Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Becoming An Ichthyologist, by Don Orth

Even if you do not see yourself in a career as an Ichthyologist, your learning will be improved by assuming the role and seeking to become an Ichthyologist.   Just accepting the notion that "I am a novice" or "I am becoming" will make it easier for you to ask questions.  My own thinking about becoming an Ichthyologist began a long time ago.
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, in a neighborhood known as West Englewood.  Fish was what we ate on Fridays, not a potential career aspiration.  At age 10 I got my first paper route, delivering the Chicago American in the Marquette Park and West Englewood neighborhoods.  On weekends, my buddy Michael D. and I would lash our fishing poles to our bikes and ride to Marquette Park, where we fished in the park lagoon (catch and release before it was fashionable).    

In the summers we took the CTA bus to Rainbow Beach to cool off and pretend to swim in Lake Michigan.  In 1967, we were surprised when our beach visits meant we had to endure smells from huge windrows of dead alewives that now dominated the beach.  No one knew why these fish were dying, ruining our beach experience.   I was curious and that curiosity about what is happening underwater has driven me ever since.  Many years later I read a report written by Edward Brown, U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries; he described the massive fish kills that occurred throughout the lake in 1967 and summarized observations without confirming a cause (Brown 1968).  We will discuss this die off phenomenon when we discuss Homeostasis in Fishes.  
 A Live Alewife Alosa pseudoharengus  Photo: Jim Negus
I enjoyed fishing and used my weekly paper-route earnings to buy Outdoor Life.   One day I read an ad that referred to people called Ichthyologists who studied fishes.  This was my Archimedes Eureka moment.    Eureka! I have found it!   It was an early discovery that there were people who made their living by studying fish.  Imagine that!  I have been becoming ever since.
The notion behind "becoming" is known as the community of practice (CoP) model, developed and studied by cultural anthropologist, Jean Lave, and educator Etienne Wenger (Wenger 2007).   This is a shift from "learning from the teacher" and involves learning through engagement in a community of practice.   As a novice, we are at the periphery of the community of practice and there are rituals, practice, and collaboration that we need to engage with to become bona fide members of the community of practice.   In thinking through the learning activities that I assign, every action is a chance for you to move from a position from the periphery of this CoP to a more involved part of the CoP.   Mastery takes repetitive practice with others.  
Graphic depiction of the community of practice model of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Source. 
How can you join the CoP?   Volunteer with other fish-heads and adopt a curious attitude; everyone has something to teach you.    There are more fish-heads on the Virginia Tech campus than there ever were in my West Englewood neighborhood.  Everything we do is easier if we do it in a group.   Catch you own fish.  Learning to outwit an animal with a brain as small as a pea is essential to keep you humble as you become a proud Ichthyologist.   Watch fish.  Keep fish alive in an aquarium.   Make intelligent observations about fish.   Photograph fish.  Post stories about what you are learning on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, or whatever networks you like.  Once you start to share, you will connect with others in the Fish-head CoP.   If you do not contribute to the learning of others, you are not a member of the CoP, you are just another stalker at the periphery of the group.

Joining the Fish-head community of practice may resemble joining a religion and you will find that you begin to study religiously!   In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton points out that there's a great difference between a sermon and a lecture!  Religions realize that we need ritual, repetition, and an emphasis on the practical value of lessons. You will need to be curious and develop a ritual of observing fish, collecting and practicing the tasks that all Ichthyologists do.  The French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque once wrote  "The art of seeing well, or of noticing and distinguishing with accuracy the objects which we perceive, is a high faculty of the mind, unfolded in a few individuals, and despised by those who can neither acquire it, nor appreciate its results."

You cannot obtain the tacit, know-how, and thinking knowledge of an Ichthyologist from reading a text alone.  Textbooks are filled with the explicit kinds of knowledge.  What you need most of all is to participate in the rituals we practice and do these many times, each time gaining that tacit knowledge held within the community of practice we refer to as Fish-heads. 
I am still becoming an Ichthyologist.  When you read a text, do not read it as a student, read it as one who is becoming an Ichthyologist.  When you dissect a new fish specimen, do it not as a student, but as one who is becoming an Ichthyologist.  Every new fish specimen you encounter is a part of your journey toward becoming an Ichthyologist.

Brown, E. H., Jr.  1968.  Population characteristics and physical condition of alewives, Alosa pseudoharengus, in a massive dieoff in Lake Michigan, 1967.  Great Lakes Fishery Commission Technical Report 13.
Wenger, Etienne (.ca 2007) Communities of practice. A brief introduction. Communities of practice [  Accessed February 8, 2014].
Three key dimensions of any community of practice are (1) kind of knowledge, (2) community interaction and identity, and (3) integration of sharing knowledge and work.    Source.