Hours before he delivered the last lecture of his fourth decade on campus, University of Wisconsin botany professor Tim Allen stood a little anxiously in the lab named after him on the third floor of Birge Hall. Wearing his trademark button down shirt and frantically curly, not-quite-gray hair, Allen announced, to everyone and no one, his expectations.
“It will be the best lecture of your life”
This straightforward self-assuredness is Allen’s signature. At 67, he has established himself as one of the most controversial academics at the University of Wisconsin, known to outrage colleagues, scare students and baffle everyone with his unconventional approach to science. He’s also one of the top living experts on hierarchy theory and, to those who breach his inner circle, a loving mentor who lives for the cultivation of ideas.
The year 2010 marks Allen’s 40th year since coming to UW in 1970 and he has no immediate plans to retire. But a week before that last lecture of Allen’s best known course, “Plants and Man,” the professor acknowledged his age and the uncertainty of the future.
“I’m always scared it’s going to be the last time I do it,” Allen said, the rolling boil of his British accent calming to a simmer.
Though “Plants and Man” is the course Allen “gets all the applause for,” he teaches a biological systems course and an introductory course for botany majors, among others. His abrasive teaching style engenders a “love him or hate him” response in most students, with roughly half falling on either side, said his Biology 152 teaching partner Antony Stretton, a zoology professor.
“He likes to say confrontational things, so sometimes he makes outrageous comments,” Stretton said, remembering times when he’s egged Allen on. “When I was sitting at the back of the room, I yelled ‘Bullshit!’ at the top of my voice.”
UW Botany Department Chair David Baum said though no one has come to him in his year-and-a-half as chair to formally complain about Allen, the professor’s effect on students is tangible.
“I have heard people who’ve informally indicated that they were pretty much scandalized by his approach,” Baum said. “I reflected and I’ve considered that in some ways higher education is going to be challenging and I think it’s okay. I’ve seen enough students who’ve been positively influenced.”
Although Stretton disagrees with Allen’s eschewal of review sessions and practice exams, he tends to comply with his overall method.
“I’m with him,” Stretton said. “I think you push as far as you can and you see if it holds. Some people find that kind of threatening.”
At the very least, it’s unconventional. In “Plants and Man,” Allen often drags students up to the front of class to demonstrate everything from the process of meiosis and mitosis to grass structures. He raises his voice, breaks into song, recites poetry and refers to his pointer stick as a “phallic symbol.”
The antics, he said, are strategic. Allen recalled running into two former students at Chicago’s O’Hare airport in one day: one a busboy, the other a fellow passenger on his plane.
“Both of them were talking coherently about space and infields and outfields,” Allen said. “Whatever people learn from me, it gets stuck in their heads for the rest of their lives.”
Stretton, who is also British, said some of Allen’s style is rooted in the culture of his homeland.
“Part of it’s a different intellectual tradition,” Stretton said. “In England, we enjoy people who have slightly outlandish views. There’s a sense in which that intellectual style encourages you to go further than you would if you stay within the boundaries.”
As a teaching assistant for the “Plants and Man” course, UW graduate student Nissa Enos said she believes an individual’s reaction to Allen depends upon his or her own ego. Enos remembered how an international student with a different perspective once told another TA that she was doing well in the course, but others were having trouble.
“This student said, ‘I think it’s because I’m not standing on the rug that he’s trying to pull out from under them,'” Enos said.
Among colleagues, Allen is perhaps even more notorious. UW professor John Norman, who began to design experiments on the self-organization of plants with Allen a decade ago, is somewhat of a convert. Initially, working from different frames of reference created barriers between the two.
“It took several years of us working together before I began to understand what he was saying,” Norman, who works between the disciplines of soil biology, physics and a half-dozen other areas, said. “And as I understood it, it changed the way I think about the research that I do.”
Norman said traditionally, for example, scientists study cells to understand leaves, study leaves to understand the plant and study plants to understand communities. Allen’s approach is much more holistic.
“A self-organized system can’t be understood by trying to reduce it to the smallest piece and integrate it up–it doesn’t work that way,” Norman said, explaining Allen’s perspective. “And that’s unsettling. He’s basically saying to you, what you’re doing is internally consistent as far as you take it, but you’re not going where you think you’re going.”
Allen, who is left-handed and dyslexic, perceives situations and systems holistically and as narratives, stories with the observer built into them, Enos said. Viewed this way, measurements made by an observer are not always consequential.
“The continual influx of information comes in through a narrative, no matter what it is,” Enos explained. “Even if you sit down and look at a table of numbers, it’s actually a narrative, what’s going on in your consciousness is a narrative about you encountering this.”
This radically different perspective is why other scientists struggle with Allen’s holistic approach to scientific systems. As such, it is extremely difficult for Allen to get funding for research. For their experiment, Norman said, Allen secured a small grant, but much of their project equipment was built with “bootlegged” funds from Norman’s other sources.
When someone like Allen makes a proposal, Norman added, those potentially reviewing the research often can’t tell the difference between what’s wrong and what they don’t understand.
“If two people start from a different reference, they’re going to have a hard time reconciling their differences,” Norman said. “I think this is why often Tim has run into just vitriolic opposition. There are people who hate him and hate what he says.”
Allen teaches from three slide projections simultaneously in “Plants and Man.” As he started his last lecture, Allen focused on the one in the center. He whipped through dozens of maps, one after the other in a matter of seconds, narrating the movements of civilizations throughout millennia, the development of language and the waging of wars, hardly pausing for breath.
It took about 10 minutes for him to trace the path of human life from pre-Roman times to the modern era, at which point Allen came to an important conclusion.
