Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Reflections on My Career, by Don Orth

I never thought of a career as a professor. Not until college did I even have any personal experiences with professors. However, after a 43-year career at Virginia Tech, I have learned much and share a few of my favorite memories and lessons. Rather than repeat the misguided “publish or perish,” I rather advise to "publish and flourish" in academia. Done right, a career in academia provides fulfillment in our lives through accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile work, and connecting with others at a deeper level. My favorite short poem, Instructions for Life, by Mary Oliver (Red Bird 2008), is a brief reminder of lessons learned:  

Pay Attention.

Be Astonished.

Talk about it. 

Figure 1. Photo of mullet and Mayan cichlids with quote by Williams James, the father of American Psychology. James made this famous statement to remind us that our small actions can make a big difference in the lives of others. 

Non scholae sed vitae discimus
[translated “We do not learn for school, but for life"]

Being successful in academia meant learning by doing, learning from the dark side, and understanding the dark side of knowledge. I hope students remember lessons that help them in life. In the past weeks, I have received many notes of congratulations from friends, colleagues, and students, which showed that they were paying attention. Many “Orth” sayings came back to me. For example, whenever students would ask “Is the exam comprehensive?” I would respond “Yes, because life is a comprehensive exam.” When asked “Will questions be multiple choice?” I would respond “Nothing in life mimics a multiple choice exam.”  My collection of favorite memories, quips, and ‘fishy’ puns shared at my retirement celebration and may be viewed online.

I began to pay attention as I grew up in a densely populated neighborhood in Chicago. This early urban experience led to dreams and motivation to leave and explore life elsewhere. Critical events in my early life that I paid attention to are chronicled in the digital story “Not Everyone Truly Lives."  In Chicago, I observed riots to abolish legalized racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement throughout the United States. Even after the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) black people still faced discrimination in jobs, housing, education and politics. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Other America Speech wrote that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”   Even to this day, many promises of freedom and justice have not been met. 

As privileged people, we should never wonder why people are protesting. Protests will continue until real reforms are made. As an impressionable young person, I saw strong anti-black sentiment, and disgust for progressive programs of relief, recovery, and reform that generated jobs and hope for the disadvantaged. I believe these early experiences led me to be an advocate for DEIJA (diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and accessibility). The world of fisheries has many unresolved issues related to exclusion, privilege, and violation of human rights. 

Dreams drive me.  You must dream before you can achieve anything. My dream as an adolescent was to escape the urban setting. Anytime I was away from the city, I could easily see the polluted air sitting like a dark cloud over the Chicago region. This air could not be good to breathe. Today, Chicago ranks in the top 10% of metro areas for smog and particulate pollution (American Lung Association 2023). On Chicago beaches I saw my first large-scale fish die offs. The historic Alewife dieoff of 1967 heightened my curiosity about all things fish. Until that time, I had no idea what an Alewife was or how they got there. 

Listening to dreams of students is one key to help with motivation. I believe in the power of personal narrative to motivate students. Students are often reluctant to share their dreams and convictions with their instructors. As a professor my dream was to see that each day students judge what is truth, beautiful and good in our world. And when they see something wrong, they learn to speak up and take action. This takes more than knowledge — it takes courage to speak up to power when something is wrong, it takes integrity to tell your story and  to energize and mobilize your community to act. In many ways I saw my students as heroes of their own developing stories. I preached Joseph Campbell’s mantra that “If you follow someone else's way, you are not going to realize your potential.”  Although I did not follow the path of others, I certainly learned from studying the path and wisdom of others. 

In graduate school, I was introduced to the works of William E. Ricker and devoured each page of the newly published green book (Ricker 1975). His career story influenced me greatly as I learned more about the man. Ricker was both an accomplished entomologist and fisheries scientist (Beamish and Noakes 2006; Noakes 2006). In a classic paper, Ricker (1969) calculated that the world fish catch might be sustainable at approximately 2.5 times the 1968 catch, or about 150 to 160 million t and that the maximum world catch would be attained by the year 2000. This was the very first attempt to calculate this quantity. The world catch of fish only reached this level from additional inputs from aquaculture as catch from global fisheries flattened since 2000 (Figure 2). The logic and mathematical approach used by Ricker has been widely applied throughout the world.  

Figure 2. World capture fisheries and aquaculture production. FAO 

I was fortunate to meet Bill Ricker at a meeting of the American Fisheries Society. This was made possible due to a mentor, Larry Larimore. Instead of joining Bill to reminisce on the bus, he asked me if I had ever met Bill Ricker and introduced us. He was 75 years old, I was not yet 30, and we shared a long bus ride to a social event. I learned first-hand that he was a very unassuming, humble man. Yet, he was one of those “giants in science on whose shoulders fuure biologists will stand” (Beamish and Noakes 2006). 

