As part of the undergraduate wildlife conservation curriculum, students are expected to take several different “-ologies” courses. These courses are focused on a specific group of organisms, covering key concepts in their biology and natural history as well as basic identification. Most of these classes are split into a lecture focused on biology and natural history and a lab section focused on species identification and field trips. Some of these courses, like dendrology and wildlife field biology, are required for all students, while others, like mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, and ichtyology, are part of a list that they must choose a specified number of courses from. Regardless of which classes they choose, the biggest complaint from students in these courses is almost always identical: Why the heck are they required to learn Latin names along with identification?
The more we talked about it, the more I started thinking that maybe we should drop the Latin names component of ID-based courses, or at least rethink the way we assess and grades students. Are we testing their ability to identify species, genera, families, etc., or just their ability to memorize Latin names and regurgitate them? On one hand, Latin names provide a useful common identifier for things that may have many different common names. They can help us look at the relatedness of different organisms. For example, species within the same genus are more related than species in different genera. And they can highlight unique traits that aid in identification or describe that organism’s natural history. For example, the Latin name for island fox is Urocyon littoralis, which roughly translates to “coastal tailed dog”. Kinda neat, huh?
Fast forward to earlier today, while I was going through this week’s reading on mindful learning. Through the lens of mindful teaching, the Latin name debate seems to boil down to one question: does requiring students to learn Latin names encourage mindful or mindless learning? I think that the answer really depends on how you approach it, and on how you include Latin names in course assessments. If you include Latin name sin your curricula, why are you including them? Is it clear to the students? Are you framing the usefulness of Latin names, or presenting them as a mandatory memorization requirement without context? Are you encouraging students to think as they learn and ask questions about what these names mean? Are Latin name quizzes and tests a major component of course grades, or just one of many things being assessed?
So how does all this relate to finding my teaching voice? In considering the pros and cons of Latin name memorization in ‘ologies classes, I thought about the things that I want to encourage in my students. I want them to be engaged and excited. I want them to think critically and apply what they’re learning. I want to instill a sense of curiosity and help them learn the skills to find the answers they seek. To do this, I need to think critically about whether or not the assignments, assessments, and grading system in my class contribute to these end goals. As a teacher, I aim to let my students know both what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and be a part of the feedback loop to help keep things moving in that direction. As I continue to find my teaching voice, I hope to remember to listen to the voices of my students along the way.