Stan Rachootin

Citation for 2004 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

A Renaissance man, according to Webster, is one "having varied interest and expertise in several areas." For Stan Rachootin, "several areas" include all of science (past, present and future) as well as literature, art, fine cuisine, and world affairs. Not surprisingly then, his contributions were central to the development of Past and Presences where a colleague described his teaching as "stunning." Stan's classroom is alive with dazzling ideas and brilliant insights--his passion for knowledge is such that he is excited by the latest discoveries in everyone else's field of study, as well as his own. Thus he has integrated hot, up-to-the-minute research topics (such as evolutionary relationships tested by DNA analysis) with important minutiae gleaned from fragile 19th century natural history manuscripts.

Stan loves examples from biology that prove the rules, but much prefers evidence that contradicts them, because he wants students to appreciate how diverse and complex the biological world really is. He teaches that science is a work-in-progress, with changing assumptions, and he likes to provoke his students with questions that challenge them to really use the intellectual content of his course. Excited by creative pedagogy, he is always ready to try the unusual, to broaden and deepen the biology curriculum. Stan teaches large numbers of students: 80 in introductory biology, 50 in ecology and evolution, and three smaller advanced classes: macroevolution, invertebrate biology and a course on Darwin. In all of these, his students find him understanding, kind-hearted, funny, eccentric, and excellent. His evaluations are fabulous: "Stan is an awesome professor!" "He is a professor I will always remember after college." "Stan is prepared as if his life might someday be dependent upon recalling an obscure fact about a forgotten worm." "I enjoyed learning from someone who has found his bliss."

Several themes reoccur in the student comments. One is that Stan makes them think deeply. "This class has made me think (to the point of headaches) in ways I would never have imagined." "There may not be a correct answer to the question, so it's necessary to think about possible answers and come up with supporting ideas." This, of course, actually reflects what scientists do--come up with supporting ideas for their own findings. Another theme concerns Stan's amazing collections. His home, office, and lab are filled with antique books and first editions, original prints and artwork. In between the books are biological specimens of all types, from fossils and pickled crabs to living stick insects and hissing cockroaches. He believes that these treasures are for sharing, and students speak often of the pleasures of handling such material. "For every class he came prepared with old books, slides, or objects which made his lectures come alive." "The show-and-tell aspect of the class with slides and books and pictures really made the class."

Stan is a gifted storyteller, and spins out tales of molecules, populations, and eons of transformation. As students have commented, "Stan tells stories really well about the material which makes it very easy to learn." "We read poems, sang songs, heard stories, looked at specimens." So what kind of story teaches a complex topic about evolution? Here's one simplified version. Each year, Stan brings two vertebrae to class--one from a cow, and one from a camel. With these in hand, Stan points out that the cow vertebra has a separate opening for the artery supplying blood to the brain. However, in the camel bone, the artery takes quite a different route--sometimes through a similar hole, but sometimes through the channel for the spinal cord. Camels are the only living mammals with such a system. Not surprisingly then, when Darwin learned of a fossil animal that had the camel's type of vertebral openings, he thought the two animals must be related. But as Stan happily explains, Darwin was wrong, and the camel bone illustrates the first known case of homoplasy, where a similar trait arose twice independently during evolution. This story demonstrates a major modern concept in a clear-cut [and visualizable] way. Stan has hundreds of these stories, but the camel bone is one of his best, since he first learned about this as a 9th grader!

There is grandeur in Stan's view of life, to paraphrase Darwin - a grandeur that he conveys with passion to his students. Stan has truly found "his bliss." The students know it and, as they articulate in evaluation after evaluation, we are lucky to have him.