A Navjot Sodhi module objective: “I just wanna teach them some empathy”

Introductory slide in LSM1303 Animal Behaviour (NUS)
01 - Introduction to the module Part 2 Objectives and Course details

Yesterday morning, I delivered the introductory lecture to this academic year’s LSM1303 Animal Behaviour module for non-biology students. I explained to students that the original course for zoology students was initiated in the 90’s by a fresh-off-the-boat Navjot Sodhi.

He applied himself energetically to his teaching when he came and initiated the Animal Behaviour course for biology students. When we recce-d Tioman for the honours year field course (with Tommy Tan, obviously), I discussed with him many issues about NUS. Amongst the things I shared was how undergrads were unfamiliar about the peer review process – to my surprise when he got back, he initiated a review paper assignment with two peer reviews by fellow undergrads using pen-names and corrections by authors – and he marked all of it! And he did this for several years.

I remember sorting the papers with Adrian Elangovan and Marjorie Castelletta and we were all impressed by the amount of marking he was volunteering to do. His desk was littered then as it was at the end, and teaching contributed to a fair share of the mess.

Navjot Sodhi Memorial Slides, 19 Jul 2011

So he was energetic about teaching when he first came, as he would be come to be known with research later. He certainly invested more than a mild interest in this professorial duty. And he didn’t want to be pinned down by the rigidity of a rubric during assessment, but wanted to a flexible system which allowed us to be responsive to interesting ideas or perspectives which students might unearth.

Zeehan Jaafar was then an undergrad and experienced the course, both the first and third year versions. She would later say, “We were one of his first students and lectures with him were never dull; always filled with groans and laughter – groans from the students and laughter from him, either at us or at his own jokes!”

In 1998, I learnt from Andrew Tay over at the Nature Society (Singapore) that African carnivore filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert would be at the National Library (now the Stamford Road hole in the wall) to talk about their work and unveil one of their National Geographic books. Fascinated by their film Lions and Hyaenas, I asked Sodhi if I could hijack his forthcoming lecture. He readily agreed to throw out the lecture and we screened the video and had a short discussion about the film with students.

At the library later, I realised a few students had gone down to listen to the Joubert’s, including Zeehan. The Joubert’s were thrilled we had used their film (even though it was a musty video taped off television by Kelvin Lim of RMBR) for they wanted the message of understanding Africa carnivores to get out. This had been possible because Sodhi was enthusiastic and opportunistic about learning opportunities. He understood that there were many ways to learn and contribute.

I went over the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research full-time in 1999 and regretfully stopped TA-ing the course. In 2004, however, some museum staff were roped in by the faculty to teach and Sodhi laid claim to me to co-teach LSM1303. I observed a couple of his lectures and as when I began, tried to complement Sodhi’s style somewhat. I slowly edged up the content and grappled with the module outcomes – how much should we expose students to? What message should they leave with?

By this time, Navjot was, as Zeehan would later say, a superstar conservationist. But he knew we needed more than research alone, that we needed many and all sorts of hands on deck to cope with the sixth extinction. In one of our corridor discussions, I remember, and this plays like a video in my mind, he shook his head slightly as if to dust off the many elements of the discussion and mumbled, “I just wanna teach them some empathy”.

I was struck by how emotive and frank that was.

About a year after that, he said he was going to leave the course to me. I had known this was coming for he had wanted to leave earlier, even though I settled all the admin, which he abhorred mightily. However, he needed time to cope with his voluminous output of research papers and book chapters and so it was time. He was amused when I expressed regret that young students would not get exposure to his strange manner and outlook!

But he knew when to let go. So first Matthew Lim and now Zeehan Jaafar co-teach the module with me. Thereafter, I’d update Navjot when I saw him in the corridor or car park every now and then about what I was doing with the course. During his last lecture, for example, he exposed students to the scientific approach with which he had addressed the crow problem. I had retained that but amplified it to an urban animal-human conflict lecture with chapter additions about the common palm civet, long-tailed macaque, stray cats and wild pigs, partly from our research projects. Meanwhile, the symposia now demanded of students a research question, had them study wild, not captive animals, lecture notes they were given included some mention of journal sources and I made them blog.

Navjot was supportive of the changes and appreciative that I said his statement about empathy was central to the module objectives still – to teach students some empathy through knowledge and appreciation. I also shared about how I’d tell students about him, that quirky professor who’d make them chuckle – heck, I even kept some of his awful blue slide backgrounds as a hat tip and tell students it was his gawdy colour sense, not mine. Every year I’d hover over the delete key and decide against removing that characteristic blue. It was what you said which counted anyway.

So yesterday, some 200 students learned we are not soullessly teaching animal behaviour. Yes, we are certainly curious and fascinated by the subject, and believe in testing, repeatability, mensuration and the rest of it. But we also care about animals and the planet and believe that all our students can help do something about it – and probably in ways we are unable to.

RIP Navjot, you are always remembered.

8 thoughts on “A Navjot Sodhi module objective: “I just wanna teach them some empathy”

  1. Siva
    You have captured the ‘true essence’ of Sodhi’s committment to teaching and research so well. He taught us a PG module and later I was a TA for his ‘Behavioural Biology’ undergrad module. His teaching style and his novel approaches to teaching always impressed and motivated me. If you recollect our PG module was all done over emails! He will be remembered and missed far and wide

    • Thanks for writing Sasi, aand an excellent recall – I remember that module well with you and Sukree typing away furiously one day in Marine Lab, You explained to me some of the things that were going on and I have though of using that in a higher module with a smaller class size one day.

  2. Hey Siva, I was just mentioned to my J2 class TODAY that the assignment I had done with them was something Navjot did with us in our postgrad class. Nice write up and a most evocative.

  3. I want to pay tribute to the man who has inspired me. I can still remember his snicker after calling Wallace Craig a pervert scientist. Craig showed that threshold of sexual drive in male dove can be lowered by progressive isolation from female dove (Appetite Behaviour). He didn’t name Craig, so I thought it was all a made up story. BUT I found it described on a book and it was a scientific experiment. More importantly, it WASN’T as perverted as he made up to be. =.= Now it is forever etched into my memory. =)

    • That’s a lovely story, Paul. He would spout things that sounded like fairy tales, like he did in the cross-fac behaviour course which were actually all from papers, juast that he giggled about anything remotely connected to sex! To ensure student realised the stories were the result of actual research, I gradually added citations into the lecture material over the years!

  4. Two of my friends who are Arts students attended Monday’s lecture. Both of them thought that the lecture was super interesting and were happy to hear that there is so much going on with regards to the conservation of wildlife in Singapore. They’re also really looking forward to the practical! 🙂

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