“Change is our friend”
The Allen Lab is one of three in Allen’s suite, squeezed into a tight, shadowy corner in Birge Hall. Besides the lab, the suite includes a work office and a “talking” office complete with a wall of books, a sinking couch and a reclining chair. Both offices display sun-bleached posters of his alma mater, the University of Wales, Bangor in North Wales. Allen easily takes to the chair in a full reclining position and talks about his life like he’s used to being asked about it.
He was born in south London in “the middle of the blitz” before his father’s work as hospital pharmacist moved the family to the east end. The socialist government at the time had taxed many of the rich out of their homes and the Allens were able to buy a 10-bedroom Georgian mansion for the equivalent of $8,000. Though his family was upper-middle class, Allen said his socialist father sent him to “the local thug school.”
“The funny thing is my accent will be that of the local working class kids,” Allen said. “[People] quickly work out that no, I am not of the people whose accent I have.”
Allen was 28 when he came to UW, fresh off of two years as a lecturer at the University of Ife in Nigeria, since renamed Obafemi Awolowo University.
“Teaching here, I find out what it is to be English because Americans aren’t English but they speak English. Therefore you can really see the contrast,” Allen said. “In Nigeria, I found out what it was to be white and Judeo-Christian, because of the contrast there.”
There are remnants from Nigeria in his home now, hanging on the soaring walls of his grand great room, amid 19th century British political cartoons from his parents’ home and reproductions of horse and sporting scenes.
Located just outside of Oregon, his home is also the site of Pen Bryn Farm, where his wife Valerie Ahl breeds Olympic-quality horses. Ahl’s day job is working as a clinical psychologist at Mendota Mental Health Institute and overseeing the ethics of psychology research at UW. Somehow, she and Allen find time to raise three children: Josephine, 16, and twins Harrison and Gwynedd, age 9.
But before they were husband and wife, Allen and Ahl were teacher and student.
“I took some classes with Tim and then I ran out of classes,” Ahl said, a petite blond with big blue eyes and a quick-to-laugh demeanor. “I figured I didn’t need any more botany credits since I’m going into psychology.”
The story goes that Ahl, 24 years Allen’s junior, slipped a note into Allen’s mailbox and the two developed a close friendship.
“After living with Tim, I decided that I didn’t want to be a professor, because it’s your whole life,” Ahl said. “And I didn’t want just one part of my life. I like having many different parts.”
After marrying, Ahl and Allen did write one book together — a workable version of Allen’s 1982 book “Hierarchy.” Though he calls “Hierarchy” his “masterpiece,” Allen said the later book written with his wife is even better.
Even so, Ahl said she was never a part of the close inner circle of people who work closely with Allen, many of whom are members of an elite Tuesday lunch meeting group called the Sandbox. Allen estimates the group began in earnest at least 15 years ago, its name stemming from the notion that, “We were clearly just playing with intellectual ideas like a bunch of kids in a sandbox.”
Graduate students and exceptional undergraduates are invited to the group, Allen said, along with visiting scholars from other areas of campus. Allen cooks the meal, continuing the culinary tradition that permeates his courses and home life.
Stephanie Hare, a neuroscience major who graduated from UW in December, began attending Sandbox discussions this past summer. She said working with Allen in the group and on a bioscience paper was, “the first time where I got to really creatively express myself, be an abstract thinker and feel like my contributions really meant something.”
It is in the casual yet intensely cerebral atmosphere of Sandbox that ideas have bloomed between Allen and undergraduates like Hare, leading to what Allen deems the best work of his life and also to one of his only true regrets in 40 years of teaching.
“I would have moved my research into its present mode quicker,” Allen said. “In the last eight years, I found out that undergraduates, brilliant undergraduates, could do theory with me.”
It is perhaps indicative of his unique perspective that Allen can do groundbreaking work with undergraduates on theories that he must endlessly defend to his professional colleagues. According to Hare, when she first attended Allen’s office hours as his student in an upper-level course, he was taken aback.
“After sitting there with him for two hours, [talking] about my paper, [talking] about life in general, he said, ‘Why aren’t you afraid of me?'” Hare said, laughing. “And I said, ‘You never gave me anything to be afraid about.'”
Nearing the end of his last lecture, Allen turned to the pages of a children’s book depicting the seasons of the year. His description, like the book itself, is vivid and simple. Each season can stand for stages in a life, he said, from times of great growth in spring to the dormant and difficult days of winter. Allen, growing quieter and more reflective, confessed to his students he is in the middle of a winter.
“I’m trying to work out what na?ve thing to do next”
Allen isn’t looking to retire, but guesses he will within the next five years or so. Baum, the botany department chair, said a replacement for Allen would likely be far different from him.
“It would be pretty much impossible to find somebody who does anything exactly like Tim does,” Baum said. “We would search for the best ecologist and the odds are they would be a more mainstream, conventional scientist-type ecologist rather than somebody who had a sort of affection for the humanist outlook, which would maybe be a shame.”
As it is, Allen is proud to be a part of the “awesome” UW botany department, where he said he’s been “too busy doing important things” to fight for a raise to his $100,000 salary. While he supposes he could make more elsewhere, he said it’s never fit him to move from UW.
It is clear that Allen–as the boy who grew up in a mansion with a working class accent, the scientist with a penchant for creativity, the unapologetic confrontationist with a gentle soul–is a man perpetually caught in-between, and he’s pretty happy there.
When the bell rang in on Allen’s last lecture, not one of the 100-plus bodies in the room flinched. Two minutes later the professor, having summed up the semester’s explorations of everything from levels of observation to the making of wine to the vast empires of history, finally came to the end.
“It’s been a joy teaching you,” he said, before wrapping up with the same line that marks the end of every Allen lecture. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.”