Classy Classes: COMPMED 80N explores niches in animal behavior

May 8, 2016, 11:14 p.m.

COMPMED 80N: “Introduction to Animal Behavior” offers students the opportunity to participate in a student-led interactive discussion while thinking critically about how each animal’s niche, or place in the world, is a function of its behavior.

The introductory seminar fulfills the Scientific Method and Analysis (SMA) WAYS general education requirement. Students seek to understand the causes of behavior through four different approaches which act as the organizing principles of the course.

Students prepare group presentations on animals of their choice, investigating general behavior and function, underlying mechanisms, development and phylogeny. These “niche reports” argue, on the basis of behavior, that an animal fulfills a niche to be successful. Students peer-grade presentations in comparison to their own.

Joseph Garner, the instructor and an associate professor of comparative medicine, and by courtesy, of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Medical Center, encourages students to critically examine claims and to be proactive in asking for more in-depth coverage of information.

“Rather than just describing everything I see, I want people to think — the pattern [of behavior] sure is interesting — but the process [behind it] is biology,” Garner said. “What is the process that made this pattern? What are the principles that design animals in this way? I want the students to be able to put an intellectual framework around their love for animals.”

For each topic, the class watches a documentary on animal behavior and engages in a discussion of the class readings. Students learn to not take any statement for granted, including claims made by documentaries and even by Garner.

“One of the things that Joe makes us do is that during class when he talks … you are required to have your laptop open,” said Raleigh Browne ՚19. “You are supposed to fact check everything he says, every claim he makes, and you are supposed to post discoveries on a forum online.”

The course’s focus on active inquiry in turn encourages students to support their own intuitions about animal behavior. According to Noah Bennett ʼ19, not many people come to the class with previous exposure to the material. Garner challenges each student to find proof of anecdotes or claims and post them to the online class forum.

Garner also offers each year’s cohort of students support both inside and outside of class.

“When you have a conversation with him outside of class, it’s not just based on intellectual material or animal behavior content,” Browne said. “He is very much interested in you as a person and your wellbeing and helping you understand how you can fit into the community.”

For Garner, teaching is both a privilege and a joy, so he builds the course — which is in its third year — to be a rigorous but engaging introduction to the science of animal behavior.

“You can be funny, and be silly, and you can have a fun relationship with your students,” Garner said. “And that’s another thing that I want them to see. Professors are human and we are here to help. We are here to […] help you guys figure out what it is that you want to do. And show you that it can be fun doing it.”


Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Raleigh Browne’s last name as Brown, and referred to Garner as assistant rather than associate professor. The Daily regrets these errors.

Miguel Samano is an opinions editor majoring in Comparative Literature and Chicanx-Latinx Studies. He loves sleeping, drinking night coffee, seeking out new books to read, and eating tacos with friends.

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