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  • Teaching at Brandeis: An Extraordinary Experience

    By Dr. Stephanie Wasserman
    April 25, 2014
    Section: Impressions


    A few years ago, I became a Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis. My field is behavioral neuroscience, but I applied to carry out new research on gender issues in foster care, with particular emphasis on exemplary foster care by women. As soon as I became a Scholar, I learned that the WSRC offers a competitive program called the Student/Scholar Partnership where a Brandeis undergraduate can apply to assist a WSRC Scholar with her research. The Student/Scholar Partner, Ms. Kass Levy, whom I selected and worked with for two years, was an outstanding young woman of exceptional intellect and dedication. Working with such a gifted student led me to become interested in teaching Brandeis undergraduates in the classroom. WSRC Director Professor Shulamit Reinharz encourages all the Scholars to get to know the faculty, and I decided to find out what was happening in the Psychology Department.
    This is how I happened to sit across the desk from Paul DiZio, Chair of the Psychology Department. At the end of our discussion he not only offered me an opportunity to teach a course in my field, “Biological Basis of Motivation,” but he also showed interest in my research regarding foster care and adoption.
    10 years ago I relinquished my tenured faculty position at Endicott College to care for my newly adopted daughter and began teaching part-time at a college located closer to my home. In my experiences at those two institutions of higher learning, I never taught a course with as many as 86 students, the number that had pre-enrolled in the Biological Basis of Motivation. I worried that when I entered that large lecture hall I might be overwhelmed by 86 pairs of eyes staring at me.
    What I didn’t understand was how warmly I would be received by the entire Brandeis community and how well both the Committee for the Support of Teaching and the Psychology Department would actively aid and encourage me as a new, albeit adjunct, faculty member.
    Initially I thought the e-mail from Lorna Laurent, assistant dean of Arts and Sciences, inviting me to a “New Faculty Orientation” had been a mistake. I was, after all, scheduled to teach only one course. Could it be that Brandeis was offering to invest in my teaching development just as they would a full-time faculty member?
    When I walked into the orientation, I experienced a deep sense of belonging and collegial dialogue. Dan Perlman, associate provost of innovation in education and professor of biology, presented a talk on “Effective Teaching, Effective Learning” and shared engaging strategies for supporting dynamic, in-class conversations in large lecture courses.
    His presentation on a strategy known as “Just in Time Teaching” demonstrated how a professor can send out questions and invite student thoughts (QTs) on specific readings via Google Forms and then tailor his/her lecture to the expressed needs of the students. In addition, the professor can incorporate student comments (anonymously of course) into the class PowerPoints or lectures.
    Janet McIntosh, associate professor of anthropology, and Rachel Woodruff, lecturer in biology, co-presented a workshop on teaching large classes, which was extremely helpful—especially in its discussion of managing multiple, highly talented TAs.
    The greatest assistance however, came from Paul DiZio, chair and associate professor of psychology. His respectful, responsive and effective management style translated into reliable support throughout the year.
    My desire to teach at Brandeis was reinforced by my experience working with the highly intelligent, curious and engaging student body. You, the Brandeis student, provide the energy that professors need in order to read, comment on and grade the multitude of exams, papers and projects that cross our desks throughout the academic year. You are why we teach. You are the catalyst for dynamic dialogue and intellectual exchange. You breathe fresh life into old academe.
    I once again was given the opportunity to teach here at Brandeis. The WSRC offers its Resident Scholars the opportunity to compete for a teaching slot in the university. One Scholar per year teaches a course in a department that requests her. Paul DiZio invited me to teach a new course, Attachment, Separation, Risk, and Resilience in Adoption and Foster Care, this current semester, grounded in my current research. My students and I are utilizing a child-centered approach as we investigate underlying evidence-based theoretical constructs regarding attachment, separation, risk and resilience.
    I look forward to fall 2014, when I will be teaching two large lecture courses: Biological Basis of Motivation and Developmental Psychology. Teaching at Brandeis is an extraordinary experience.


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