MTSU Faculty Spotlight: Kevin Downs, Agriculture

MTSU Faculty Spotlight: Kevin Downs, Agriculture

Today, the Student Voice is catching up with Dr. Kevin Downs of the agriculture department to discuss show rabbits, time management, and his passion for poultry.

Thanks for talking with us today! So how long have you taught at MTSU?

I came here 17 years ago, directly after getting my Ph.D. I’ve been here the second longest of anybody in our department!

Where did you go to school for undergrad and graduate?

I got my undergraduate degree in animal science from the University of Florida, my master’s in Beef Cattle Nutrition from University of Florida, and my Ph.D. in Poultry Nutrition from Auburn.

What made you decide to go into teaching?

When I first started college, I was actually terrified of talking in front of people, and that was something I thought that I’d never get over. But something snapped towards the end of my undergraduate program. I was taking a feedyard management class at University of Florida, and we had a project where we had to teach a lesson to the class, and I really enjoyed it! When I started grad school, I decided to pursue opportunities to get teaching experience as a TA and a lab instructor, and I loved it. So I decided to look for a job that would be mostly teaching. This position at MTSU is actually a fairly unique job because it’s all teaching, versus one that involves both teaching and research, so it was a perfect fit.

If you could choose one class that you teach for everybody at MTSU to take, which class would it be?

Well, I have a reputation for teaching classes that are a bit challenging.  If I had my choice, it would probably be the basic poultry science class, because I don’t think we’ve done a great job in agriculture about educating consumers about how things are produced and processed. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and the agriculture industry has done a poor job of correcting a lot of myths that you hear. Many people don’t know how eggs or chicken meat is really produced, and they believe that it’s made inhumanely, which is not true. It’s really important to me to spread the correct information about how we really do things in the poultry industry.

Tell us about the time you allegedly threw a dead chicken in your classroom!

Can I plead the fifth? I’ve actually done a lot of weird things in the classroom. Here’s the thing: you should never trust people who can’t laugh at themselves and have no sense of humor. Humor is a big part of my approach to teaching. I want my students to learn, and I expect a lot from them, but I want them to enjoy the experience and have it be memorable for them. So I try to do things to make them laugh because if you’re laughing, you’re probably paying attention and enjoying your time in class. So I’ve done a lot of stuff that a normal professor might think is a little insane—including tossing a dead chicken across the room! But clearly people remember when I do crazy things.  I don’t think anyone would say my classes are particularly easy, but at the same time, I hope most students them.

What’s some advice that you’d give students on how to succeed in school?

From what I’ve seen over the years, the biggest challenge that students face is time management. Some of them work part-time or full-time or take heavy class loads, and they have a hard time balancing everything and keeping their grades up. I think it’s important to realize that there’s always going to be tradeoffs for packing your schedule too tightly. I actually just had a conversation with a student yesterday about time management. She was asking me about changing her shift at work and going to night shift to work more hours, and I said “Well, you’ve got to be able to balance it. You need to make sure you have time to study”. And I see that kind of thing a lot; students sometimes have a hard time managing everything that’s going on. I think it’s important to realize that there’s always going to be tradeoffs for packing your schedule too tightly.

What was your own biggest obstacle as a student?

I don’t think time management was as much of an issue for me in college. This might sound a little trite, but I would say that my biggest struggle as a student was perfectionism, because it just added so much stress. That’s another thing I see all the time with students: they go into freakout mode when they miss a point or two on an exam. I was pretty close to that point as a student, myself. I had to make everything perfect, and that expectation was definitely overwhelming. You’ve got to learn how to do your best and just move on.

What’s your most unique hobby?

I actually raise show rabbits, which I guess is pretty unique as far as hobbies go. I’ve got a hundred and twenty right now. They multiply a lot, as you would think! I’ve got Holland lops, which are small lop-eared rabbits, and mini rex rabbits, which have fur that feels like velvet. They’re fun to work with but very time-consuming.

What got you interested in agriculture as a subject?

I really can’t answer that question! It was literally just something inherent that made me drawn to animals as a child, from as young as I can remember. I was always especially fascinated with birds and raised lots of different types of birds as a kid—chickens, doves, pigeons, quail, all kinds. I kept my love for birds throughout high school, but when I started college, I decided to get an undergraduate and master’s degree in focuses other than poultry. I simply didn’t know that there was such a discipline as poultry science. If I had known, I would’ve gone into poultry science for my undergraduate and masters rather than animal science. But the interesting thing is, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t be teaching at MTSU. For the program at this university, you really need professors with broad knowledge of animal science and different kinds of livestock, and if I’d only had degrees in poultry, I wouldn’t have been able to teach many of the classes that I teach. So, in retrospect, getting a more broad-based education is what helped me get this job.

What’s a behavior you’d like to see more often from your students?

What makes me a little sad is that, as students come and go over the years, you just lose touch with them. I really wish more of them would stay in touch about things, particularly when it comes to careers; I want to do as much as I can to help students with finding jobs and thinking about ways to find employment. But I feel like so many students graduate and leave our department, and they just disappear. I never know where they go or what career they choose, so that kind of thing is a little sad.

Have there been students that you stayed in touch with?

A few, and that’s a good question because I’ve been here 17 years; I’ve advised and taught a lot of students, and there are only a handful that I keep in touch with. Off the top of my head, there’s maybe five? If I think about the students that I’ve kept in touch with the most, it’s not the ones who were the best in class. It was the ones who I really got to know here in the office. For almost all of these students, they had some kind of problem that we tackled together: either they had transferred in and done poorly, or they couldn’t find anybody to give them good answers, and we were able to work on solutions together.But that’s the importance of forming professor / student relationships, so that professors can help you if you’re on the edge of an academic problem, or if you need career advice or help.