Back to school
John Janovy, Jr.
In the fall of 1941, at the age of four and a half, I started to kindergarten, walking a block to Eliot Elementary School, 1442 East 36th Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma. I retired as a prof from academia on June 30, 2011. So that’s 70 years of life organized around the school calendar—actually only 69 if you subtract my six months active duty as a reserve artillery officer, but I spent half of those months in school and the other half in a different kind of school. Maybe more on that later. Two things happened when I retired: first, a good friend, Otis Young, also recently retired, told me to get up and get out of the house every day; second, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln gave me a small office to replace the two large labs in which I’d labored since the late 70s. So you can guess what happened in the fall of 2011: I started getting up and going to that small office. Every working day.
The post-retirement writing activity ranged from National Novel Writing Month projects—the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series, a five-book essay on scientific illiteracy—to a professional biography of a close friend, a man who’s trained prison staff in seventy different nations over a fifty-year period. My first published book was Keith County Journal, 1978, and it was written mostly in the early mornings. After that publication, I started going to a coffee house near campus, either before or after class, and writing for an hour, until that place was torn down, whereupon I moved to the UNL Student Union. Eighteen books later, I’m sitting in that same student union, writing, and reflecting on the plusses and minuses of being retired. And why am I doing this reflection? Because my friend, Gary Hill, the subject of this book on prisons, asked me if I “missed it.” “It”, of course, meant teaching biology to hundreds of first-year students and everything that teaching entailed. My instant reaction at the time was “no!” But the more I thought about that answer, the more nuanced it became, so I decided to lay out those plusses and minuses—the miss its and don’t miss its—of being a biology prof at a large university in the late Second and early Third Millennia.
The “miss its” are pretty easy to list:
(1) The challenge of trying to learn at least a hundred new names and faces, out of an introductory biology class of 260. It took me about a week after walking into my first teaching assignment—7:30 AM, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, in Love Auditorium, 362 students, fall semester, 1966—to figure out that among that mass of young humanity was the future of my nation and my life. In the subsequent years, our large auditoriums were re-modeled so that class size was capped at about 260, much to the frustration of the administration, which would like for first-year science students to be packed into the football stadium and lectured to by a temporary instructor (without benefits) on the end zone screen. From the stage of that auditorium, I could tell which students were engaged and attentive. By the end of that first week, the responsibility of intellectual leadership was also evident, as was the idealism accompanying a faculty position. My job was not to certify that 362 students had actually taken a course entitled “Zoology 1.” No, my job was to make the nation a better place for all to live, and to accomplish that feat from the stage of Love Auditorium. In retrospect, that feeling of responsibility was probably a natural result of power, a product of standing in front of an audience that had actually paid money to listen to me talk and to copy down the pictures I’d chosen to put up on the overhead projector. So I miss that combination of idealism and the feeling that I had at least some chance to change the world into a better place for all to live.
(2) I really miss watching the intellectual development of the few students who came out of those large introductory classes and wanted to do independent research in my lab. I miss watching that intellectual development because it reinforced, so strongly, my sense of what it meant to be a biologist. For most of my career, at least since about 1980, the organisms involved were not ones that had a major health or economic impact on humanity. Although they were parasites, technically, many of these organisms lived in the guts of tiny beetles. The good news was that the study of these parasites, called “gregarines,” depended more on patience, insight, creative thinking, discipline, and microscopy skills than on high-end technology like DNA sequencing, etc. In other words, if, as a sophomore in college, you decided to budget a few hours a week to solving some problem involving the lives of gregarines, two or three years later you would have in your possession, ready for use in the big, bad, world, some exceedingly valuable transferable skills. Those skills would be most valuable when you had to again deal with tiny, dumb, uncooperative organisms, e.g., your co-workers or your bosses.
(3) I truly miss the summers teaching Field Parasitology at the Cedar Point Biological Station. That experience was somewhat diminished in quality when the summer courses were changed from five weeks long, with classes two days a week, to three weeks long, with class every day. I won’t go into the reasons why that schedule was changed, except to say that it was a truly stupid move that ended up significantly diminishing the intellectual impact that the field station experience had on students, and greatly inhibited the ability of faculty members to do research on organisms available at CPBS while also serving as intellectual role models for these young scientists. It also diminished the potential impact of the CPBS experience on University of Nebraska Foundation gifts decades into the future, although it was never obvious that people making those decisions understood what organismic biology in the field can do to a person’s emotions and mindset. Nevertheless, the field station years were remarkable ones, especially for me, and for our family, too.
(4) I miss doing the research that was an expected part of being a science teacher at a large public university. No matter what the subject area, faculty research is the equivalent of athletic team practice; you do it every day and you do it because it keeps you in shape intellectually. Administrators view faculty research as a source of money and reputation. So the reasons you’re expected to do it as part of your job, and also to seek money to support it, have little or no relationship to the reasons you want to do research. No university scientist ever said: I want to study microscopic organisms so I can get a grant off which administration skims money. Instead, university scientists become aware of some part of the universe that they find interesting and then decide to pursue that interest.
