dr² > Teaching
Over the last several years, I have found that the idea that most guides me is: No lecture is ever truly finished. Although this is a simple idea, it is one that has led me to the four main facets of my teaching philosophy:
These are elaborated below with quotes from student feedback and evaluations.
Relevant, Current Scholarship
Science is a living field. We are constantly gaining new insights into ourselves and the world around us. This is what makes it so exciting! New paths to discover, new ideas to explore. Very few of my lectures have remained unchanged over the years, as I am continually updating my material to highlight new insights in the field. For example, of the source material that I used for a class this past semester – Foundations of Cognitive Science – between a half and a third of the source papers were published within the last 10 years, with a special focus on material published in the last 5. This helped to keep the information fresh and relevant, but also allowed me to excitedly tell the class about things I had just recently learned!
And from my TA this last semester:
What does it mean to be a student in a field that is always changing? Over the years, I’ve come to realize that one of the most important lessons I can impart to my students is this: I am not the arbiter of truth, and neither is any textbook. Facts are only as good as their interpretation, and as we learn and gather new facts, old interpretations may not fit very well. Instead of focusing on facts, then, what I try to teach my students is intellectual autonomy. Lecture materials highlight conflicting studies and ask students to think about how they might all fit together. Times when the class has to collectively admit “I don’t know” are celebrated. And most of my assignments ask students to critically evaluate claims in the literature, or to use what they have learned to form new hypotheses and create new ideas that they can then follow-up on. Examples of assignments include: identifying non-scientific claims in a ghost-hunting paper; hypothesizing reasons why most people find it difficult to read in their dreams; and trying to fit data from Alzheimer’s patients to ideas about how our mental lexicon is structured. Although this is more challenging for the students, in the end it is also a more valuable classroom experience.
If I encourage the students to re-evaluate everything that they are learning, how can they trust the information that I am presenting to them? My efforts here have evolved over the past years, but what I have started doing this year is to bring as much transparency to the classroom as possible. All of the source materials that I used in lecture were properly cited, and furthermore, copies of every source paper were made digitally available to the students so that they could cross-check any claim I made. A small amount of extra-credit was even offered for anyone who found that I presented a paper incorrectly. For my Foundations of Cognitive Science course, over 325 source papers were posted for the students to peruse. This included materials that went into lectures, material used as background for assignments, and even primary sources that I used to create exam questions. This allowed students to know exactly where the information was coming from, allowed them to separate interpretations from the basic findings, and also allowed them to dig deeper into topics they found interesting. In an era where facts are under attack, it is more important than ever that we make the origins of our ideas transparent.
Focus on Systems and Methods
A book full of facts is called trivia, not science. Science presents us with frameworks, with processes and systems! I use a broad array of source material in order to more clearly show how certain phenomena work. Two-word telegraphic speech by toddlers is better understood if you can view the process from multiple different languages. Self-awareness is better understood if you can see lots of examples of when people are not aware. Categorical perception of speech sounds is made clearer when presented alongside categorical perception of non-linguistic stimuli. When students discover how to look at a phenomenon from new and interesting angles, they become much more intelligent in the questions they ask. In the linguistics capstone / field methods course I led, the most difficult thing for students was to break away from thinking through English. But by pushing them to compare against other languages, other established grammars, and historical data, I got them to broaden their investigations, and, critically, to discover phenomena they might have otherwise missed.
I do not expect my students to remember most of the specific material ten years down the road, but if I can teach them how to ask better questions and how to see the larger picture, then I feel I have truly succeeded.