The new teaching semester starts today, and this afternoon I’ll give my first Entomology lecture. It’s been 8 years since I’ve taught Entomology, and I’ve missed it. The bulk of my research is on insects (mostly the ecology and evolution of insect-plant interactions), and insects are fascinating, beautiful, and incredibly important both ecologically and economically. When I’m standing at the front of my Entomology class I’ll be happy and I’ll be energized – in fact, the adrenaline high will probably keep me from any real work for a good hour afterwards.
But I’d rather be teaching non-majors.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that in most departments, and for most faculty members, non-majors courses are seen as a service obligation. They let the department crow about how essential it is to the broader life of the university, they put a lot of bums in revenue-generating seats, and they’re great things to show off to political visitors. But they aren’t, by and large, what my colleagues want to be teaching. The upper-level specialty course: that’s the candy. The class is small; the students, having chosen the course among other options, are interested; course prep is easy because the material is familiar; and a stream of guest lecturers is as pedagogically appropriate as it is convenient. All that certainly describes my entomology course, and for those reasons among others, I really am going to enjoy it.
But I’d rather be teaching non-majors.
My entomology students learn a lot, but it’s hard for me to argue that their biology training is transformed by my course. My entomology course, like almost any single upper-year course, has low marginal value (as the term is used by economists). What I mean by that is that when Biology majors take Entomology, it adds relatively little to their overall training: with all their other courses they’ll graduate knowing a lot about life on Earth whether they take my particular course or not*. It has even lower substitutional value: most students who don’t take Entomology will take another upper-level course in its place. Sure, I think it’s a shame that they won’t know a lot about insects, but instead they’ll take a course in phycology, virology, paleoecology, mammalogy, or something else that I’d have to admit is almost as interesting and important as entomology.
But this isn’t true for non-majors. An arts major in a non-majors’ Biology course may be taking their only university science course: their only chance to learn about the life we share our planet with, about the living systems we depend on for our own existence – and perhaps most importantly, about science as a process, the best way (arguably the only way) we have to learn about the universe around us. Science, and the results of applying science, underlie everything we do. Take just one example: a flu shot. There’s population biology and math behind the way vaccines prevent illness in vaccinated and unvaccinated alike; there’s psychology behind the way people misinform themselves about “risks” of vaccination; there’s cell biology and biochemistry behind the way we produce the vaccine; there’s geology and chemistry behind the way we extract and refine fossil fuels to ship the vaccine to our doctors’ offices; there’s physics behind the impact of that fossil fuel use on our planet’s climate. Even for this simple example, I could go on for a whole semester (which would make a pretty good non-majors’ course, come to think of it). And it’s fun to tell people about the amazing things we know about our universe and about the amazing scientists who figured those things out.
And who are these non-majors getting their only taste of university science? They’re not, by definition, scientists; but they’re the majority, and they’re many other important things. They’re future politicians, setting environmental policy and determining funding levels for scientific research (here’s Manu Saunders on this point). They’re future economists, advising those politicians on the costs and benefits of action on climate change or acid rain. They’re future movie stars, who will influence millions through speech that can be disastrously ignorant – or (one hopes) not. They’re future philanthropists, donating to ecological causes or setting up foundations to award scholarships and grants. They’re future parents, whose attitudes and experience can shape their children’s interests. And they’re current and future voters, who set the direction of entire nations. These are people for whom knowing a little science can make a big difference – to them, and to the world they help shape.
Every now and again, that big difference gets brought home to you. I’ve taught non-majors’ courses half a dozen times over the years, and some of those moments stand out. There was the staunch Baptist, for instance, who confided in me that after my course, he thought evolution by natural selection just made obvious sense. And there was a rather rough-looking fellow who saw me coming down the street one night, veered toward me, pumped his fist in the air, and shouted “Hey, Professor Heard, kinky plant sex!”** Sure, many of my Biology majors remember me too, and not every non-major does; but the chance to make this kind of impression on someone who may never take another science course seems worth its weight in gold to me.
So yes, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy teaching Entomology this fall. But nevertheless, I’d rather be teaching non-majors.
UPDATE: Terry McGlynn points me to this related post.of his.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Sept 10, 2015
*This isn’t to say that entomology is unimportant – as a society, we need entomologists, and we need entomology courses to produce them. But that doesn’t make it essential that every biologist take an entomology course, any more than the importance of cancer biology makes it essential that every biologist take molecular oncology. If nobody taught entomology anywhere, that would indeed be a problem; but if one Biology department’s 2017 class of graduating majors didn’t have access to an entomology course, the Earth will continue to spin.
**Seriously rough-looking; I had nearly crossed the street even before the fist-pumping. Oh, you wanted to know about the kinky plant sex. I had done a unit on life histories, including some unusual mating system such as hermaphroditic slugs in which pairs inseminate each other simultaneously and anglerfish in which males live their lives as parasites fused to the bellies of their mates. But then I said “if you want real kink, you have to look at plants” and started with tristyly (three sexes, any two will do). I don’t think my students had ever conceived of plants having sex at all, let along kinky sex.