Dr Jonathan Mitchley is a Lecturer in Plant Community Ecology at the University of Reading. This means he teaches about wild plants, how to identify them and their importance in the different habitats of the UK. Like all the best lecturers he is slightly bonkers. But that, in addition to his dedication, generosity and indefatigable spirit, only helps him bring joy and understanding to his students’ botanical lives. On the side he runs DrMGoesWild, a lively website that combines his love of plants, with video, musical asides and eXtreme Botany – a term he has coined to encapsulate the challenges and exhilaration of learning about wild plants. His official line is he does it all in an attempt to inspire a new generation of plant lovers. The unofficial line is more about showing off and eventually having his own TV show. With blog postings such as ‘eXtreme pornobotany is coming, lie back and think of Erasmus Darwin…’ and ‘Voyages round my lichen twigs #1 “awakened by rain”’ we think he might just get one…eventually…perhaps after the watershed. What is certain is he is a brilliant teacher of botany (see grasses video below) who is aided by his creative approach. To find out where he is coming from we decided to ask him a few questions and were pleased to find him delightfully loquacious. Welcome to the planet of Dr M, it’s a great place to visit.
Do you consider teaching an art form?
At school I was always as good at arts subjects and science, it was tough to decide which way to go and though I chose science, I guess it’s no coincidence that I chose the most artsy of sciences in botany! And I have always maintained a strong bond to the arts, my love of music equals my love of plants for example. And if we look at the polymaths of bygone times (Erasmus Darwin for example) then there was much less of a divide between art and science. Erasmus could invent a vehicle steering mechanism on the one hand, design a nature garden, translate Linnaeus from Latin to English and write amazing poetry not to mention lay the foundations for the theory of evolution later picked up by his more famous (though I think less interesting) grandson Charles! But, to answer your question (and without checking the exact definition of art form), I would say yes! Insofar as one might be teaching science (and botany is a science after all!) but the communication of the message requires more than just a sound grasp of the science, it requires the ability to use your creativity and imagination to get that message across and across to a wide range of enquiring minds and abilities in the audience. You also need to judge whether the message has gotten across and to adjust the approach accordingly. You need to pace your approach and to colour the content with literary and artistic, as well as scientific, devices to ensure message received. Not all teaching can be brilliant, we all have off days, but the best science teaching is a thing of beauty and a form of art as well as science. In these ways teaching is indeed an art form!
In your experience, what role does the aesthetic play in students choosing to study plants?
I think students vary a great deal one from another. I think if you ask my botany students why and when and how did they become interested in plants the answer will vary in almost as many ways as there are students. One might be very (even narrowly) scientific and pragmatic in their approach, they may appreciate the value of plants the need for scientific enquiry in order to understand and organise plant diversity and to pursue plant science research.The aesthetic here may be present, but will be subordinate to the scientific precision of enquiry. Others (like me) will draw on experiences, maybe from early in life, or later, when, one way or another, the beauty of plant form and function made itself evident to them. Maybe on nature rambles, maybe through the influences of mentors or others. It may be an appreciation of the innate beauty of plants or the wonder that comes from the close examination of plant structures with the hand lens or microscope of living material or material in the herbarium. Maybe there is a desire to capture this beauty in drawing, painting or photography and maybe here the aesthetic is placed higher on the individuals botanical agenda. There may then be grades between these two.
Has it always been thus? Actually I wonder if the aesthetic was more important in earlier times, thinking back to Erasmus Darwin again. For many of the early botanists, observation and careful drawing of what was observed was a very fundamental part of learning plants (as it was even in my own student days in the 1970s). Natural history was a common entry point, and a fascination with beauty as well as form and function. Today’s society is in many ways more utilitarian, the dreadful Thatcherite notion of ecosystem services being a case in point. Thank heavens there are still students who delight in the beauty of observing and even making aesthetically pleasing herbarium specimens as well as drawing, painting and photographing plants. And let us not forget the absolute beauty of microscopic images. Since I have taken to twitter, the most breath-taking images of plants that I have responded to have been images from under the microscope, it’s a really important dimension to the aesthetic and the scientific in botany.
What aspect of plants do you think excites students the most?
Hmmmm Million dollar question! Again it must and does vary from person to person. Students will arrive with their own excitements, developed from their previous experiences. As we saw above, it may stem from a rigorously scientific approach or a more aesthetic, natural history or field based pathway. But what is joyful for me as a teacher, is how I can not only observe new excitements, new discoveries and new joys, often unexpectedly when a student looks at something in a different way, or discovers something new for the first time. The most rewarding teaching is when these new excitements are palpable in the classroom, maybe the discovery of the beauty in a grass spikelet or the stomata of a Sedge species or something quite else. And there is the double joy when the excitement comes my way and I discover new excitements and learn new things from my students and their activities. When a teacher ceases to learn or be open to learning themselves, they should stop. The excitement of learning is two way, actually multi-directional, the excitement need never stop! It is the best job in the world!
