Careers in Botany - Being a Professor of Botany

Dr. Sherwin Carlquist, Happily Retired from Teaching

 I loved teaching. I faced my classes without notes—not a stunt, really. If we ask students to be able to remember essentials and even details and take exams without reference to notes, should a professor have notes in front of him to prompt him? (No). Working without notes permits one to show one’s enthusiasms in a genuine way, and one can watch how students react and see when they have questions on their faces. A professor standing behind a sheltering podium is not an inspiring experience for students.

Being a professor of botany/biology is wonderful because of the opportunities it offers—being able to share one’s enthusiasms with students, designing new courses, having the opportunity to do field work, watching one’s field of specialty change and grow, doing research, and spending one’s life in contact with the green world.

But no professor is equally good at all of these things, and a professor is asked to do such diverse things that nobody in this role can feel satisfied. The fact that a professor has enormous freedom to design a position means that reservations about one’s own performance are common. Even if those of us who have been professors all feel we have fallen short in some way, we still thing it’s the most wonderful job in the world…..

Should one redesign a course every year? (Yes—science changes, so courses should; using last year’s notes is a crime). The words “teach” and “lecture” are ugly to me, because they imply exerting authority over students. A class should be an interactive experience. Give students a stake in the course by incorporating their questions and comments, and they’ll want to learn. I was lucky to teach in a first-rate liberal arts college where one could do these things, and where interactive teaching was encouraged.

I also had wonderful library and laboratory facilities, thanks to a first-rate botanical garden a short distance from the college where I taught. The availability of such facilities inspired research. So teaching and research could go together. Research isn’t easy, and designing a research program that constantly grows, enters new territory, and offers new discoveries, is a fine art. Despite all of the difficulties, research is the most exciting activity I know, because one is always seeing something new. Even writing the books and papers can be an adventure (but one must be patient with reviewers and editors…).

If you want to know the whole story, told in a way that may surprise you, go to my website,




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