I’d rather be teaching non-majors

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 (sheard@unb.ca) Sept 10, 2015

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*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.

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14 thoughts on “I’d rather be teaching non-majors

  1. David Althoff

    Great argument Steve, especially in today’s political landscape! I teach a non-majors ‘Technology inspired by nature’ course that is large and full of administrative headaches, but it is worth it to see non-biologists get excited about biology and realize that it is an intricate part of their daily lives. My hope is that someday one of those students is going to be politically influential and realize, ‘Yes I will increase funding for science!’. At the very least I hope that most of them will think that funding basic science is not a waste and vote that way. Imagine a world in which there is plenty of support for basic research– kind of makes you feel like a kid in a candy store.

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  2. Wendell

    Sometimes one course makes a big difference. An outstanding ecology course in my senior year changed my career entirely. I didn’t know much about ecology, and I was planning to try out for the genetics team. A great teacher, the Odum textbook, an an Otto Solbrig lecture turned everything around for me.

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  3. Manu Saunders

    Inspiring post! It certainly is a different kind of rewarding to feel that you have helped turn someone’s disinterest/indifference into ‘wow!’. And as you say, science is so relevant to all of us, it’s a shame more non-science courses don’t make the basics compulsory ed – reminds me of this piece from a few years ago: https://theconversation.com/science-education-the-key-to-a-better-public-debate-2474
    Wishing you many more rewarding non-major classes!

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  4. Jeremy Fox

    I’m interested in the argument that your teaching of non-major courses makes more of a difference at the margin, Stephen. Yes, if you don’t teach entomology, those students will just take some other advanced course instead, which most would probably find equally interesting and useful. But if you don’t teach biology for non-majors, those students will just take some other non-major science course instead (or they’ll just take bio for non-majors from someone else). After all, at most colleges and universities, all students are required to take a science course. So perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but it seems to me like you’re making an apples to oranges comparison in the post. You’re comparing the marginal effects of majors and non-majors courses at different margins.

    Of course, I can imagine other reasons why one might prefer to teach non-majors courses, or feel it was more important or made more of a “difference” to do so. Teaching a non-majors course probably means teaching more students, for instance. Or maybe you’d be better at teaching a non-majors course than your colleagues, because you like doing it and they don’t. Whereas if you don’t teach entomology, those students will take an equally well-taught course on some other advanced topic.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Jeremy – interesting point!

      I think you’re talking about substitutional value, rather than marginal value, in the sense of the distinction I drew. The marginal value is “taking the course” vs. “taking no course in that subject”, so apples to apples is arguably “no Entomology on your (Biology) transcript” vs “no Biology on your (Arts) transcript.

      At UNB, at least, you are correct: there is a requirement for Arts majors (at least) to take a pair of science courses. In practice, though, virtually all take Biology, to the point where if Biology courses were not available, I strongly suspect the requirement would be dropped, which in the long term does put us in the marginal situation above. (Of course, I could be wrong – maybe with lots of nonmajors looking for a course, Physics would mount a totally irresistable non-majors course).

      If we accept your point that my non-majors students would just have taken another non-majors science course, then you are right – low substitutional value, unless I’m hugely better at teaching it than anybody else, or the content I’d include is much more important than what somebody else would. One of the reasons I was OK with letting my nonmajors course go is that it was taken over by a colleague who I’d have to admit probably does a better job than I did 😦

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    Oh, and re: kinky plant sex: there are protists that have seven “mating types”, any two of which will do. Maybe some protists have even more, I’m not sure. Beat that, plants! 🙂

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, dozens of alleles at sporophytic incompatibility loci – I’m not an expert, but at least 45 in a single population in Oenothera (data go back to the 1930s!). These are “strictly genetic” mating types, any two will do, but they only come into play post-pollination. And like trystyly, they are about preventing self-pollination, not about sex distinction in the sense of any functionally different role during reproduction. Perhaps analogous to your protists, perhaps not?

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Well, in the protists I’m thinking of, sex (recombination) is decoupled from reproduction. The protists in question conjugate–they join up with another cell and exchange genetic material, then go their separate ways. They only do it when environmental conditions are crappy; it’s condition-dependent recombination. Sally Otto’s group has done some modeling on it, to identify the conditions under which it’s adaptive.

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  7. David Mellor

    Great points about teaching non-majors. The large, non-majors course I taught several years ago for a few semesters really underscored the importance of this single course to these students. This was one semester to instill as much appreciation for science and life as possible. When designing the course, I asked myself “what do I want every banker, marketer, lawyer, artist to be able to reason through?” and found my non-majors bio course to contain more stats and experimental design than some courses for majors- where life science content was paramount.

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