DrMGoesWild is both scientific and creative – do you bring both of these into the classroom?
Of course. DrMGoesWild started as a medium to enhance my teaching and once I was into it I was simply using and extending and developing the approaches from the classroom and for sure it’s an extension of my teaching. Some things I can do better on DrMGoesWild and some better in the classroom or field, they are complimentary approaches but yes I hope always scientific and creative. It’s fascinating to see how it is received. Many of my preconceptions and stereotypes have been dashed on the way. I teach a very international group and one tends to think that humour and the more eccentric elements of my creativity may not translate into other languages and cultures. But not a bit of it! Often those who get it and appreciate it most are from the other side of the world, while those most bemused and confused may be from just down the road!
Do you think your institution gives you enough support to be creative in your science teaching?
These days it is difficult to talk of the institution in a collective way. Universities are big places, businesses with customers and with league tables and multiple pressures and demands. The University per se probably has no idea what I do. However elements of the institution and certainly close colleagues do appreciate what I do and certainly there is support in this sense. Increasingly, University outreach and engagement with the wider public community and with business and enterprise is a big deal and in this sense the modern university is probably more open to innovation and outreach then it would have been in my student days, one only has to look at the number of blog posters, twitterers and outreach gurus in Universities to see this. In any case, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I am planning to submit some applications to the University for funding and fellowships for outreach work, so let’s see how these are received and ask me this question in 6 months or so!
You use video, what are your goals with this medium?
I love video! As well as a frustrated stand-up comic, I am probably a frustrated film maker! Arguably my aim is less clear with video than with DrMGoesWild overall. I just know I love video, but at the moment there is a scatter gun of formats and themes and outputs. The broad aim though is the same as for the whole DrMGoesWild thing, to communicate the love and joy of plants in an imaginative and creative way through moving pictures! How am I trying to connect with my audience? Well, maybe I haven’t thought enough about this! Judging by the video hits on my YouTube channel I am not making a huge connection here, one or two videos are quite popular and I get some great comments, but it’s a drop in the ocean. DrMGoesWild gets at least 100 views a day, usually much more, but my videos get only a few hits in a blue moon! I would love to get more attention on the video side, partly, if I’m honest, because I would love the attention! But also because I do think video has the capacity to communicate in ways that the other media cannot, it’s a very immediate and direct medium. I must invest in further thought on what I want to do and for what audience before I need to start worrying about which tie to wear to the Oscars! But it’s good to have an ongoing challenge!
Your website is really fun, what’s your approach to offering educational information online?
Well I started DrMGoesWild last year (summer 2013) because one of my students kept telling me I should be reaching out to a wider audience, I should be blogging, I should be running a website. And although this was all very new to me (and quite daunting) I could see and appreciate the potential and eventually I felt I was ready to do it. But it took some months to find my way, both with the technology and content and the format and style. I remember reading quite a bit about blogging and websites, a lot of it is common sense and the rest I have forgotten. The best websites are run by people for whom it is intuitive, they want to do it, they can and so it happens and it works. There is no great recourse to theory; rather it is a natural and organic process. But I do remember one thing that was written, it was in a list of blogging do’s and don’ts, and it said, be yourself. And I think this is really important and I have pretty much held to this. In fact the longer DrMGoesWild runs, the more of myself comes into it. But maybe I am morphing into a new DrM web persona without realising it! Anyway so long as people look at it and feedback (which they don’t do enough of for my liking) then I will continue to be myself and communicate what moves me and what I love about plants.
What’s the most satisfying thing about having your own website?
That I found I can do it, that people like it and that I can keep on doing it! I could also add, without undue modesty, that I feel it is one of the best of its kind, in its way a real quality product with a role to play. But one issue is finding the time for it. However, I find we often say, oh I don’t have time for x y or z. In truth we do have time, it’s just we often spend time doing other things, often less important, distractional things. It’s not always easy to keep up the self-imposed pressure and to post interesting, factual and fun material regularly. I have plenty of work and other pressures, but even in busy times I can find moments to think and plan what I want to post. At any one time I may have half a dozen posts in draft on the site, never more than this and sometimes, when I am really busy, much less, and it can be tough to keep posting. I try to post every other day on average and I try to include material relevant to my teaching and posting is often easier in the autumn and spring when teaching is foremost. But in the summer when I am not teaching I am often working away from home on the botanical consultancy (the summer half of my job) and then it can be a tougher call to keep up with DrMGoesWild. But, as someone once told me, it’s all about content, content, content and it kind of makes sense! So yes, it is very satisfying to see DrMGoesWild with a lot of really interesting, colourful, creative and fun content, to see it appreciated and to know there is much more where that came from!