Sunday, September 30, 2018

The future of Nebraska football

Here is an excerpt from TUSKERS; the book is science fiction. Aside from backstory, all the action takes place on the day of the OU vs. Nebraska football game, November 25, 2090; i.e., it's far into the future, OU has joined the Big Ten, and the Rose Bowl has been destroyed by an earthquake, so the national championship game again gets played in the Orange Bowl. However, to get to this game, Nebraska must beat OU. To complicate matters, Nebraska has not lost a football game in 10 years, but OU has developed some secret weapons. Thanks to the molecular biologists, the former Cornhuskers are now the TUSKERS, and their mascot is a wooly mammoth, yes, a real, live, mammoth resurrected from a frozen carcass, who could have no other name than Archie. In this scene, the Cornhuskers have yet to become the powerhouse TUSKERS, Nebraska is in the depths of a string of losing seasons, and Archie the wooly mammoth has been fixed up with a blind date who stands him up. Suzi, who will become one of the book's heroes, is still a college student.

     So, one of the guys from the Beef Lab took Archie to the game. There were very few people around, and most of them were dressed in purple, not red. Even the Kansas State fans wouldn't travel to watch such a boring game. Archie didn't see anybody in red except the band and he knew that after his performance in the parade nobody in the band would go out with him. Finally two people wearing red showed up, but they were both male. Another person, the only female not dressed in purple or in the band, had on jeans and a brown leather vest. It was Suzi on her way to the museum and art gallery.
     When Suzi saw Archie she stopped and stared. Even though Archie was six years old and seven feet tall, and Suzi had watched the mammoths from the public viewing area, she'd never been this close to one. By this time Archie was feeling pretty depressed, sad, and abandoned. Maybe Nancy doesn't like me because I'm big and hairy, he thought. If she only knew how intelligent and sensitive I am, she'd like me. The guy from the Beef Lab said “don't cry, Archie.” But Archie began to cry anyway, hanging his head, letting the tip of his trunk drag on the concrete, and blinking out tears that hit the sidewalk like water balloons.
     Suzi was devastated. She could never have imagined the power that a crying mammoth could have over her deepest emotions. She walked up to Archie's handler and asked what was wrong. The man said “he was supposed to have a blind date but she stood him up because he's so big and hairy. Now he's all depressed.”
     To which Suzi replied, “he's no worse than some of the football players.”
     This wisecrack made Archie cry all the more, his massive body heaving with gigantic sobs and three feet of snot gurgling in his trunk. Suzi had insulted him terribly; he thought football players were barbarians. Then Suzi said “When I get depressed I usually kick the shit out of something. Usually something big. That makes me feel better.”
     “Uh-oh,” said the guy from the Beef Lab. The only big thing around to kick was the Kansas State team bus, a superslick black-windowed silver coach with an abstract purple wildcat on the side. Archie's ears perked up. Then he raised his head, wiped a tear with his trunk, blew out three or four gallons of snot, reared up on his hind legs and smashed the KSU bus. Metal and glass went everywhere. The two guys in red shirts stood off to the side. One of them said
     “Wow! Tusker power!”
     The other said “that's cute; Tusker power.”
     The first guy yelled “ Tus-ker! ”
     The second guy yelled “ Pow-er! ”
     The two students looked at one another. Something out of their distant past, maybe something acquired by their grandparents, bubbled to the surface, as they began to chant: Tus-ker! Pow-er! Tus-ker! Pow-er!

(TUSKERS is available on amazon and smashwords in e-book and paperback, the latter a perfect gift for a Nebraska football fan in 2018.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Response to a friend who asked if I missed being a prof

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.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Letters to America

A while back I was honored to be invited to contribute to the endeavor entitled "Letters to America." My letter appeared today on their web site. The link is:

Monday, April 23, 2018

Essay on the death of a beetle

For a reason that doesn't need to be disclosed, I needed to find this particular essay, written as a result of designing a lab exercise involving parasites of grain beetles (and their mealworm larvae) for a university course entitled "Biodiversity." After searching through everything I could find relative to a course I last taught in the spring of 2011, I was able to find this essay. So here it is:

Essay on the death of a beetle

John Janovy, Jr.

            In his truly magnificent best-seller book, Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, nationally acclaimed cancer researcher and president [at the time] of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, included a chapter entitled “Death in the Open.”  He begins this chapter with a discussion of road kills: “Seen from a car window they appear as fragments, evoking memories of woodchucks, skunks . . . etc.”  His essay addresses death as a natural phenomenon, and ends with a comment on humanity: “Less than half a century from now, our replacements will have more than doubled the numbers.  It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret, with such multitudes doing the dying.”  The secret he is talking about is that of the death of our fellow human beings, a truly “vast mortality” of some 50 million a year.

