Ready, Get Set…..

The office copiers are whirring again, making double-sided, stapled copies of syllabi and class handouts. In a few days, the sleepy academic buildings will fill up as we all return to our busy lives.

I usually give myself about three weeks’ lead time to get ready for classes to resume, for classes that I’ve taught before. (It takes months for me to prepare a brand-new course, of course!) The first thing I do is look over my notes from the classes I taught the previous semester, to remind myself of what worked best, what needed improvement. Here is when I find those little notes scribbled on my copy of my syllabus to be most helpful. My notes guide me to readings that need to be changed, topics that seemed less useful, class formats that worked best.

Then, I read through the course evaluations again. At Vassar, we have two evaluations. One is what we call the “free comment” sheet, where students write about their experiences in the class and their opinions of me and the class. Some students felt the class was too difficult, or not difficult enough. Or, there were too many assignments, or not enough. Or the group work was enlightening, or not at all helpful. I don’t know why I have this ritual of re-reading the free comment sheets. I guess they affirm that my notes to myself are most useful. It does bring the class back to life for me, I suppose.

Now that I’m back in the groove, I revise the readings. This semester, I am teaching my senior-level seminar in neurobiology, a course I’ve experimented with a lot over the years. It’s my signature course. I love it. This year, I’m changing the schedule, from one day a week to two. I’m excited about the new format. On Wednesdays, the class will, after the first few weeks, be the day when two students take the lead and “teach” the class the background material on a particular topic. Everyone will have read a recent review article on that topic and the article will form the starting point for the presentations. Then, the following Monday, those same two students will lead the discussion of primary experimental research papers on that topic. With the introduction the previous week, the class then have the rest of the week and weekend to read those papers and write a brief blog post to our class blog. After the Monday discussions, students will write a “Commentary Paper” that will integrate across the readings and reflect on the main concepts of that topic.

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I’ve spent the past couple of weeks mining the neuroscience literature for exciting new papers and organizing the topics. Now, I have my syllabus completed and am beginning to prepare the first two weeks’ worth of class sessions. For those of you who have been reading my blog over the years, you know how important the first class is. This is where you set the tone, get your students jazzed about the semester ahead and begin learning about your students. This year, I’ve assigned a recent review article about the evolution of the human brain, published just a month ago. I’ll email the class a couple of days before our first session so that everyone can read the article before class. We’re going to start off the semester with a discussion, based around questions that will serve as a launching pad for the themes and subtopics of the semester. This will be a full-body immersion- an immediate DIVE HEAD FIRST into the course. No wading in this time.

I can’t wait