Thursday, January 25, 2007

What matters now, Part 1: coursework

Does coursework matter?

Let me be clear about that. When you start out you don't know anything, and courses are one time-honored way of learning stuff. Some stuff is really dense and technical, and there is really no way to learn it besides being involved with a course (either taking the course, or teaching it). Human anatomy comes to mind. Looking at pictures in a book or on a computer is not a substitute for dissection, and the circumstances under which you can cut up someone else's mortal remains are tightly (and rightly) controlled by the state. So if you want to learn human anatomy, a course is pretty much your only option.

But what about comparative vertebrate anatomy? You need dead animals to cut up, and you need some kind of reference material--textbooks, dissection guides, or possibly [preferably?] primary descriptive literature. Some folks with similar interests to learn with and help out with logistics will certainly help. A good course in CVA can supply all these things, but you can get them without a course.

Animals can be had from the grocery store or from nature, depending on your proclivities and local statutes. Back in Oklahoma a fishing license covered the reasonable collection of all nonmammalian and nonavian nonendangered vertebrates, and a hunting license covered the rest (mammals and birds, that is, not endangered species). So for an outlay of about $30-40 you could legally collect just about anything. Dissection manuals are a dime a dozen if you live in a college town; if you don't you can still get them through the local library. Helpers are ideally the people you drink beer with. All of these things are available to the average citizen for minimal money and effort. Some legendary anatomists got to be legendary without ever having any formal training at all. So in CVA a course can be helpful, but it's not a dealbreaker.

What about phylogenetics? I took phylogenetics here at Berkeley from David Lindberg and Brent Mishler, and I learned a ton. But most of what I learned was history and theory. Most of what I know about the practical aspects of building and using cladograms I learned on my own. Cladistics as a discipline has grown up out in the open. Almost all the literature you need is recent and easy to get your hands on, and the people writing the papers are the same ones writing the programs. And many good programs are freeware. I don't know, but I suspect, that many students that are producing cladograms or doing phylogenetically-based analyses (character correlation using independent contrasts, for example) have never had a course in phylogenetics. In that respect learning phylogenetics is probably similar to learning Photoshop: learn as you go. Undoubtedly, I am a better biologist for having had the phylogenetics course, but a quick survey of the field should convince you that a lot of folks are getting along without one, and most of the stuff I actually use I picked up on my own.

(Quick confession: I have published cladograms, but they were not generated with software; I have generated cladograms with software, but not published them; and I have done a lot of character analyses but those aren't published yet.)

What about, say, descriptive morphology? I suppose it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a course in this might exist somewhere, but I've never heard of one. I think Aristotle said something like, "The things you can't learn by being taught, you learn by doing." That's a pretty fair description of doing descriptive morphology. Nobody can really tell you how to describe that sauropod vertebra without describing it. It certainly helps to read a lot of descriptions to figure out how to organize your writing and to see what makes for good and bad description, but as far as I know everyone who is in the business of describing stuff learned by doing. Here's a really intricate and important job for which courses don't even exist.

What I've tried, with these examples, is to build a spectrum of coursework importance that goes from crucial through helpful to nonexistent. I skipped irrelevant, but it would be easy to come up with an example. My undergrad journalism(!) course on Star Trek and Star Wars comes to mind. It did not make me a better journalist, nor did it substantially improve my knowledge or appreciation of ST and SW. It was just a fun way to pick up three credit hours.

The reason this is on my mind is that the other day I had a serious conversation with a friend about the state of paleontological training at Berkeley. If you go here you can find a very impressive list of courses that ostensibly form the buffet of educational excellence here. What you won't learn from the list is that many of those courses are offered very infrequently. Some haven't been offered in years. We don't even have a paleobotanist around to teach paleobotany, for example. In my friend's view, the erosion of course offerings in paleontology is a serious threat to Berkeley's continued status as a paleontological powerhouse.

I wondered then, and am wondering out loud now, if that is true. Is coursework relevant? I'm not a paleobotanist. A paleobotany course would certainly patch some holes in my knowledge, but those holes aren't in the areas in which I work. Would knowing paleobotany help me be a better dinosaur anatomist? Possibly, but I doubt it. It seems to me that most of the stuff that I use in my work came from the "learn by doing" end of the spectrum. I think that my coursework has been adequate, but in looking at what makes me the fine specimen I am today coursework has been far less important than informal experimentation, either by myself or with interested friends.

