Testimonials for Pioneer Member John Davidson

Dennis Govoni – I was a student of Doc’s (as he was known to his students) from 1969-1973. It was through his unique teaching methods, using inductive reasoning, that I became fully aware of how science gathered data, made observations and formed hypotheses. Basically, he taught me how to think critically and approach problems in a logical way. In addition, he was truly a kind and caring individual who wanted success for all his students and spent the time mentoring them. As a result of his approach, I created my own course called “Inductive Botany”when I taught in called college. His impact on me in my life is immeasurable in countless ways. I truly owe him a lot, more than any other teacher I had.

Lawrence (Larry) A. Kapustka – “Doc”, as Professor John Davidson was known, had a profound influence on my education and career. My intention was to be a high school teacher and coach until I encountered Doc in an introductory taxonomy class. He had embraced inductive or inquiry-based education and as such prodded me and other students with questions. The extent of any lecture he gave was to set the table with one or a few challenging questions for students to figure out answers. Then, while in graduate school, he made rounds in the evening asking me and anyone else working late, what we were doing? What had we learned that day in our classes, in our research? Often, he would suggest we leave our office or lab to continue discussions over a beer. I don’t recall Doc ever giving an answer. Rather, he probed with additional questions. In short, he coerced us to learn how to find answers on our own. I went on to get a Ph.D. at another institution, taught undergraduate and graduate courses, and conducted research for 13 years. I achieved the rank of Professor with Tenure before opting to become a research scientist at the US EPA and then form an environmental consulting company. By my personal standards, and ratified by my peers, I have had a successful career. There is no way to know where it would have gone if I had not had the good fortune to learn from Doc. Though I had only a single undergraduate course from him, I count the hundreds of hours in the informal seminar settings as the most significant aspects of by education. I am pleased to offer my support to memorializing this giant of education in the hope that his legacy inspires countless other eager students.

Robert Kaul – It is easy for me to write about John Davidson’s influence on students, because I was one of his colleagues for about ten years, and we had many of the same students and interests. From the first day I met him, I realized that his approach was student-based and thought provoking. In fact, when he interviewed me on my first visit to Nebraska, he posed questions about students as well as about botany. He even gave me a short, written exam while we chatted at his desk. He approved most of my responses, but he found a few indications that some of my approaches did not entirely converge with his. I was absolved anyway, and, overall, we were on the same path throughout our overlapping years. John’s approach rather aligned with Louis Agassiz’s advice to “study nature, not books,” in as much as he urged his students at least to raise but not necessarily answer questions while looking at plants, instead of memorizing books- although he certainly was not against textbooks. This rattled some students but inspired others. He felt that depth of knowledge is more important than breadth, and that depth can be better achieved by thought rather than by regurgitation and can lead to more substantial breadth. To these ends, he opposed overwhelming students with information in favor of encouraging deeper thought about major biological questions. John’s influence lives on in his many students who went on to successful careers in sciences and other areas. Not every teacher can endow his pupils with such important attributes.

Brian Larkins – Doc’s vision of education, along with his wisdom and teaching skills, distinguished him from all my other teachers; plus, he was so approachable. This made an impression on a kid from rural Nebraska, and it empowered me to seek out my other professors for help. Even as a freshman, I spent many afternoons in the alcove between the second and third floor of Bessy Hall, half a flight of stairs below Doc’s office, talking with him about class, as well as many other things. Doc’s use of the Socratic Method, drawing out of students things they understood and using that knowledge to answer their own questions, had been around for a long time. That, and his use of inquiry in the lab, let students discover plant structure and plant life cycles on their own and allowed them to then figure out plant development and evolution. This learning experience was novel and transformational. The approach has become vogue in recent years, but it was almost unheard of back in the 1960s. Doc left a legacy of teaching and education that has continued through the work of his former students and their students. In my case, I have taught thousands of undergraduate students and trained more than 60 PhDs and postdocs. One of my former graduate students was Provost at Kansas State University, two were Deans of Agriculture at Penn State and Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, China; one was President of EMBRAPA, the Brazilian equivalent of our USDA. My other graduate students are professors at universities in the US, Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Korea, Australia, and Saudi Arabia, and some work for companies in these countries. Like me, many of Doc’s students became high school science and college biology teachers, and I’m sure they have impacted the lives of many more thousands of students.