(5) I truly miss Friday coffee with the students who worked in my lab. Every Friday afternoon about 3:30, we would adjourn to a local coffee house and talk Big Talk—science, art, politics, professionalism, behavior of faculty members, problem children in the labs they were teaching, etc. Nothing was off limits. I honestly felt that this weekly discussion, initiated by Ben Hanelt, one of my doctoral students in the 90s, was a vitally important part of the professional development of everyone who had decided to join our research operation. Even first and second year students were included. Seniors and grad students talked about their work, revealing a long list of workplace problems and ways to solve them. Conversely, that talk put these older students into a mentoring mode, an experience that paid off for them later.
The “don’t miss its” are also pretty easy to list:
(1) I don’t miss the battle with information technology, the obsession with that little screen in their little hands. During the last couple of years of my time lecturing in Henzlik Hall Auditorium (260 student capacity), I tried every possible trick to win this battle, mostly to no avail. The trick list is pretty long; I won’t bore you with it here, although some of it is hidden in the course design and assignments mentioned on my web site and in that book Teaching in Eden (2003). The day I decided I’d lost the battle, and in fact the war, was the day that I realized those dozen or so students who straggled in late were not late because they’d been having a deep intellectual conversation with some liberal English prof. No, they came in late, quietly slipped in, sat down behind the last row of seats, hiding, and spent the rest of my lecture completely fixed to, and engaged with, that little screen on their smart phones. I discovered this fact by just walking down the aisle one day.
(2) I don’t miss students’ obsession with the correct answer. A couple of years ago one of our grad students came to parasitology seminar with an observation. She was a teaching assistant, working on her PhD, so she’d been a TA for three or four years. She was shaking her head, and commenting that this fall was the first year in which all of her students had, from the time they entered school, been subjected to No Child Left Behind, that dumb Republican idea, from one of the (but not the) dumbest presidents in my memory, that was, in essence, a combination of high stakes testing and punishment. In my opinion, NCLB is an almost Biblical construct: get the right answers or get punished. The culmination of this pressure associated with the right answer culminated with three students who came to my office to complain about their grades. I felt at the time that I had to keep them in conversation until I was convinced they were not self-destructive. All three of those cases were in my last month of a 46-year teaching career. All three were doing okay in the course.
(3) I don’t miss the administrative ignorance of what education really is, as well as the administrative obsession with money and certification. One time, late in my career, I spent three years as chair of the General Education Committee, a group of faculty members assembled for the purpose of developing a set of across-the-board requirements, ones that every student at the University of Nebraska had to fulfill, the intent and impact of which could be “assessed.” The jargon is something like “assessable learning outcomes.” We had a distinguished outside expert who came to UNL and gave a speech in which she made the point that the real product of a college education was, or at least should be, a set of transferable skills. So the education vs. certification issue involves content: what it is, as opposed to what you do with it. For example, there may be ten people in the world, yes, ten out of seven or eight billion, who really care about the one-celled organisms that live inside grasshopper guts, i.e., one example of “what it is.” However, if you, as a twenty-year-old undergrad looking for an honors thesis topic, a study of these organisms could easily prepare you for a position of leadership in a major corporation, i.e., the “what you do with it.” Administrators never understand this distinction; true teachers understand it instinctively.
There is also a short “miss it, sort of, but maybe not really” list:
(1) I miss the academic politics, sort of, and watching the interplay between personality types and behaviors in a system where the currency is reputation. Academia attracts, and sustains, some strange individuals, but in general, as a population, they are no stranger than members of white supremacist groups, religious cults, elected officials, climate-change deniers, and Republicans. And I will admit that my colleagues have supplied some of the characters in my fiction. Our oldest daughter, a journalist and exceedingly successful writer and editor, calls this practice “revenge fantasy.” When she told me that, I assumed she was passing along some professional argot. The good news is that I don’t have to sit through faculty meetings to collect this material because current political discourse provides all of the wacko stupidity and truly dangerous behavior that a writer needs. The bad news is that current political discourse provides all of the wacko stupidity and truly dangerous behavior that a writer needs.
(2) I miss the interaction with faculty members from other departments, especially in the arts and humanities, sort of. I still interact with such people, but mostly outside of an academic setting. The academic interactions were not always comfortable, but they were all enlightening and sometimes enriching. Particularly pleasant, and rewarding, was service on doctoral committees in the English Department. Reading those dissertations and sitting in a small room listening to poets grill an embryonic scholar always left me feeling fulfilled in some undefinable way. The uncomfortable interactions involved business such as that conducted by the General Education Committee mentioned above. The fact that this business was a product of an administration determined to head off legislative scrutiny meant that in certain places on campus our work would be seen as threatening, and in other places it would be seen as inconsequential.