What happened to the first half of 2015?

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) may have noticed that this the first post since December, 2014. What happened to the first six months of 2015? They went by in a blur. Teaching was a big part of it. Romina Gazis and I taught Molecular Systematics and Evolution (BIOL 254) and I also lectured in the second half of Introductory Biology (BIOL 102), as I have been doing since I arrived at Clark in the late Eocene. These two courses could not be more different. The average undergraduate class at Clark has 21 students, which is a good reason to come to school here. With nine students and two instructors (one grant-supported), I feel that Molecular Systematics delivered on the promise of the Clark experience. The class was challenging, for various reasons, but it was a real pleasure to get to know the students and discuss the primary research articles that they selected. In contrast, Introductory Biology had 126 students, which is actually fewer students than in the 2014 version of the course. Because of the reduced class size we were able to move from the cavernous Jefferson Auditorium (capacity 320), where we held lectures in 2014, to Johnson Auditorium, which is still a very large room (capacity 176). Last year in Jefferson I felt like I was lecturing in a warehouse. This year’s class had a better vibe than the 2014 version, and the student evaluations were more positive. I truly enjoy lecturing in Introductory Biology, which I guess is why I am still doing it after 16 years (OK, it was not quite the Eocene when I started). I think it is an important class, the students bring great energy, and I always learn new things about biology and teaching. Still, it is hard to establish rapport with a group of 126 students, at least for me.

Jefferson 320 (left) and Johnson Auditorium

Jefferson 320 (left) and Johnson Auditorium

I wish we could move away from the traditional large lecture introductory survey for first-year biology students, as biology programs at some other small colleges have done. In past years, I ran a course called “First Year Research Seminar” (BIOL 100), which served as an introductory survey, but was centered on a semester-long research project and was offered for only twelve students (with a Teaching Assistant!). BIOL 100 gave students a chance to get involved in a real research project in their first semester in college and it was great fun for me, but it was also costly for the University. Biology has become one of the most popular majors at Clark, and it is unlikely that we will be able to offer a course like BIOL 100 in the near term; we just don’t have enough faculty. Nevertheless, I hope that someday we will be able to replace our gigantic first-year course with a series of smaller courses that are tailored to the diverse needs and interests of our first-year students. But that is not happening anytime soon; I hear that next year’s incoming class promises to be one of the largest in recent years, and I fear that we will be back in Jefferson in the spring.

Of course, teaching was not the only thing that consumed my time last semester. Two lab members departed during the winter, two visitors came and went, one PhD student graduated, and the lab was very busy. I will document some of what went on in future posts.