The STEM itch has inflamed my university, and for more than a year we’ve been scheming to build a new STEM complex. My department will be moving there, and they plan to drag me along if I haven’t retired by the time the complex receives its occupancy permit.
Here, then, I compose an open letter to the architectural firm about the proper handling of faculty who engage in natural history.
First of all, relax. There are not many of us. The university seems to be drifting in more of a molecular/cellular direction than toward ecology/natural history. The Powers That Be seem to have decided that organismal biology is for dinosaurs, that ecology is about pests, and that natural history should be returned to the philosophy department since it was dreamed up by Aristotle. Or maybe the history department?
When my department was first consulted about our teaching and research needs, there was a flurry of conversation about teaching labs, research labs, innovation spaces and a mud room, the latter space being necessary when our students and research assistants return from the field. We don’t want to be dragging nature indoors. My only contribution to this discourse was that I needed a window, preferably one that opened to the outdoor world.
I realize how easy it might be to dismiss my singular concern, shelving it as the bemused rambling of one who doesn’t get what STEM is really about. STEM, after all, connotes knuckle-down bench science, the development of hyper-digital technologies, engineering that follows a high-level design process, and maths that can only be described as “rigorous.” It’s not about natural historians gazing out their windows while contemplating nature.
My concern here is that we might be designing a new sort of academy where nature no longer has standing. The contemplation of nature becomes reserved for those who attended college before the digital humanities were invented. Passé.
Five or six years ago owe were given the opportunity to identify our preferred teaching spaces. The university had gotten itself into something of a classroom crunch, and the faculty articulated concerns about having to teach in less-than-ideal spaces. The major controversy, as I remember it, was that some faculty disliked teaching with blackboards, and others disliked teaching with whiteboards. We were therefore given the opportunity to register our preferences on a form that the registrar would use to assign classrooms.
I can go either way on the blackboard/whiteboard thing, but I had a strong dislike for Daly Science 106, a small, windowless room near the chemistry labs where my classes were increasingly being assigned. I therefor listed my preference as: “Please don’t assign my classes to Daly 106.” The following year, ever one of my classes was scheduled to be held in that room. Every freaking class.
I did something back then that may have marked me as an eccentric. I offered the university my resignation. I flat-out refused to teach classes such as “Nature and Imagination” in a windowless room. The university, I’m happy to report, made alternative arrangements.
A few years later my department chair attempted to move me to a windowless office. I told her not to bother because I would never use the space. I have a second office in the dorm where I live, and I’d move my books and files to that office. Once again, an alternative arrangement was proposed.
Is it just me? I know I have at least one kindred soul, albeit at a far-away university. Professor Terry Wheeler, who directs the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill University in Quebec, and who currently serves as president of The Natural History Network—on whose Board of Editors I serve—had this to say about the window situation: http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/conversations/my-living-room-window.
The picture below was photographed from my current office without me ever having had to get up from my chair. I knew the genus of this swallowtail when it landed--Papilio—but I was uncertain of the species, which turned out to be P. rutulus. I wasn’t trying to create art, I was just trying to identify the western tiger swallowtail.
I don't need a lab or a mudroom or even an innovative workspace, but I’d like to be able to do the same in any future office.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature