Becoming a Lightning Rod for Controversy by Starting an Evolutionary Studies Program in Alabama, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Long overdue, this was the first post I wrote for this blog but shelved it to start with something zippier, more spontaneous, something with more je ne sais quoi (see Part 1).  However, I still want to post this as part 2, as the mission of this blog is to talk in & around evolutionary studies & my own research interests at Alabama, which wouldn’t be possible without some of the players who laid the groundwork & have been fighting the good fight since before I got here.  With some editing, here ’tis:

I started this blog after Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology pointed me to an insightful post  over at the London School of Economics.  Its message is that (1) “blogging is, quite simply, one of the most things an academic should be doing right now” & (2) such blogs should have snappy titles, use real human-like language, get to the point quickly, & uhh, some other stuff.  So let me just start off by saying that this particular entry is to tell you that’s it’s important to create consilient programs like EvoS available for students to demonstrate what disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, & others can have to do with each other within university systems, because they are definitely all smashed up together out in the real world.  And because it should seem obvious that a state like Alabama REALLY needs a program like this, I can share what we did right in starting the EvoS program at the University of Alabama that you might try at home.

Why is that significant, you might ask?  Alabama is a football powerhouse–surely they are also powerhouses in cutting edge evolutionary education & research too.  They are natural complements.  Right.  So the gist of it is, we are one of only four full-fledged Evolutionary Studies minors in the world (I think…I believe Glenn Geher said this to me & I was impressed with what we’d done without even knowing it–if I am wrong, let me know & I’ll retract this statement–a wonder of blogging is that I don’t need to a priori fact-check!), we are the only EvoS program at a flagship state research 1 school, & well, yeah, we’re in friggin’ Alabama.  And Alabama, as I’ve said before & to be technical about it, sucks at teaching evolution.  So it is considered quite a coup.

Pause a moment to imagine me patting myself on the back…

Okay, now the acknowledgment that I barely had anything to do with it.  This post is to give credit where credit is due, but now that I’ve spilled the beans about what will come, let me digress…

Why become a lightning rod for controversy by starting an Evolutionary Studies program in ultra-conservative Alabama?  Evolutionary theory is one of the most singularly transcendent and transformative theories of modern thought, & an operating grasp of it should be part of the repertoire (or at least in the toolbox, I usually say–sorry David  Sloan Wilson, if, as I think I have, I’ve literally stolen this from the text of your NSF proposal) of any student graduating with a liberal arts degree.  Since that doesn’t happen, affording them exposure through a thematically-integrated interdisciplinary minor is the least we can do.

People often query, both from inside and outside the state, about how contentious it’s been to get such a program going.  People say to me, ‘You must walk down the street, & folks see horns growing out of your head.’   I wish (actually, there’s a picture of me with horns growing out of my head…&, whoops, there’s another one).  It’s not quite like that, but I should qualify myself.  To do that, I am going to address this as follows:  I’m going to talk about The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, as it were, of starting the EvoS program in the Holy unwholly state of Alabama & hopefully give someone else out there some clarity as to how easy it actually can be & what the steps are, more & less, to get it done.

THE GOOD:  Having an Obvious Embarrassingly Desperate Need

The first good thing is that, like I say, Alabama really sucks at teaching evolution.  That may sound like a bad thing, but from the practical perspective of being a young professional academic (read “naive” and “impulsive”), you couldn’t have an easier argument in convincing administrators that an EvoS program is a good thing.  In 2009, the year I arrived in Bama, Evolution Education and Outreach had just published a state science standards study that ranked the 50 states in teaching evolution at the k-12 levels & graded them A-F [include chart here??].  As I tell students on the first day of our EvoS intro course, Alabama did awesome…if you’re a fundamentalist Christian.  We are the most awesomely best at being the worst!  ‘But hold on,’ they say. ‘We did worse than Mississippi?!’ See, down here, even the Bible-thumpers don’t want to lose to Mississippi in ANYthing.  Roll Tide.

The next good thing is that most of the work was already done for me.  In fact, before I got down here, before that article came out, I had already found that Alabama had an Evolution Working Group (EVOWOG) and hosted the Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution (ALLELE) speaker series, which had been hosting some pretty damn good speakers.  I was excited to find out that very year Dan Povinelli, who had worked with Gordon Gallup, one of my advisers, & had an adversarial position about the implications of chimpanzee self-recognition re self-awareness, would be speaking that fall (still one my favorite speakers so far, btw).  EVOWOG comprised faculty members from all over the University who were teaching courses about evolutionary theory & principles, & EVOWOGer Brett Smith already knew all about the EvoS Consortium & had already seeded the idea.  So all that needed to happen to start a minor was to set up a website & list all their courses, right?  Well, almost.

THE BAD:  Packaging & Politicking to Get it Approved

Much like The Good, The Bad is stuff that seems the opposite.  The Bad is stuff to which you might respond, ‘well, isn’t that good? Like, isn’t that what they hired you to do?’  The Bad is that we had to add some structure to this thing.  So, as it happened, I joined EVOWOG easily enough, &, right off the bat, I suggested we should congeal the course scrapings that were already there into a scrapple-like foodstuff but was told we should have something to add to it to emulsify it, some special innovation to give it identity, so that it’s not just an assortment of courses already on the books.  According to a great book by my friend & colleague Karri Holley on interdisciplinarity, we should have some courses unique to the minor, activities to bring students together outside the classroom to help develop esprit d’corps, & a tangible space, to give the program a container, as it were.  So, as I said, it was suggested I do what I was hired to do, which for some is not that easy.  When you get hired on as a new Assistant Professor, it’s generally expected you’ll teach some things folks needed you to teach when they hired you.  You don’t necessarily have time to take on administrative duties you made up yourself & create & teach new courses for which no actual demand existed until you arrived on the scene.  So what’s turned out to be really very good is that I have a department whose philosophy is just that.  They believe that if I teach what I want to teach, I’ll do a good job, & students will enjoy them & take more.  And getting more students into our classes is the objective.  Hmm.  Genius!  So adapting the “Evolution for Everyone” model from Binghamton and New Paltz, we created an intro course that is modular in nature.  I am happy to share my syllabus, but it’s basically a Whitman’s Sampler of our minor, with ALLELE speakers plugged in when they come to town  (see my previous post on improving this model).

Now the second bad thing was getting the minor approved.  This really was good also, but what’s bad is that it requires politicking, which most academics (& everyone else alive) are apparently rather loathe to do.  Someone has to volunteer to take on all this stuff.  First, there was no formal mechanism for starting a minor.  I kept asking who I should talk to or what form I should fill out, but nothing existed.  So I wrote up a brief proposal that I adapted from one Glenn had provided me (which I’m now happy to provide in turn).  I took that to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee for the College of Arts & Sciences.  I sent it around to colleagues.  We had a bunch of meetings, talked about what should be on it, blah blah blah.  Now, here is where I point out that my co-director in the program, Leslie Rissler, is an evolutionary biologist who’d been fighting this battle long before I got there.  She’s been struggling just to get a course in biological evolution required for all majors.  But Biology at UA doesn’t require a minor, so EvoS program wasn’t a battle she could really take on. The other sticking point with Biology is the pragmatics of spreading your faculty thin to be available for a minor that your students do not even technically need to graduate.  The only Biology course in evolution specifically was a 400-level course that is not open to non-majors and with so many prerequisites to even be impractical to take with permission of the instructor.  We couldn’t offer an evolution minor without including the only course at the University actually called “Evolution.”  So we had to figure out how to balance that manpower issue and get EvoS students access to this course, which ultimately was accomplished through the creation of an additional 200-level course called “Principles of Biological Evolution” that is open to all students with no prerequisites.

THE UGLY:  The Total Lack of Controversy that would have Made for Good Press

So here’s the irony.  The waves of controversy we have created has been a complete…letdown.  It has been so uncontroversial.  Now, mind you, the Alabama legislature tried to shove another ridiculous creationist bill through a few months ago.  It is a red state, full of creationist Christians who don’t know about evolutionary principles & don’t want to know.  But I largely hear about them indirectly, from the people who grew up in the state.  I’m finding a surprisingly extensive grassroots system of Freethinkers here, an organization I’d never noticed before.  I recently gave a talk at a meeting of the Alabama Freethought Association, who have a beautiful lakefront meeting house in rural, remote Talladaga (yes, of Will Ferrell Talladega Nights fame–oh, yes, & the actual racetrack).  They were a great group of people tucked away where I’d least expect them.  There I met several members who drive to meetings from all over the state, including several from Tuscaloosa, where I’d driven from that day (Talladega is 3 hours away) & who are members of the West Alabama Freethought Association (wow, there are actually TWO of these groups in Alabama?  Alabama can support this much free thinking?).  And as it turns out, some of my students are in this group, as well as the AAA (no, not the American Automobile Association, or, as an anthropologist like me would think, the American Anthropological Association–the Alabama Atheists Association).  So there are actually three organizations in this state dedicated to NOT inviting you to join their church (which, by the way, I study from an evolutionary perspective, so I’m totally not against being invited to church).  But wait, I get a notice in my inbox after joining the West Alabama Freethinkers Facebook group that Michael Shermer is speaking in Dothan, Alabama at yet another well-organized Freethinker meeting & subsequently discover that one of the board members of the American Atheists & editor of American Atheist Magazine lives in Huntsville, AL.  Now, I am not a New Atheist or whatever, and do not equate atheism with pro-evolutionism or care much about the whole debate, except that it indicates there is more diversity in Alabama than it’s given credit for.  So The Ugly (knock on wood) is not so ugly.

And, finally, what’s really really cool is that students are actually signing up to be in this thing, which is kinda critical.  Because who cares about the rest of this stuff?  Really.  The question is, do students sign up?  They’ve been inculcated to not care about evolution.  How’d that go?  It turns out, it didn’t work out too well.  Students are pissed.  They resent not having the opportunity to make a decision about something that’s kind of a big deal like this.  So they take the intro course.  In one year, we’ve had 18 students declare the minor.  If there was actually data on other minors at our university, I’d impress you by demonstrating how good that is.  Suffice it to say that I’ve been told that’s pretty good.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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