Forever Grateful: My Journey To and Through Teaching Biology

I have written this to put down my thoughts and feelings on my receipt of the 2020 UPLB Outstanding Teacher Award (OTA) in the Biological Sciences. I have presumed that because of the recognition, my readers, probably mostly my friends, would be like a supportive crowd in a theatre or hall. I actually consider opportunities to post an essay on my page for readers, like you, about one’s thoughts as well as feelings, particularly on personal achievements, as rather rare. In the millennial lingo, younger friends would say, “moment ko na ‘to.

To receive an Oblation statuette for teaching is a great bonus because I was just doing what to me is what every teacher should do – facilitate learning. To receive an Oblation statuette along with the monetary reward is more than a dream come true, for I only wanted to teach. I have always wanted to teach. Hence, to receive awards for teaching, including that from my home college, the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), last November, is really more than what I wanted. Pardon me for being redundant, repetitive. To me, I was just doing what I enjoy doing, and what is expected of a teacher.

Mine is perhaps one of the few unique situations in the University, having gone through all sectors – as an administrative staff – a Research Aide at the then Department of Life Sciences, hired even before I finished my BSA major in Entomology, to being REPS for more than 20 years, and as a full time member of the Faculty for the last 15 years; and being affiliated with three other colleges/schools in UPLB aside from CAS and one in Diliman. In between those, a few years have also been spent as a middle-level administrator, particularly as Director of the UPLB Museum of Natural History from 2006-2015. Indeed, the road I traversed and still am traversing, was and is one that has been challenging, oftentimes rough and winding.

The first opportunity to teach came to me when as a Research Assistant III (later retitled University Research Associate I) in the UPLB MNH Entomological Museum, I was requested to handle two laboratory sections of Crop Protection 1 at the then Department of Entomology (at the then College of Agriculture), because the teacher who was assigned to teach the two sections had an unexpected illness. That was in 1992. The next chance was in 2003 when I was already a researcher under a University Extension Specialist III item, still at the MNH, when colleagues at the UPLB Institute of Biological Sciences (IBS, under the College of Arts and Sciences) invited me to team teach an RGEP course, NASC 5 (Environmental Biology). To cut short the story, I became a full-time faculty in 2005 at the Department of Forest Biological Sciences (or FBS, under the College of Forestry and Natural Resources) handling courses in Forest Entomology, Forest Ecology etc. but still handling NASC 5. Eventually I transferred to IBS in 2008. And in the IBS, I stayed. IBS gave me the home I need, the chance to teach courses and talk about subject matters I love – evolutionary biology, ecology, systematics, biogeography, conservation biology while still allowing me to participate in teaching-learning activities at the FBS, Entomology Department, School of Environmental Science and Management, and at the Institute of Biology in UP Diliman. Thank you IBS and CAS!

Inspirations came, have come, and are still coming from several people. The late Professor Leo C. Rimando, a systematist, an entomologist and acarologist, the founder of the BS Biology Program in UPLB, was the teacher of best teachers, an artist and a scientist, an educator par excellence. To this day, his voice still reverberates in my mind and among his many memorable words, “Think of every lecture as your last, the greatest performance of your life.” And “Imagine the lecture hall or laboratory room as a theater stage, and you, the teacher, the lead actor, the visual aids, the chalkboard are just the props, and your audience, your students, should be able to get the message through your delivery.” Aside from Professor Rimando, I was also lucky to have been a student of OTAs like my adviser Dr. Venus J. Calilung, in my basic biology and genetics courses, Prof. Ivan Marcelo A. Duka, Dr. Merlyn S. Mendioro, Dr. Adelina A. Barrion, in Mathematics and Statistics by Prof. Rolando G. Panopio, in Chemistry by Dr. Ma. Cristina D. Padolina and in my chosen field, by those who we call the masters – Dr. Leonila Corpuz-Raros, again Dr. Calilung, Dr. Clare R. Baltazar, Dr. Victor P. Gapud, Dr. Benito C. Tan, et al. They all collectively gave me the image of the teacher that I wanted to be.

The great Professor Leo C. Rimando, Father of Philippine Acarology – scientist, educator, artist  – who founded the BS Biology Program in UPLB and was trainor of the best teachers. He was my teacher in Economic Acarology and I would always be mesmerized by his eloquence in both English and Filipino. In the laboratory part of the course, he would play records (tapes) of classical music, among them, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and several of Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninov’s compositions, while we were busy looking at mites through our compound microscopes. [Photo Credits to ARTIST, Inc.]

On the other side of all these, my students and advisees, as well as my colleagues (who also include OTAs), provided the much needed feedback. Like many UP faculty, I didn’t have formal courses in education. When asked by a colleague what my teaching philosophy was, I couldn’t answer right away. In my mind and in my heart, I’m just a teacher who enjoys teaching and learning, that’s why I also want my students to enjoy while learning. All that I had was what I learned in Speech and the rest of the basic communication arts – the rules and principles that govern – the flow of knowledge and information. – Source-Message-Channel-Audience. I was sort of ‘playing the piano by ear.’ And I am so glad that I made ‘good music,’ so to speak. Teaching is really never a one-way process – I learned a lot from my students and I am happy that they too learned from me.

In many instances, my students would comment that there were times they thought I was just telling a story or stories about my nature treks, adventures in the field, anecdotes in the lab and so on, or what I read somewhere or published in this or that journal. Animated – that’s what they would say, and in retrospect, I would probably agree. Teaching was one of my ways of sharing the outputs of my research and I feel lucky that my field of study involves not only laboratory and museum work but also, and more importantly, fieldwork. Research, indeed, strengthens instruction as I have personally experienced and with it cultivates the ability to communicate at all levels – from peers through publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals, to one’s students through instruction, and to the wider community through extension, science-based advocacy and information service and genuinely concerned public service. In another venue, I wrote: “I have always viewed University teaching as inseparable and inextricably connected with research. One always supports and fortifies the other and both are functionally linked with public service.

Along this journey, I could not have survived and been able to hold on without people whose help made every step easier. Friends, colleagues, supportive superiors, cooperative staff, highly-skilled technicians, fellow field biologists, even guides and porters, as well as inspired and inspiring students – they all made all the ascents and descents, bearable, memorable, and enjoyable.

Above all, UP gave me and has always given all of us, what other teachers and students could not enjoy. We all cherish, we all treasure, we all savor that singular icon that allows us to think freely, to speak our minds out, to teach the way we want to each within the bounds of honor and excellence, to reach for the heights of abilities, and to dig toward the deepest, even the unfathomed, depths of our hearts – academic freedom. For that, I will be forever thankful to UP.

Lastly, teachers, including us in UP do not become rich by teaching. Hence, the support, understanding and most of all, the love that my wife, Dr. Merdelyn Caasi-Lit, and our children, Catherine, Jose Mari, and Fernando, give me have made possible my continuous wallowing into the dangerous waters of teaching biology, of advocating intellectual environmentalism, of tickling students’ minds to think more deeply, compassionately, and holistically about life, nature, people, and society, of doing science while communing with nature and getting high with the joys of discovery, and occasionally, of writing bits of self-taught poetry. This award is also theirs, our family’s.

Again, thank you very much UPLB, thank you everyone.

-Ireneo L. Lit, Jr. (Jun Lit)

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