Thoughts on teaching

Last week I finished up teaching my first class at NYU, a small, honors seminar on the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. This was my first experience designing and teaching a course entirely on my own. And doing it during J-Term (J stands for January, and the course takes place over the course of three weeks) added another interesting dimension. But I had a total blast teaching this course. Below are some thoughts I've had and things I've learned about the various aspects of teaching it: 

Coming up with course content: This was super fun and not too challenging, largely because the course is on the topic of my own area of research. One of my former college professors once told me that the easiest type of course to teach is a small seminar course on your area of expertise, while the hardest to teach is a large general education course (we'll see about that soon...). In J-term, each day is like a week in any other course. So I first started by deciding on topics for each day (music + emotion, memory, language, etc.) and then choosing the readings for each topic. 

After I had selected two readings per day (a reasonable amount, I thought, given the rest of the workload), I went back and tallied up the number of male and female first and last authors. I realized that I had picked more papers by male than female authors. So I thought about women scientists whose work I know in the field, removed some of the male-authored papers, and replaced them with women-authored papers. It's important to note that the quality of papers did not decrease as a result of this exercise. I hate that I have to even make that statement, but some people justify bias by saying things like "Well the first papers you chose were probably just better than the women-authored papers." Don't need to go into details on it here, but that's just implicit bias at work. 

Choosing types of assessment/evaluation: For this step, I asked many professor friends I know for copies of their syllabi. I looked at syllabi for small seminar courses on various topics, for music cognition courses, and for courses that took place over a similarly short period of time. This was incredibly helpful for seeing how a syllabus was designed and how students were evaluated. Instead of exams, I decided on one final long paper, in the form of a research proposal. Students also had to write five short papers over the course of the class and take turns leading classroom discussions. 

I thought I was being 'nice' and 'flexible' by allowing students to turn in the short papers at any point over the course of the class, since it was in such a short period of time. Looking back, I should have required students to submit one at least week. Not only would this have prevented a bunch of grading towards the end, but I realized I wanted students to be able to practice their skills on these papers to build up to their final paper. Having them submit at least one early on would've allowed me to give them feedback and help improve the papers over time. Things to remember for next time! 

Classroom activities: Each class was 2 hours and 40 minutes a day. It's long. I split the class up in half. One half was journal club style. Students would discuss the two papers read for class (discussions were led by pairs of students). In my end-of-term evaluations, students commented on how much they enjoyed the discussions. This was a huge relief, because one of my biggest fears was not being able to get the students to talk about the papers. After the first few days, I realized this wouldn't be a problem. I was so impressed by the quality of the discussions. We had a wide range of majors, including students from the arts and humanities, which really enriched the discussion. For example, I loved it when film students would relate the papers we read to things going on in film today. I required students to submit two discussion questions before each class, and I think that really helped jumpstart the conversation. At the end of the course, one student suggested next time to have students post discussion questions on the online course forums, and I love that idea! 

The second half of the class was dedicated to some kind of activity. We did demos in the MRI and MEG machines and had a few guest speakers: Keith Doelling came and talked about entrainment, Anna Kasdan told us about music and aphasia, and Julia Buntaine chatted about her neuroscience-based art. Students gave really positive comments about the guest speakers, and I think that was a nice way to break things up so they weren't having to listen to me for 3 hours every day. On the last day of class we talked about the benefits of #scicomm and made science zines inspired by Christine Liu while listening to riot grrrl tunes. So that was probably my personal favorite day of the class. 

I'm so glad I was able to have the experience of teaching this course. It was an enormous learning experience and really fun. Now that I have that one under my belt, tomorrow starts my first day teaching Intro Psych at NYU, so I'm getting both ends of the spectrum. We'll see which ends up being the bigger challenge!