Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Farish Jenkins and American Science (Pedagogy)

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. – paleontologist, anatomist, curator, artist, professor, friend – died this past autumn at 72. Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology has collected obituaries from around the web here. Highlights include Nature, the Boston Globe, and the Harvard Gazette.

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., 1940-2012 (http://c.o0bc.com/rf/image_539o215/Boston/2011-2020/2012/11/14/Boston.com/Metro/Images/jenkins3.jpg)
Famous for fieldwork (including the co-discovery of Tiktaalik in 2004) and beloved as a teacher, Farish loomed large at Harvard for four decades. There's been a certain pattern of reminiscence: suit-vest and pocket-watch, encyclopedic knowledge and blackboard artistry. He was the Indiana Jones of vertebrate paleontology – a scientist and a comedian, a storyteller and a Marine.

I was lucky enough to take his renowned lecture course on vertebrate paleontology—OEB 139—in the fall of 2007, just a few years after the discovery of Tiktaalik and a few before he first got sick, meaning it was one of the few times he got to draw his discovery in 139. Here are a few stray thoughts that came to me after I heard Farish had died.

Everyone who takes that class remembers it, not just for Farish's lectures—the best in biology—but for all sorts of things, from the insane detail of his chalkboard drawings to the rigor of the exams. My head is still full of mnemonics we made up to memorize metatarsals and Mesozoic teeth.

There was something of Georges Cuvier in his method and presentation, though I'll leave it to others to speculate on the context for his exactitude and epistemic caution (a la Apel's take on the Cuvier-Geoffroy debates). All I mean by it is that, in front of the class or over a museum drawer, Farish could spin a whole life history out of a single tooth.

Farish Jenkins and Jim McCarthy, 1984 (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ernstmayrlibrary/files/2012/11/jenkinsmccarthy1984.jpg)
He also had a way of introducing characters—teeth, jaws, necks, legs—in ways that made sense, even to those of us only minoring in biology. In doing so, he combined anatomy, zoology, and palentology so well that I actually had to unlearn some things when I came to study the histories of the various ways of knowing that he stitched together so seamlessly. He told stories; he drew on his pants.

Farish knew I was one of the only non-majors in the class—he knew everyone's name and major on the first day—and we had a series of discussions about how the study of biology and the study of its history linked up. He had a fine-grained sense of both science and its history: anyone who walked the MCZ with Farish will recall his detailed knowledge of both the anatomy and the history of its specimens.

Maybe that's part of being a curator (it is). But something special was going on here, something that made you feel like even if you never went to the field with him, you knew how you'd have to think if you did. Make the wrong assumption, move too quickly, and you'd ruin your chances. There was a care to Farish's thinking that, though a staple of curation and fieldwork, can be hard to translate to the classroom while keeping students excited—and yet he not only managed it, he made it essential to doing well in the course.

Tiktaalik roseae (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/Tiktaalik_Chicago.JPG)
Sure, he would joke about it. I distinctly remember him making fun of the state of the field—"teeth, teeth, and more teeth"—both before he got into it and even in his own time. But he made stories about finding fossils interesting even before you found out he carried a rifle and had some brushes with polar bears on Ellesmere Island. And he did it by fusing fieldwork and teaching, practice and theory.

It's something I think about a lot—not just for science, but for history, too. You can go through lots of science pedagogy without a real sense of what doing science is like, in either its day-to-day practices or its moments of greatest excitement. The same is true for history: it takes effort to write lectures and design discussions that connect "what's on the test" to what historians argue about in a way that's not glancing, boring, or (my favorite) self-deprecating about archival work and its stakes.

Maybe it's something special about vertebrate paleontology—its history, its practices, its status (and status anxieties)—that helps connect fieldwork to theory to pedagogy. That class was my only exposure to the topic. But it was also something special about Farish, and I'm still thinking about whether whatever that was can be adapted for teaching the history of science (or of anything, for that matter).

Farish Jenkins and Tiktaalik roseae (http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/04.06/photos/15-missinglink5-225.jpg)

The archive's no Arctic, but both blend difficult, meticulous searching with moments of discovery and imagination. Farish made million-year-old rodents come alive for non-biologists by emphasizing how hard they were to find; might we do the same with manuscript-based history, even for non-history majors and a wider audience?

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