On the other hand, of course I would think coursework is irrelevant, because I've had so little of it. Possibly my self-assessment is way off base. Maybe more coursework would have made me a substantially better paleontologist.

But I doubt it.

What do you think? (I'm mainly interested in what you think about the importance of coursework, not whether I rock or suck. But hey, it's your comment field, do what you like.)

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Blogger Sarah said...

I think that a lot of the nitty gritty can be learned outside of a course, but I also think that the guidance a course provides is pretty helpful, if not necessary in many cases. Courses (especially seminars) promote discussion of a topic, giving you the benefit of clarification, other viewpoints and analogies, and exposure to the history of a concept and the context of its evolution as an idea. This is the difference between having a tool in your academic toolkit and understanding when and how it is most appropriate to use it... a flathead screwdriver can be used in place of a chisel in some situations, but that doesn't mean that's its intended purpose.

For example, you say you probably could have done phylogenetics without a course, but I think that one reason so many phylogenies suck so much is that the phylogeneticist who performed them lacked training. It's one thing to read about how to operate PAUP* or Mesquite and plug a matrix in, and it's another thing to understand what makes for an appropriate character or how to properly interpret things. And while methods and stats are in the current literature, a lot of the discussions about fundamental theory are in the old literature, which isn't always as accesible. Coming into a new field, your bullshit detector isn't always as well-calibrated, either.

CVA is another example of a class I think works well as a course. Yes, you can learn dissection skills on your own. And, yes, needing to know the information for your research will help you learn the material more thoroughly than a class. But a series of dissections doesn't mean you'll necessarily "get" the big picture, because you might lack the evolutionary or functional contextual information.

I think courses are a great way to introduce people to the field. You can get the basic vocabulary, the history, and the contextual framework to keep building. And a lot of times, you can get the motivation to pursue a field you might not have otherwise (I hear some people who aren't paleontologists haven't known their career goals since they were 3). And, I think courses are a good for the professor, too, in that they become better at relaying/explaining information.

Sure, there are many, many things best learned outside of a traditional course. As a grad student, I have learned so much from discussion-based seminars, chats with my committee members and advisers, and over beers with my fellow students. I now have the discipline to learn on my own (even stuff I'm not super-interested in), but I have only met a handful of undergrads who have the drive and the discipline to learn things thoroughly on their own (and let's face it, how many "real-world" adults are capable of that?).

My $.02

11:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

I've never taken any course in anything remotely relevant to palaeontology since my 'O'-level biology (ages 14-16). Sometimes I feel that very acutely, and I'd certainly love the opportunity to take a few well-chosen courses if it could be done in a way that made sense logistically. But since I live a three-hour drive away from my institution (University of Portsmouth) that's not going to happen any time soon.

What I miss much more is a peer-group. I get all misty-eyed when Matt starts talking about his "lab-mates" -- an exotic concept indeed. The idea that chatting about comparative vertebrate anatomy over a pizza with likeminded people a couple of times a week could be normal is one that appeals enormously, and I hope that all you people who are in that situation appreciate what you've got.

So how do I manage to get anything at all done? There are three important things that give me about 90% of what I need.

First, the literature. I think if I'd been trying to do this even ten years ago it would have been impossible, but the massive growth of literature availability on the Internet means that I can get and read most of what I need pretty quickly and painlessly. Yes, it would be really nice to be taught occasionally (and I'd especially appreciate that phylogenetics course that Matt alluded to), but fundamentally I can learn pretty much everything I need to from papers. (Chapters from edited volumes are harder to come by.)

Second, email. I will not name names for fear of embarrassing a certain fat Berkeley palaeontologist not entirely unknown to readers of this blog, but one friend in particular, through his frequent, long, interesting and funny emails over the last few years, has been worth a good solid proportion of a real live peer-group to me. Throw in Darren Naish and one or two others, and I have the makings of a (*cough* excuse me) "virtual community" -- not as good as the real thing, but still very, very good. People who'll tell me when I'm talking complete bobbins.