Lawrence C. Scharmann – I began my undergraduate studies with biology as my major (pre-medicine emphasis) in the fall of 1973. I was also enrolled in the University of Nebraska Centennial College program. Centennial College permitted residents, the majority of whom were honor students, to matriculate in interdisciplinary projects that required intensive writing, reflection, and speaking. These projects were completed as substitutions for credits earned in general education. Professors participating in the program as sponsors of these projects spent many hours with small groups of residents as mentors, facilitators, and advisors. Doc Davidson sponsored a project in growing and learning the biology, history, and cultural significance of “bonsai” trees. My participation in this project became my first connection with Doc. Doc would meet individually with everyone enrolled in his projects to discuss personal goals, past experiences, and academic interests. Through these meetings he developed rapport and a deep respect for each of us as individuals. During these meeting, I shared with Doc that I had a keen interest in teaching, especially in the improvement of science teaching at the college level. Doc then invited me to attend a special interest group (SIG) meeting on campus that focused on reform of undergraduate teaching practices. Initially I listened only; however, Doc encouraged my reactions and/or experiences with instructional best practices. I felt, as an undergraduate student, both honored and humbled to be a part of this august group of professors. I changed my major because of my association with Doc, from pre-med to biology as a teaching major. My relationship with Doc Davidson was, however, just beginning. I next encountered Doc as my instructor for General Botany. The most impressive aspect of this course was Doc’s ability to model that which he advocated during the SIG meetings, namely, conceptual teaching. The most salient concepts to learn in Introductory Botany, according to Doc, were to understand plants in terms of evolutionary biology. General Botany is typically taught as progressive life cycles that students memorize – simple to more complex over time. Doc took this much further by having us depict plant life cycles on a large butcher-block sheet of paper. The paper was divided in half representing an alternation of generations (i.e., sporophyte -> gametophyte; 2N versus N in terms of chromosomes). The simplest life cycles (e.g., mosses, ferns) were drawn on the paper in concentric circles moving from the center outwards toward gymnosperms and angiosperms. When this chart was finished, one literally observed, graphically, evolutionary trends popping from the chart as one examined stages of life across the various life cycles (examined as spokes on a wheel). Principles like “as plants became more terrestrial and complex, the sporophyte generation becomes more dominant” or “angiosperms growing in more arid climes develop structures to prevent the loss of water.” In other words, dozens of evolutionary relationships could be discerned from this graphical conceptual tool! My interest in evolution as an organizing theory for the study of biology can be directly traced to this class. In addition, most of my scholarship has been focused on the promotion of more effective instructional practices for teaching evolutionary theory. Two years after taking General Botany, I excitedly enrolled in Plant Taxonomy because it meant taking another course from Doc Davidson. Plant Taxonomy was split into lecture and laboratory parts. The lab was used to learn how to use dichotomous keys, terminology, and careful microscopy techniques; while the lecture was used to introduce us to philosophical tenets related to the evolution of plants, phylogenic relationships, and sampling techniques. Doc explained the philosophical techniques by relating that if we could understand and apply some critical ideas, we could grasp the higher order philosophical tenets undergirding plant taxonomy. These principles were introduced at a conceptual level that fit the nascent experiences of the novice biologist. The principles were: 1) There is no such thing as an endangered species because every species is endangered from the moment of its first existence on the planet (viable genomes are maintained and succeed while others may decline); 2) In a phylogeny of plants, provide a rationale for what constitutes “success” in a lineage (e.g., adaptive radiation versus little change over millennia et al.); and 3) If you have seen one oak tree … you have not seen them all (i.e., individuals within a breeding population may be unique phenotypically yet also differentially contribute to the general genotypic variation of the population to which it belongs). Like he had done in General Botany, Doc was interested in having us walk away with a deeper understanding of critical, more pervasive principles rather than “covering” a massive amount of content material to be memorized and forgotten. Later in my doctoral studies, evolutionary biologist Craig Nelson (Emeritus Professor of Biology, Indiana University; National Professor of the Year) would relate such “coverage of material” as being a ‘false’ illusion of rigor. Based on my experiences with Doc Davidson, I heartily agreed. In summary, Dr. John “Doc” Davidson was a seminal influence in how I learned and taught biology. He directly influenced my career path. I have been forever grateful.

Sister Mary Kay Viellion – I was a student of Dr. Davidson from the summer of 1968 until I graduated with a Ph.D. in botany in 1973. When I first attended UNL, I arrived on an NSF summer program for teachers. At that time, I was teaching science at a Catholic high school in New Orleans, LA, and was pretty much a traditional “lecture/lab” kind of instructor. Doc turned my world upside down with his personality, his enthusiasm for teaching, and his innovative methods of inductive botany. He opened a whole new world to all of us in his classes. Employed at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans after my graduation, I was able to teach botany in a whole new way, thanks to Doc Davidson. In addition to his work as our professor, Doc became a second father to many of us. He brought us into his home and family and shared holidays, games and special events with us. I remember vividly the night we gathered with the Davidson’s to witness man’s landing on the moon. And I personally spent several Thanksgivings with the Davidson’s. Being from a broken home and raised mostly by my mother, Doc was a real father to me.

Joe D. Waldrum – Dr. John Davidson, formerly a Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was affectionately called “Doc” by the graduate students. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor to every student he taught, graduate or undergraduate. He deserves special recognition for the long-term impact he had on many students. I was a graduate student in that department in the seventies. I completed my Ph.D. in plant physiology in 1976 under Dr. Eric Davies. And even though I spent very little time working in plant taxonomy (Doc’s focus area), I knew him very well. It would have been hard not to know him in those days. He tried to connect with all the grad students in the department, not just his own. Doc was the only professor in the Botany Department that used the Socratic method of teaching, and he did so with great success. He never asked students to memorize anything. He wanted them to learn how to think. Most of the first questions he asked me were met with blank stares. After a while, I realized he was not testing me for his sake but for mine. Then, I started to really try to answer his questions. I got most of them wrong, but his quest for me to use logical, and his rational thought process paid off throughout my career at the University of Arkansas. Doc was also one of the very few professors in the department to ask students to his home for learning experiences. I particularly remember sessions learning that old computer programming language (very new at the time), Fortran. I found his critical thinking method allowed me to “remember” more than sheer memorization could have ever done. For sure, Doc was an out of the box professor. Most gaduate students would not remember what they learned from several of the other professors in the Botany Department, but they would not forget what they learned from him. Unfortunately, most of the other professors in the department didn’t understand why Doc did not follow the traditional teaching and research methods they used. They could not see a paradigm shift was occurring, and that Doc was leading the crest of the first wave of change. He was able to see farther than those traditional professors. Like the old story about the construction of Notre Dame in France, he knew he was not just laying stones, but he was building a cathedral with his teaching method. I credit much of my critical thinking skills to what I learned from Doc. And the success of my 39 year career in university education is in great part proof of those lessons. Doctor John Davidson deserves high praise and recognition for the countless number of students he trained, many of whom did not realize they were being trained at the time.