Eastern Michigan University
Like No Other
by Jeff Samoray
If you took Introduction to Biology between 1970 and 1992 at Eastern, chances are you remember Professor Emeritus of biology Bill Fennel. His dynamic lectures—which featured multimedia presentations, performance art and other creative outbursts—kept Pray-Harrold lecture halls filled to the rafters and became part of campus lore.
And if you kept any of your textbooks, you might have a copy of Fennel’s lab manual, "A Pig Watcher's Guide to Biology." Written as an irreverent response to the stuffy college primer, "Pig Watcher's" didn't just include lessons on organisms and ecosystems. It also featured puzzles, word scrambles and student drawn cartoons.
Nearly two decades after Fennel’s retirement, the manual remains popular with former students. So many alums have asked Fennel for copies, he has only one left.
“I can’t tell you how many times I run into people on the street or at a restaurant who tell me how much they enjoyed the class and the ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide,’” says Fennel, 89. He estimates that he taught more than 20,000 EMU students before retiring in 1993. “I taught other courses, but the introductory biology class was my true love.”
As many who experienced Fennel’s classes will tell you, his engaging intellect, caring personality and hip textbook created an unforgettable educational experience.
Adding a ‘kick’ to the classroom
From an early age, Fennel understood the importance of creating a successful classroom dynamic. He took an interest in art after graduating from high school in his native Missouri. But after attending a sketching class at a Kansas City art school, he knew his talents lay elsewhere.
“I came home distraught and wound up going to a local junior college,” he says. “I took a botany course, but didn’t particularly care for it because the teacher wasn’t turned on about botany. In my second semester, I took zoology from a teacher who was more enthusiastic.”
Fennel completed his undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of Missouri in 1946. He became a zoology teaching assistant at Missouri that fall. “That position was a revelation for me,” Fennel says. “From that point on, I knew I wanted to teach. I loved interacting with students.” After earning a master’s degree at Missouri, Fennel completed his doctorate in zoology at the University of Michigan in 1958. He taught at Flint Community College, Pace University and Brooklyn College before coming to Eastern for the Fall 1970 semester.
“I came to Eastern primarily to teach Intro to Biology [Biology 105],” he says. “My biggest reward came from students who initially said they hated biology, but later decided they loved it and wanted to major in it. Teaching is an opportunity to change someone’s life. And at Eastern, I had free rein to do it however I wanted.” Fennel’s first challenge was finding a way to get 350 freshmen excited about biology. The class had two components: weekly lectures and a lab section.
“I wanted students to learn and be enthused,” Fennel says. “For non-biology majors, I knew the existing lecture hall and lab format wouldn’t cut it. It needed an extra kick.”
On the first day of class each semester, students learned they were in for something different. The lecture hall lights were dimmed, music played over loudspeakers and incense burned. Illustrations with an underground comix theme were projected on the walls. Each student received a marshmallow, a peanut and simple instructions: “eat the marshmallow, hold the peanut.” In the midst of this sensory experience, a smoke explosion went off at the lectern. As the smoke cleared, Fennel appeared and delivered his lecture.
“That introductory multimedia presentation set the tone for the class,” Fennel says. “I tried to portray the aesthetics of biology through the five senses. It also taught my students to expect the unexpected.”
“Bill Fennel is the first person I know of to bring multimedia presentations to the classroom,” says Dennis Jackson, EMU professor emeritus of biology and Fennel’s colleague for 22 years. “After a while, word got out about his class. Students who weren’t even taking biology would come to see it. People were sitting and standing in the aisles. It was amazing.”
On one occasion, Fennel found a way to liven up a lecture about human musculature.
“I somehow knew that one of my students was a belly dancer,” Fennel says. “I asked her if she’d mind performing during the next class. On cue, she came in the back door dancing to music and wearing the seven veils. None of the students knew this would happen, of course. She came to the front of the lecture hall and danced up the stairs and out the back. After she left, I said, ‘That’s everything you need to know about muscles.’ It’s probably not considered good pedagogy today, but I think people need to be entertained in a meaningful way while they’re learning.”
Snorts from the head Pig Watcher
The Biology 105 lab section featured a series of audio tutorials on cassette tape. Assignments typically involved observing cells under a microscope and recording observations. The fetal pig dissection was the course highlight.
“At that time, there were only a couple of universities that used an audio tutorial method,” Fennel says. “The audio component really appealed to me. It was considered the education of the future.”
Fennel initially wrote individual lab units and mimeographed them for the students. By 1974, he collected the units and published them as the first “Pig Watcher’s Guide,” titled in honor of the dissected mammal of choice.
Conversational and flippant, but never disrespectful toward its subject matter, “Pig Watcher’s” was an immediate hit with the students. The header for the introduction to the fifth edition reads “Snorts from the Head Pig Watchers. YES—YOU SHOULD READ THIS MATERIAL NOW!” Chapters about vertebrates, chromosomes and squamous epithelium tissues feature cheeky introductions:
Your awareness of the human body increases when you go to a beach or while you watch a Miss or Mr. America contest on TV. In these moments, our attention is focused on the external appearance of individuals without any thought of their internal composition. If we compare what is beneath the surface of the individuals seen in the centerfolds of Playboy/Playgirl with what is beneath your skin, there would be very little difference.
“Writing the lab manual gave me an opportunity to investigate other approaches to teaching,” Fennel says. “I always tried to make education compelling for the non-major.” Fennel modified “Pig Watcher’s” over the years, adding and deleting content with each new edition. One of the first student illustrators was freshman art major Tim Grajek (BA78).