Third, conferences are an absolute necessity for me -- they're the only time I'm ever in touch with the wider VP community. Unfortunately, since each conference means time off work, I am very limited in terms of what I can attend. I generally make it to one biggish conference a year (SVPCA, MTE or hopefully SVP one year soon) and a one-day conference or two (most often ProgPal). Apart from anything else, those times are valuable for reminding me that there are other organisms out there apart from basal titanosauriforms.

So those three things -- literature, email and conferences -- are enough to keep me going most of the while. But to get started in the first place, I needed the impetus of a crucial few days in 2004 when Matt visited England and we spent a few days in museums looking over specimens together. Matt may have thought he was doing research in those few days, but what he was really doing was giving me a super-condensed crash-course in how to look at bones. I learned more in those two or three days than I've learned in any subsequent two or three months; and I don't believe any amount of book-larnin' could have given me the same insights. When it comes right down to it, there's no substitute for a fat Oklahoman standing right next to you saying "No, doofus, that's not a posterior centroparapophyseal lamina, it's just a ventrolateral flange".

None of which is to say that a few well-chosen courses wouldn't have been supremely useful. I am frequently painfully aware of how very, very little I know outside my own very specialised field -- how super-narrow my knowledge is. (Of course, hanging out with Darren somewhat exacerbates this feeling.)

I suppose what I really wish is that I'd spent some of my university time (1986-9) learning something that would be useful now, rather than frittering all that time away playing with Pure Maths and hacking. But then I guess anything I'd learned twenty years ago would have become useless or worse by now.

2:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that what Sarah and Mike are both trying to express is the need for interaction with other people - whether or not it is in a class. I wholeheartedly agree with this. I think the best classes provide a framework to learn with and from other people. This is especially so with labs and seminars - although even a good lecture can help. There is something about interaction that makes for a better learning experience.

I think one part of it is that you end up teaching/getting taught by your peers in such a setting. Whether its being taught anatomy by a fat Oklahoman or teaching anatomy as a fat Oklahoman, you learn a hell of alot more than just reading/dissecting/philosophising by yourself. At least for me, most of my best ideas come about or are brought to fruition through interaction with others. This is also the case when writing papers - I am invariably more happy with the result when the paper is a collaboration than when I'm single author.

I'm willing to bet that Matt agrees with most of this - and his response will be that he gets the best interactions outside of class, which is fair enough.

Just my two bits.


1:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Hey, Matt -- don't you just love the way the "fat Oklahoman" trope is catching on around here? :-)

2:09 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

I was born in Dodge City and spent my tender years in western Kansas, so rank on fat Oklahomans all you want.

I don't think that courses aren't useful. They certainly are, for all of the reasons you guys have stated.

OU offered a lot of foundational courses (the various vertebrate -ologies, biogeography, ecology, etc.). I took as many as I could, and they were individually excellent almost without exception, but I wish there had been some seminars to fill in the historical and conceptual context. Berkeley offers a lot of seminars. I've taken a lot, and they've also been great. My historical and conceptual grounding is now much more solid than it was when I came here. But at least for now Berkeley is pretty damn weak on fundamentals. I don't feel like I've missed out on much, but that's because I picked up so many of these things at OU. I think people that came to Berkeley straight out of undergrad may miss out on some things. For example, I think it is just fucking ridiculous that an institution that runs both Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and the UCMP has no comparative anatomy course. I mean, the course is still on the books, but it was last taught before I came here and there are currently no plans to resurrect it, so it is effectively dead.

I guess the first thing I'm trying to figure out is, how much coursework is enough? Obviously we all need to take some courses. (No offense, Mike, you're just handicapped in this area. I wouldn't point it out if I didn't know that you agree, and that you've worked hard to overcome the deficit.) On the other hand, courses only get you so far. At some point, you've got to get out of the classroom and into the field/lab/collection.

So how much is enough? I'm sure all of us have course that we wish we'd taken, or that we would have taken if they'd been offered. But in general how do feel about your formal training?

And the real question that inspired the post is this: what is the relative importance of coursework in a graduate program? If a program does not offer a strong curriculum, is it crippled? Is it waning? Or is the strength of a program dependent on the quality of faculty research, or grad student research, or some other factor, with coursework being a nice but less important factor?

