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Matters that matter

Bill Purves purves at THUBAN.AC.HMC.EDU
Sat Mar 4 17:52:46 EST 2000

Lee Hadden has provided us with a wonderful challenge, and
much to think about, arising from Monique Reed's "rant."

When I first read Lee's suggestion: "Can we compile a
list of topics and experiences that would constitute a
reasonably common basis for a contemporary Plant Biology
or Botany course?" my knee-jerk reaction was to think,
"oh please, no."  However, a bit more thought led me to
see virtue in it.  Let me try to explain both reactions.

On the "please, no" side, I have always believed that it is
a mistake to try for a single-best-way-to-do-it approach.
Different instructors have different successful ways to
do it--different course content, different pedagogical
methods, and so forth.  Different instructors in the same
course, or different instructors in different sections, or
different departments, do things in their own ways, and so
they should.  It will not surprise anybody who has seen my
occasional outbursts in plant-ed to hear that I do not believe
at all in any particular selection of topics.  Were everybody
in plant-ed to end up teaching the same syllabus and testing
on the same content, I'd be appalled.  And a lot of us would
fail in our teaching.

On the "virtue in it" side, it could be very helpful to all
instructors of botany to participate in creating a list of
interesting/important topics that COULD be included in courses.
Newer teachers should find it a great help; older teachers
should find it equally valuable.  I hope we will do as Lee
says and start contributing ideas.

Monique's plaint is a common one, and I suspect that every one
of us has suffered that type of angst.  Any introductory
course, and many a "distribution requirement," has the
potential to be perceived by students, at the outset, as being
of no conceivable interest or use.  But introductory botany,
as a stumbling block for a premed, may be the single most
common example.  Well... maybe also, for biology majors, most
required chem, physics, and math courses.

But what can we do about it?  I think that the three most important
things are (1) to pause and think very hard about WHY many students
do (or even should) view some content as having no value for them,
(2) to decide (as an individual instructor, NOT as a department
or national committee) what the instructor can offer as the most
valuable "content" to the students, and (3) to develop ways to
make students WANT to access that content.  (I said "access," as
opposed to "learn," because, like Lee, I believe that grades
have very little to do with what blossoms later on in life.)

Just because we can be passionate about various botanical topics
is no reason to expect any particular student to give a hoot.
I happen to go nuts over piano sonatas by Carl Vine, Elliot Carter,
Benjamin Lees, and a few other twentieth-century composers.  But I
bet most of you, hearing them for the first time, would consider
them outrageous trash--or at least unworthy of passion.

Many students, including legions of premeds, view all their courses
with an eye to relevance to their narrowly perceived needs.
Why SHOULD a premed give a hoot whether a given flower's ovaries
(ovularies, if you prefer) are superior, inferior, or, like,
whatever, ya know?  Why would we expect a field-, animal-, or
medically oriented student to be concerned about Meyerowitz's
floral organ determining genes, or about _Amborella_'s position
in angiosperm phylogeny?

Does this mean that we should teach none of these things?  Of
course not!  But a professor needs to think about WHY she is
teaching any topic--and WHY a student should want to learn it.
(Students learn what THEY want to learn.)  If there's an
obvious mismatch there, what are you going to do about it?

Students can learn effectively and (at least relatively ;-) happily,
often without being aware of what's happening to them, if they
are working on projects whose completion requires the acquisition
of specific "content."  Students, like professors, learn best
when they are teaching (but note that they don't necessarily
teach better--they just learn well).  So have students do things
in pairs or smallish teams (probably 5 or smaller).  Don't
over-prepare them; let them dig for as much of the material as
possible, and do let them make mistakes and come to you (or
other sources) for help.

What should the projects be?  It depends on what "content" you
are trying to impart, and on your students in their context,
and on your style.  Do try to have at least some of them be
ones that might be of some interest to the student/layman/premed.

I'm not saying that projects are the only thing to do, or that
all lecturing should stop (although it COULD), or that nobody
should attempt to hold students to a terrific amount of
detail not of obvious interest to them (lotsa luck, though).
But I do believe that projects are valuable in many ways,
not least for their occasional-to-frequent success in getting
students to learn and, best of all, to want to learn MORE.
Different students will learn different things, none will learn
the entire content of a conventionally defined course--but
they'll learn MORE.

So: Another activity for plant-ed, as part of Lee's proposal,
could be to see if we can come up with a big list of topics
for projects--a list from which instructors might derive ideas,
either for direct use or as a stimulus to their own thought.


p.s.  Honk if you love the piano music of Benjamin Lees or
Lou Harrison ;-)

William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
The Mona Group LLC                     West Coast Office
2817 N. Mountain Avenue              phone: 909.626.4859
Claremont, CA 91711-1550               fax: 909.626.7030
              e-mail: purves at monagroup.com


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