This story is part of the Faculty’s Proud to Teach campaign, recognizing excellence and innovation in teaching across the Faculty of Medicine.
In a research-intensive place like The Neuro, where basic scientists and clinicians produce data and publications in a torrent, David Ragsdale and Michael Petrides are two veteran faculty members who regard teaching as an equally valuable calling. Both have won multiple teaching awards, which are symbolic not only of their skill in nurturing new generations of scientists but also of the joy that they derive from the teaching experience.
Their devotion to teaching has roots in family stories.
“My grandfather was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and my father was a doctor with a professorial attitude. I think I inherited a little of that,” muses Ragsdale, a fundamental scientist who trained as a specialist in a part of the cell membrane called ion channels.
A younger sister helped to illuminate the teaching path of Petrides, a cognitive neuroscientist and James McGill Professor whose annotated brain atlases are standard texts and who received an honorary doctorate in September from the University of Athens in Greece.
“When I was young, I had my sister pretend that she was my student and I would lecture her,” smiles Petrides. “I don’t know how much she cared about what I was saying!”
As members of McGill’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Ragsdale and Petrides, like all Neuro faculty, are required to teach a minimum number of hours, virtually all of which are devoted to medical and graduate students. In fact, however, both men do far more teaching than their designated share, often addressing undergrads.
“I believe that no matter how involved professors are in research, we have an obligation to transfer our knowledge and excite a younger generation,” says Petrides, “A course in neuropsychology or cognitive neuroscience could easily become a series of fascinating patient cases, but we need rather to zoom in on the specific brain circuits underlying their symptoms.”
To promote this approach to the many undergraduate students in his Human Cognition and the Brain course, Petrides devotes the first few classes to explaining basic neuroanatomy, always speaking without notes, which he feels promotes closer contact and interaction.
“I don’t aim to turn students into neuroanatomists, but rather to make them understand the brain circuits involved. Subsequently I present the symptoms, problems and impairments that patients exhibit based on what we know about these circuits.”
Petrides admits that students who were expecting to learn only about famous patient cases might be a little confused at the beginning, but eventually they realize that they are not in class just to hear interesting stories.
“The basic science serves as a scaffold on which I build. I think students appreciate this because they learn how different brain areas interact.”
Petrides enlivens his lectures with humour—his vocal imitation of neurons firing rapidly, ba-ba-ba-bap, is an oft-repeated campus tale. He talks about famous cases, too, especially H.M, the man who, following a brain operation, suffered such severe memory impairment that he was unable to recall what was said a few moments earlier. H.M.’s case is closely associated in the scientific literature with Petrides’ illustrious colleague and former teacher at The Neuro, Brenda Milner.
“As a result of the great demand for my regular neuropsychology course, for the past decade I have taught an intensive month-long version in the summer. Every year, I consider cancelling the summer course but then I change my mind. If students ask for it, I’m motivated.”
Teaching is motivation enough for Ragsdale, who prefers it to all other academic activity. In 2010, he made a conscious decision to stop publishing articles and to focus on teaching. For him, it comes down to taking complicated subjects and trying to explain them.
“That’s something that really engages me,” says Ragsdale, who found that he was skilled at explaining his scientific activity to non-specialist readers of his government grant applications. “As I was writing the grant, I would think, ‘Well, the person reading this doesn’t know my field so I have to explain so they understand it.’ That translates into teaching.”
After his first undergraduate course in the Physiology Department went well, Ragsdale agreed to teach a course in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology given by a faculty member who was retiring.
“I kept accumulating more courses. Then I became involved in teaching medical students and ended up coordinating a course for them. Now I manage a large, complicated course, Principles of Neuroscience II, Systems Neuroscience, and teach graduate students in our neuroscience graduate program.”
From an initial teaching load of 25 hours for the academic year, Ragsdale now teaches over 200 hours in 14 different classes. The size of his classes varies greatly. One class in physiology has just one student, but a neuroanatomy class has around one thousand students divided in two groups. Ragsdale was not a neuro-anatomist and had to learn enough neuroanatomy to teach undergraduates. Nowadays, he and a colleague at The Neuro, Edith Hamel, also teach a neuroanatomy course for graduate students.
“It’s one thing to teach at a very high level—you must be an expert. But to teach undergrads and even grad students, I find that often experts are not the best people to teach because they just can’t comprehend why certain things aren’t obvious. Not being thoroughly expert in a narrowly defined area is in some ways beneficial to teaching.”
Ragsdale brought this notion to a 13-week graduate neuroscience course.
“Each week, an invited specialist would give a three-hour lecture. The problem was the course had no continuity and didn’t flow like a course. It was just experts talking about their narrow topic. There’s more benefit to having one person deliver the material and understanding what the students heard before. This way, the teacher can form a relationship with the students.”
McGill students impress Ragsdale as smart, curious, ambitious and open to the future. His graduate students often have interesting insights.
“In a small interactive class, you can say, ‘Here’s a problem. I don’t know the answer. Let’s talk about it.’ Somebody in the room might have more insight that I do. In a big class, the dynamic changes a lot. There’s less two-way communication. It’s more of a bonding as opposed to the idea that I’m learning from their thoughtful comments.”
Although Ragsdale admits that interactive learning is a more fruitful way to learn than lecturing, he also believes that lectures can be interesting—provided students show up.
“In my large classes, everything is videotaped and posted online. That’s good. Students can reinforce their notions, listen again, formulate questions. What’s bad is that in a class of 250, on a typical day maybe 70 show up. I would argue that you learn better if you show up. A challenge of technology going forward is figuring out how to take advantage of having a classroom and a professor with whom students can interact. Part of the solution would be to have students read a chapter and do something with the information in class with the help of the professor. In other words, to take passively acquired information and actually use it.”
Ragsdale is also involved in faculty teaching.
“I’m a member of a group in the Faculty of Medicine called Faculty Development Teach, which does workshops like the three-day leadership development program. Other half-day workshops are devoted to subjects like feedback. Many of the workshops are directed at clinicians who are required to do continuing medical education. They get credit for our workshops.”
Ragsdale is also a member of McGill’s Institute of Health Sciences Education, which advances health sciences education research and practice.
Both Ragsdale and Petrides can point to teaching awards, but the greatest compliment to their teaching, they say, comes from students who pursue neuroscience as a result of taking their courses.
McGill Faculty of Medicine Honour List for Teaching Excellence, the Canadian Association for Medical Education Certificate of Merit, and the McGill Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching, McGill (2010) and the Leo Yaffe Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Faculty of Science, McGill (1985).