One irony about success in academia is the importance of both positive and negative happenings. What is highly valued is recognition from grants, promotions, publications, and honors earned.  Professsors are held to high standards and readily criticized. Yet, failure and criticism are how we learn. One annoying fact about our evolution is that we all possess a negativity bias. We tend to dwell on the negative more than the positive because our brain tries to keep us safe from harms. Consequently, many brilliant and talented young academics are subject to burnout and overwork as they focus and remember the insults and criticism far more than the praise.  Therefore, I advise you to maintain some trusted colleagues who will provide honest feedback and praise or criticism when deserved.

Academia continues to push the banal "publish or perish" mantra. However, in the field of conservation, there are many approaches to translating research findings to to guide conservation action, and scholarly publication is necessary, but not sufficient alone. I always maintained that the function of scholarly pursuits is to guide action. I was a pragmatist long before I ever read William James (1907):

Pragmatism teaches that the function of thought is to guide action. And that truth should be tested by the practical consequences of the beliefs we hold. Though James’ philosophy fell out of favor during much of the 20th century, many modern philosophers are reconsidering James’ ideas, as his work provides inspiration for new theories of perception, meaning, and belief.” 

There are many ways to be a success in academia and the young academic will be indundated with much advice from mentors who disagree on what you should do.  Instead of thinking you will perish, focus on writing papers that will help your career flourish. Write a string of papers in a research area so that you become known as a leader in a particular area of research. What you stand for should reflect your advocacy for science rather than for particular point of view. Seek out other collaborators to expand your access. It is difficult to make a lasting impact with many unrelated papers. Rather, the value of your scholarly writing will depend on (1) how it is used and cited by other researchers; (2) whether it is adopted in principal teaching materials; and (3) its influence on policy and practice. Finally, trust your judgment to create your own path. 

I learned much from my years working on the dark side of University administration. Universities have many examples or failed leadership as successful professors are promoted even when they don’t possess great leadership skills. Too often leaders exhibit destructive traits of narcissism, hubris, or Machiavellianism (Figure 3; Paulhus and Williams 2002). From stories from many colleagues, I adopted the “No Assholes Rule” because assholes can destroy morale (Sutton 2007). Getting the best out of people means we should “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” (Mark Twain, cited in MacLaren 1938, p. 66).  As you encounter the assholes, consider them as “trials” sent to make you stronger and wiser.   

Figure 3. The personality traits for destructive leaders (Paulhus and Williams 2002). 

The dark side of knowledge is another troubling aspects that advocates standardized testing, keeping students at a distance, and discouraging questioning. All learning begins with a dream and students at college arrive with a dream, either ill-formed or fantastical. Learning starts with a question, a problem to be solved, a dilemma to be resolved, and a challenge to be met. Questions should be never considered annoyances. Questions force deep thinking and reflection and invite  conversation. Yet many college students are fearful about asking questions in class — they fear the arrogant professor.  This unfortunate reality must be remedied. One approach for those of us arrogant professors to be more relatable, is to present important lessons in stories. People love stories.  

Learning is challenging, but we encourage and support student with learning activities known as desirable difficulties (Brown et al. 2004).  Design the desirable difficulty activity to be sufficiently challenging that it must be introduced as a sequence of learning tasks and feedback.  The secret to providing meaningful feedback is to deliver it to students as a complement sandwich (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. A graphic representation of the compliment sandwich, a mix of positive and constructive feedback. Source. 

Most successful academics have been trained and continue to teach Western ways of knowing. Science is promoted as objective, quantifiable, and the foundation for “real” knowledge creation. Traditional ways of knowing may be seen as anecdotal. However, Indigenous communities knew much about fish and nature long before their regions were colonized by Europeans.  Western scientists never asked indigenous peoples about the natural systems they studied. Their arrogance meant they were not integrating all available knowledge in their studies.  Today, we are increasingly promoting "two-eyed seeing" that encourage efforts to weave indigenous ways of knowing in a more inclusive approach to science. In an inclusive approach we seek to evaluate and discuss importance of values and actions and knowledges.

Everything that is or was started with a dream.” – Lavagirl (2005)      


American Lung Association. 2023. State of the Air. Available at:

Beamish, R.J. and Noakes, D.J., 2006. Bill Ricker: A man of gifted intellect, insatiable curiosity and generous spirit. Environmental Biology of Fishes 75:119-129.

Brown, P.C., H.L. Roediger, III, and M.A. McDaniel. 2014.  Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, MA  313 pp.

James, W. 1907. Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. Longmans, Green and Co.

MacLaren, G., 1938. Morally we roll along. Little, Brown. 

Noakes, D.L.G. 2006. Bill Ricker: A Tribute. Environmental Biology of Fishes 5:1–5. 

Paulhus, D.L. and Williams, K.M., 2002. The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality 36(6):556-563.

Ricker, W.E. 1969. Food from the sea. pp. 87 – 108. In: P. Cloud (chair.) Resources and man, a study and recommendations, Report of the Committee on Resources and Man, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco.

Ricker, W.E. 1975. Computation and interpretation of biological statistics of fish populations. Bulletin of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada No. 191: 382 pp.

Sutton, R.I. 2007. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Business Plus. 224 pp. 



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