            Whenever I develop an undergraduate laboratory exercise that involves death of an animal, even a beetle or an earthworm, and especially one in which students are assigned the task of doing the killing, Thomas’ words come back to me, along with those of E. O. Wilson (On Human Nature) and Paul Fussell (Wartime).  In his chapter on aggression, Wilson talks about the dehumanization of fellow humans as a prelude to violence, especially in times of social conflict.  Fussell is more explicit, using WWII as an example, and citing ways in which we dehumanized our enemies, thus desensitizing not only our soldiers, but also our citizens back home.  In my Field Parasitology course at Cedar Point, in which we routinely sacrifice animals in order to discover “who’s infected with whom,” the basic observations necessary to analyze any parasitic relationship, I often end the semester with an extended discussion of Thomas, Wilson, and Fussell, as well as some more modern cases involving massive human destruction (Rwanda, Kosovo, Persian Gulf War, etc.)  There is a simple reason why I often feel that such a discussion is necessary: when you come to know an insect, snail, or “minnow” rather intimately, and build your reputation on the scientific study of their parasites, then it is not so easy to dehumanize these lowly creatures.  These organisms with which your do your first real research project, show someone you are truly capable of conducting an original scientific investigation, earning your guaranteed-get-in letter of recommendation to med school, suddenly become valuable to you.  They are no longer worthless trash, they are no longer repulsive, they are no longer something you have absolutely no feelings whatsoever for, but instead they become a part of your emotional and intellectual library.  They’ve given their lives, yes, but they’ve also given you analytical powers, the irreplaceable power of experience, and the intellectual sophistication that comes from doing research, that you would never have been given had you not set about to study their parasites.

            We choose beetles, this week, because we grow them in large numbers, they are not endangered, no permits are required for their use, and they are not like us [furry, warm, with large eyes].  For most of you, this week’s lab will be the first, and perhaps the only, original experience you will have with the distribution of infectious agents in a population until you graduate from medical school, get into practice, and deal with a flu or head louse epidemic.  If this prediction turns out to be true, then I hope you remember your lessons well.  And if, as a “health care professional,” you find yourself caught up in a military adventure, then you will probably find yourself wishing you had studied the biology of infectious organisms over and over again and been somewhat less enamored of reproductive physiology, cancer, and cardiovascular function. 

This discussion leads, of course, to my rather smart-aleck comments about dead birds at the base of city buildings, and my perhaps unwise advice to simply pick up a stunned bird and kill it.  Those comments were intended to accomplish one thing and one thing only: to vastly increase your sensitivity to death at the population levels, and put into some kind of rational perspective our use of beetles this week in lab.  Actually, I was a little bit shocked at the class’s reaction to those comments; I did not expect laughter.  By way of comparison to the migratory bird situation, about 32,000 Americans die each year of gunshot wounds.  Another 42,000 die in automobile accidents.  From a biologist’s perspective, especially a biologist who studies small organisms, the clearing of tropical forests at the rate of 50-100 acres a minute for the past 20 years, results in the death of uncountable, but truly beautiful and wondrous, organisms.  14,000 deer were struck by automobiles in Iowa last year, at a cost of about $3000 per incident ($42 million a year in damage).  A friend of mine who regularly rode a bicycle along a country highway and counted road kills, then extrapolated that sample to the national level, estimated that at any moment there would be 75 million birds lying dead on America’s highways.  I read a report (unconfirmed) that house cats in Great Britain killed an estimated 60 million song birds a year.  The Kearney arch has cost one human life, and not too many years ago the Omaha World-Herald reported that the increase in speed limits from 55 MPH to 65 MPH on I-80 resulted in approximately one additional human life a month.  The speed limit is now 75 MPH.  A visit to a packing plant makes your hamburger and bacon look quite different than before the visit.  And, of course, I have not addressed the issue of quality of life for those still living who, for various reasons, do not have access to the humanizing influences of quality education, a safe place to sleep at night, adequate health care, and meaningful employment.  Into this latter category fall millions of Americans and billions of other human beings around the world.

I’m not condemning anyone for contributing to the above figures; I am, however, simply reminding us that just by living our normal, 21st Century, human lives, we contribute to the death of vast numbers of organisms and generally ignore the deaths of vast numbers of human beings, all except, that is, the ones closest to us.  Thus it does not bother me very much to use beetles to provide young people, many of whom will become physicians, with their first scientific experience with infectious organisms [we all have non-scientific experiences with infectious organisms].

On a more personal level, I do appreciate the fact that an intimate encounter with death, as when you cut the head off a meal worm, or separate a beetle’s head from its body, can produce an emotional reaction.  In this particular case, you have chosen to terminate a life in order to study something that most people find repulsive (a parasite), even though that repulsive organism is living the most common way of life on earth.  I only ask that you remember this week’s lab when your kid comes home from day care with lice or pin worms and you wonder how to cure the infection (it’s not terribly difficult, at least in the case of pin worms).

Finally, as a philosophical aside, as part of your overall education as a biological sciences major, I strongly recommend a personal examination of your own reasons for reacting as you do to the welfare of other organisms, be they insects or fellow humans.  I’m guessing that the closer an organism is to you personally, or the closer in appearance and demeanor to humans in general, or the younger the organism, then the stronger will be your reaction to its death.  This principle figures prominently in politics and government regulation surrounding the use of animals in research and teaching.  Thus the death of a baby cocker spaniel has an infinitely higher emotional content than the death of a mosquito or cockroach, at least to the average person.  And if you contribute to that death, then the puppy’s will probably linger in your mind for a lifetime, whereas the mosquito and cockroach will be forgotten as soon as you get over the pleasure, and probably smug satisfaction, of having killed them.