because, hey, who doesn’t love a class filled with lots of behavior videos?)
This had me wondering, though, about when it’s important to teach students about the scientists as well as their science – and about how that changes as we move from first- and second-year undergrads to upper-level undergrads to graduate students. Ecologists tend to use peoples’ names as shorthand for their ideas – a Tilmanesque view on competition, a Hutchinsonian niche, etc. At what level is it important for students to know that? And who should they know?
In my opinion, Intro Bio students don’t really need to know any names beyond Darwin’s (and they already know his coming in). I care much, much more about whether they know the concepts, and worry that trying to learn the names will distract them. I will mention the names of people who did the studies, and I cover classic experiments by Tilman, Connell, Paine, and others – but I try to use recent studies just as often, in part because I have a goal of using examples from diverse scientists. And I never identify an experiment or concept only by naming the scientist associated with it. Instead, I would say something like “In the experiment Connell did looking at competition between barnacles in the intertidal…” to set up a question on the topic.
I certainly expect grad students to be more familiar with people, and especially to be familiar with people whose work is related to theirs. I don’t currently teach a grad-level course, but when I did in the past, I spent more time on people than I do in my Intro Bio course. And, at qualifying exams, I think some amount of “name game” style questions are fine.
All of this has me wondering: who do you think students need to know? And at what level should they know them?
My original plan was to have a poll here, with a list of names and three columns where you could check if you think first year undergrads should know a person, last year undergrads should, and/or if grad students should. But I couldn’t figure out how to set up such a poll, plus the list quickly got too long. So, instead, I’ll just put a list of names below, and then ask for thoughts in the comments about how much you expect students at different levels to know names, and which names you think are the key ones.
And now, the list, compiled with suggestions from twitter:**
Anderson, Andrewartha & Birch, Brooks & Dodson, Carson, S. Carpenter, Clements, Connell, Cowles, Coyne, Darwin, Dobson, Dobzhansky, Earle, Elton, Endler, Estes, Fairbairn, Fisher, Forbes, Gleason, Goodall, P&R Grant, Grinnell, Haldane, Hamilton, Hanski, Hoekstra, Holling, Holt, HSS, Hubbell, Hudson, Huffaker, Hutchinson, Janzen, Kimura, Kuhn, Lack, Leibold, Lenski, Leopold, Leslie, S. Levin, R. Levins, Lewontin, Likens, Losos, Lotka & Volterra, Lubchenco, MacArthur, Margulis, May, Mayr, Menge, Muir, E&H Odum, Ohta, Paine, Park, Pfennig, Power, Queller, Reznick, Ricklefs, Roughgarden, Schindler, Schoener, Simberloff, John Maynard Smith, Stearns, Stebbins, Strassmann, Tansley, Tilman, Tinbergen, Trivers, Wallace, Watson & Crick (& Franklin!), West-Eberhard, Whittaker, George Williams, E.O. Wilson, Wright, Zuk
Can we pause for a moment to note how amazingly undiverse that list is? Sigh. Moving on…
This leads to a larger question of what historical information is valuable. Why is Connell’s barnacle experiment more-or-less required content in ecology courses? Can you be a competent ecologist without being familiar with the classic experiments? Is teaching about the voyage of the Beagle essential to understanding evolution by natural selection? Alex Bond argues that the narrative that these stories provide is really helpful for teaching, and I agree with that. In fact, the ability to tell the interesting behind-the-scenes stories about classic and recent discoveries – which students find really engaging – is one of the reasons why we have moved to a format where I teach the ecology portion of the Intro Bio course to both sections, and my colleague Trisha Wittkopp teaches the genetics portion to both sections. (We split evolution. In the past, one instructor taught the whole semester, but just to one of the two sections.)
But the stories don’t have to be about the classics (and those classics tend to be overwhelmingly by white men, so, again, my preference is to include more recent work, too). And focusing on the names can make students miss the big picture. So, for Intro Bio, I will continue to try to emphasize the concepts rather than the people.
*Jeremy’s recent post argues that Clements’ notion of communities as superorganisms is one of the biggest ideas ecologists have rejected. There’s definitely an interesting post in the question of whether (and at what level) we should continue to teach these sorts of ideas.
**I’m sure some grad students will use this as a checklist for studying for qualifying exams – check the comments for people I missed!