“Tim created a poster presentation for a class project,” Fennel says. “It was a hilarious cartoon spoof of the course. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about him. I told him I admired his work and asked if he’d contribute some cartoons to the ‘Pig Watchers Guide.’”
Today, Grajek is a successful illustrator, designer, photographer and publisher based in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. “The poster was a comic strip about ecosystems with a superhero called ‘Lab Man’ who saved the day,” Grajek says. “Lab Man was a cross between Albert Einstein and Bill Fennel. At that time, I was really influenced by underground comix artists like Robert Crumb. My drawings had that feel.”
Of the characters Grajek created for the manual, none was more memorable than “Mark Sperm,” an All-American spermatozoon loosely based on U.S. Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz. In a three-page comic strip within the chapter on cellular reproduction, Mark Sperm outlasts his competitors in a rollicking race to reach “Olga Ovum,” winner of the menstrual cycle event.
“That cartoon was a little over the top, but people got a kick out of it,” Grajek says. “As an art student, I focused on photography, print making and painting. I was among the first EMU art graduates to claim a multimedia degree. After graduating, I proposed revising the entire ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide.’ Bill agreed and gave me free rein.”
Grajek based his 1979 edition of “Pig Watcher’s” on the newsprint-style format of Rolling Stone magazine. He created a new layout, worked with The Eastern Echo on the typesetting, drew new cartoons, took photographs and published the manual with Fennel under the moniker “Swine Publications, Inc.”
“I had great admiration for Tim’s ability and his way of thinking,” Fennel says. “I trusted his instincts. He was very hip, and his ideas were stimulating.”
“Pig Watcher’s” became part of Grajek’s portfolio, which helped him get a job as an illustrator for the Sunday magazine section of The Detroit News. Since moving to New York in the early 1980s, his work has appeared in Business Week, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. In 2009, Grajek illustrated and published “The First Dog,” a children’s book written by Benjamin Cheever, son of author John Cheever.
“I’m grateful for the support and creative freedom Bill offered,” Grajek says. “He took a chance on me, and my work on the manual subsequently helped launch my career in illustration and publishing.”
Fennel’s teaching was undoubtedly entertaining, but certainly not frivolous.
“Bill was an energetic, warm and positive person, but he was also very demanding,” Grajek says. “He made his class fun, but he didn’t compromise on quality education.”
Fennel also taught other courses at Eastern, including Advanced Invertebrate Zoology. He became department head in the late 1980s and was involved in various university committees. For a few summers, he also taught at the University of Louisville and at the University of Michigan Biological Station. In 1980, Fennel received the Senior Teaching Award, EMU’s highest honor for outstanding classroom teaching.
“Bill really knew his material and was very confident,” says Dennis Jackson, Fennel’s EMU colleague. “He used the technology of the time to show students how biology is important in their lives. I thought the ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide’ was great, but there’s so much more to the man than that manual. He’s also very genuine. Sometimes there’s an invisible barrier between a professor and his students. That wasn’t so with Bill. He cared about every single student, and they knew it. He took great joy in seeing his students succeed. His former students keep in touch with him, and he remembers all of them.”
Bonnie Miljour (MFA01) took Biology 105 in 1982. Like Grajek, she majored in art and contributed illustrations to later editions of “Pig Watcher’s.” Her “pig portrait,” framed by various flora and fauna, is on the cover of the fifth edition. The interior features her scientific drawings.
“I was honored to be asked to contribute to ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide,’” says Miljour, who has been the senior scientific illustrator at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan for 25 years. “Working on the lab manual reinforced my idea of going into scientific illustration. Dr. Fennel also took an interest in my artwork and was very encouraging. He purchased one of my watercolors from my student show. I’ve stayed in touch with him through the years. It’s a pleasure to know that there are really good people in the world like him.”
Like Miljour, Deb Polich (BA86) remains in touch with Fennel. She took Biology 105 in 1975.
“Classes in big lecture halls are always a bit overwhelming, but Doc Fennel was very engaging and made biology interesting,” says Polich, who graduated with a degree in arts management. She is president and CEO of Artrain, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit arts organization. “He told funny stories with an appropriate sense of humor. The ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide’ was tongue-in-cheek, but very instructive. I thought it was brilliant.”
Four years ago, Polich asked Fennel for a copy of “Pig Watcher’s” to share with her daughter, who enrolled in a veterinary school in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Whenever conversations about favorite college classes come up, I always mention the ‘Pig Watcher’s Guide,’” Polich says. “I wanted to share it with my daughter because she’s interested in science. She thought it was great and proposed updating Mark Sperm with Michael Phelps.
“Doc Fennel was able to excite students about biology and helped them believe that they could master the subject and be the better for it. He understood how to connect with students in a lasting way. It’s a gift.”
Fennel continues to live in Ypsilanti and remains active in EMU fundraising efforts. He and Polich are on the resource development board for the EMU College of Arts and Sciences. Fennel is also active with organizations like the Kiwanis Club and the Washtenaw Camp Placement Association. Looking back, Fennel says “Pig Watcher’s” is among his top career achievements.
“The lab manual filled my desires for 18 years,” he says. “It was a very creative and fun project. At the same time, I knew it wasn’t going to go on indefinitely. New teachers took over the course and used different teaching methods and textbooks. And that’s okay. Life goes on and things change. I still have many fond memories of the classes and my students. I’m always delighted when former students tell me how much they enjoyed the course and the things they learned. That’s the reward I got from teaching.”