I’ve been tagged with a teaching meme: I’m supposed to answer the question, “Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?”. We science types are late to the game; there are already several examples online, mostly from those humanities people.
First, I’ll be forthright in one thing: teaching was not my initial goal, nor was there anything in my training to encourage teaching. Especially if you get into a program with biomedical funding, there’s active dissuasion from pursuing teaching: I was a TA for 3 quarters in my first year of graduate school, and then got put on training grants for the next few years and didn’t set foot in the classroom again. Then there were the post-docs: no committee work, no teaching, pure research. Teaching is simply not part of the equation. Not my dream. Not even on the radar.
So what happened?
I got the same shock almost every biologist gets. You finish your post-doctoral training, you get an academic job, and they expect you to teach classes as part of your job. You’ve had no training, your advisors have all been discouraging you from wasting time away from the lab bench, and shazam! Teaching classes is a requirement of employment! Here’s the deep end of the pool, splash, learn to paddle right now!
To my surprise and rather to the detriment of my research plans, I found that it required a lot of hard work to teach, and…and…I liked it. It was like the first time I tried sushi: there was an initial dismay that people actually indulged in this strange stuff, and then noticing that there were all these exotic and subtle flavors, and then there I was trying far more varieties than was really good for me. It grows on one.
So here’s a brief list of a few things that appeal to me about teaching biology.
Because it’s good for me. This isn’t about altruistically doing my part for the future good of humanity; I went into science because I like science, and I like learning new things, and I like exploring the natural world. This is my joy. I went into a Ph.D. program and learned how to delve deep into one very narrow topic, but when I started teaching I had to gain breadth. I read general textbooks. I read history of science. I read philosophy. I went back to the classics: the Origin, Aristotle, D’Arcy Thompson, the autobiography of Ramon y Cajal, Moby Dick (it’s a science book, I tell you), turn of the century monographs, etc. I was a cell and developmental biologist with an emphasis in neuroscience, but I read general physiology, ecology, genetics, immunology, pharmacology, chemistry, on and on…it took the effort of having to teach an introductory biology course that made me aware of how interconnected all the sciences are. I work on a model system, the zebrafish, but I was reading about mice and squid and cockroaches and plants (I really don’t know enough about plants) and bacteria (I really, really don’t know enough about bacteria), and they were all so goddamned beautiful.
So, it’s all about me. Teaching takes me off the narrow path and gives me an excuse to explore everything.
Because science is such an essential part of being human. The most stunted, awful, deplorable human beings are the ones who have lost their monkey curiosity, who have forgotten what it is to open their eyes and see something new and wonder what it is, how it works, and why it’s there. I don’t want to live in a culture whose inhabitants are dedicated only to hunkering down in security, to maintaining the status quo, to shoring up dogma with excuses — I want to see a flowering of new ideas. This is the part of humanity that needs to expand.
In my classes this week, I showed students the cave paintings from Altamira and Lascaux, and asked them to think about what was going through the minds of the people who did them. I suspect there were some rather primal reasons: “I’m hungry and I can’t stop thinking about hunks of elk meat, so I’m going to draw what I want to hunt.” There was also some magical thinking: “If I draw a huge herd of elk on this rock, maybe a huge herd of elk will appear out there where I can kill and eat them.” But you know, I look at them and see the hands of people who looked carefully at the world around them; who knew the shape of animals, who knew the muscles beneath their skin and the way light played on their fur; who watched their behavior and identified with what they did; who respected and admired and desired those creatures. I see scientists in the making.
Because biology is the most important subject in the world, obviously. No, seriously. You’re alive and you want to stay alive, and your health is the essential foundation for everything else, so clearly our biology is the fundamental substrate for our human-specific functions. History, art, literature, sports, entertainment, romance, even religion are ultimately all epiphenomena built around the beating heart of our biological natures. I’m surprised at all those people who don’t know much about their own physiology, anatomy, and evolution — it’s the how and why of your existence!
It’s a pressing need, too. This is going to be the century of medicine and biotechnology; if this country isn’t ready to jump on board and gallop forward, we’re going to become a forgotten backwater, a brief, arrogant diversion in the history of civilization.
Because there is the thrill of battle. Biology is under attack in the US right now — there are a great many people who are utterly ignorant of the subject who have decided that no, sir, they don’t like it, they don’t want to be a descendant of no monkey, and Jesus tells ’em everything they need to know. It’s gotten so bad that one of our major political parties, while not making it a central issue of their campaigns, has made rejection of one of the central tenets of modern biology a signifier of ideological purity. There is a deep well of ignorance here, a strain of outright stupidity strongly held and ardently defended, and what teacher wouldn’t savor that challenge?
With science teaching, I may not be advancing the frontiers of research, but I think shoring up the foundations is an even more important job, if not as glamorous.
Because it turns out that teaching is fun, and you get to meet new minds that want to learn, and have conversations with curious people. Besides, the first time I stepped on a podium and saw that audience, I learned that it’s show business. Who wants to leave show business?
That’s why I teach. Why is academic freedom essential? It’s implicit. If the joy in teaching science is in probing, exploring, seeking out the new, you can’t be hampered by authoritarian constraints; reciting old knowledge by rote isn’t science, and leaving out the bits that make some of us uncomfortable is the antithesis of good science pedagogy. The only limit on what we should teach is the evidence.