2:34 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Forgot to say: Mike, your habit of attending every single conference that comes down the pike is now explained. I will never hassle you about it again. Any decision on what to yak about at ProgPal?

2:38 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Not sure if there's much I can add here that hasn't been said, but it's tough to resist the urge to chime in. I think the amount of "necessary" coursework really depends on the quality of the courses and the needs of an individual student (or to frame it in Matt's broader question, the types of students in a given program).

It sounds to me like what's going on at Berkeley is most likely a case of sloppy pruning of the course directory - pretty much every department has those courses on its roster that are *never* offered. Maybe it results from some bureaucratic directive to have "X" number of courses for a graduate program? I agree that it's pretty annoying for any prospective students.

Regarding the importance of coursework in a graduate career, I would probably rank it as part of the graduate school trinity - coursework, personal interaction, and research. Not sure if it's a trinity in the trinitarian Christian sense of a trinity. . .hmm, this is probably a bad analogy anyhow.

At any rate. . .I would argue that strong coursework is only one part of what makes a great program great. I don't think that a great breadth of coursework is entirely necessary for a great program, but it certainly probably helps. In my grad career, I've taken a handful of classes (gross anatomy, vertebrate evolution, functional morphology seminar, finite element modeling, principles of evolution, and biometry). Quite honestly, I've really benefited from every single one of those. The benefit of formal coursework is that (ideally) it forces a student to sit down and really confront the material. In the best of cases, it gives a breadth of knowledge (or at least exposure to knowledge) that's tough to get otherwise. Because let's face it - most of us (well, except Randy Irmis) are lazy. I never would have picked up as much about statistics on my own, especially statistics that I didn't feel were completely relevant to me at that moment in time. Sure, it wasn't always fun to sit through a two hour lecture, but at the end of it I was inducted into the Loyal Order of the Normal Deviate by Rohlf himself (with Sokal presiding)! Plus, I now know that Kolmogorov-Smirnov is not a brand of vodka.

So, I'd say that well-chosen, relevant, well-taught coursework is important. It's not completely necessary for being a good scientist, but it helps to improve one's breadth and one's knowledge toolbox.

4:22 AM  
Blogger Amander said...

Beautiful! This is just what I needed to read! I have returned to school this semester after completing a B.S. in Professional Writing. I've always wanted to study I'm in the process of designing my own major, since my New England university has very little paleo-anything.
Since I decided to go back to school, I have joined the DML, emailed a few people interested in the same topics I'm interested in and done my best to network. The DML is an indispensible tool and I have learned so much in such a short time (Thanks Mike and Matt!). However, much of the information is useless to me because I don't know the language. For example, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand Sauropod phylogeny, but words like "basal" and "inclusive" are a mystery to me. At least, they were. I don't understand the little symbols. My point is, if I want to read published peer-review articles or even hold up a coversation with a DML'er, I need to research the words being used before I can even begin to understand anything else. So I can see how some coursework is necessary. As an undergrad, it is vital, contributing to (hopefully) a solid framework of basic knowledge that will allow me to carry out well-formed, intelligent research.
That being said, I can imagine how, once that framework has been constructed, structed courses may be less necessary.
Here's a question for you all: Were you overwhelmed by the amount of information you needed to learn in order to study paleontology? I am completety terrified by the amount of stuff I don't know!
Thanks for this post, Matt. It's been really helpful.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Hi Amander,

Don't worry, everyone was as lost as you at some point. And no one _completely_ gets over that; you learn a little and claim a small swath of territory in which you feel comfortable, and after that you keep expanding your area of knowledge and grow progressively more comfortable with progressively more stuff.

The DML is a good resource; that's where I started, and Mike too. Mike also has a webpage that covers some of your questions; check it out here:

Beyond, there is no substitute for jumping in somewhere, getting completely lost and freaked out, and then finding your way out. The list of Open Access resources of the sidebar of this blog will take you to lots of free papers. Armed with those and online dictionaries that can help you with the etymology and meaning of anatomical terms, you should have plenty of places to start.

The most important thing, though, is to ask questions. There is no shame in not knowing something. The only shame is no knowing and not asking.

Hope that helps!

10:12 AM  

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