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Mental Health and the Brain: Student Information

Mental Health and the Brain:
A Discussion
Fall, 2008

Supplementary Course Information

General course principles

This is a "non-traditional" science course, rather than one in which the primary concern of the instructor is to efficiently outline a body of facts which students are expected to learn. Students will instead be invited to listen to, read about, and work through in their own minds revisable understandings of the brain as they bear on issues of mental health, and to contribute to ongoing public discussion of the relation between observations and understandings in this area. The task is not to master what is "known" but to use the "known" and one's own perspectives to enhance one's capabilities as an active, skeptical, and effective participant in the continual elaboration and revision of empirical understandings that is the core of scientific inquiry (see Getting it Less Wrong: The Brain's Way and Science as Story Telling and Story Revising).

Get better at being a critical, creative scientist
In this context, several points are of particular importance

  • Understandings are ways of accounting for observations and need to be explained in these terms.
  • There are always multiple ways to account for a given set of observations. Hence, a given understanding always has associated with it some degree of subjectivity.
  • Understandings are always revisable.
  • Understandings should always be tested against new observations as well as by comparison to alternate understandings.
  • The objective is not to get it "right", but rather to get it "less wrong", ie to identify and correct limitations of current understandings.
  • Doing so depends on both listening to and critically evaluating all understandings, including one's own.

Class and on-line forum participation

Share your own understandings effectively; listen and respond to the understandings of others; use both to conceive new understandings and help others do so.

Your task in this course is both to achieve new understandings yourself and to contribute to the development of new understandings by other people, in this course and elsewhere. This in turn depends on your willingness and ability to share your existing understandings and the reasons for them in ways that are comprehensible to other people. It depends as well on your willingness and ability to listen to, appreciate, and respond to the existing understandings of others. Ideas expressed in class and in the on-line forums should always be understood to be "thoughts in progress," contributions to an ongoing informal conversation intended to provide the wherewithal by which all involved arrive at new understandings. Your class and on-line forum activities will be evaluated in terms of the contributions they make to this conversation, the extent to which they reflect and generate new understandings in yourself and others.

Book commentary

Bring and share additional perspectives.
A variety of good popular and semi-popular books both by scientists and others are available, relevant to the course, and provide useful perspectives over and above those of the course assigned readings and discussion. In consultation with the course instructor, you should pick one to read over the semester, and write a commentary on it that conveys to a general audience the most important understandings you got from the book, how those relate to our class discussions, and what new questions that in turn raises. The commentary should be handed in as a hard copy and posted in your course blog by 1 December.

Web project

Develop and share a specific area of expertise.
The web is a rich source of information and diverse perspectives in all areas, including that of the brain and mental health. In consultation with the course instructor, you should pick a particular area of interest to you and use the web to become familiar with existing information and perspectives in that area. Additional non-web materials can be used as well as seems necessary/appropriate. From this, you should develop and publish in your course blog a set of web materials appropriate for a general audience. These materials should provide a synthetic and critical picture of current understandings of your chosen topic as well as a discussion of unanswered questions and new directions that you think future explorations should take. It should also provide an accessible set of resources (at least some on the web) that others can use to further pursue their own explorations of this area. An initial version of this web project should be completed, handed in as hard copy, and posted by 27 October, with final hard copy and posting due 19 December. With agreement of the instructor, you may instead do two projects on separate topics, with the same due dates.

Evaluation and grades

Assess yourself in terms of new understandings and their significance for your own objectives
No single measure can adequately reflect the distinctive efforts and achievements of any individual taking a given course, not can your grade in any given course be taken as an adequate indicator of your likely performance in other contexts. You should therefore always regard grades as only one measure of your performance, taking into account as well your distinctive objectives and your own sense of what you have achieved in relation to them. Should you have questions about the significance of your grades in this course in relation to personal progress or career objectives, your instructor would be happy to discuss these with you (as well as to provide to others any additional information which might usefully extend that available from your course grade).

I value clarity, imagination, synthesis, and critical ability
All work will be evaluated in terms of conceptual logic and rigor, appropriate attention to the relations between observations and conclusions, clarity of presentation, and evidence of serious intellectual interest in as well as both critical and synthetic engagement with the material presented. You should aspire first to surprise yourself with new understandings, second to surprise others with new understandings, and third to surprise someone with substantial expertise in the area with new understandings.

If you seriously engage with this course, you can't fail it, or even get a low grade (below 3.0). To get the highest possible grade, you will need to come up with new and clearly described understandings that open new questions and surprise not only yourself and others but me too.
Each paper will be graded on a ten point scale, with seven corresponding to acceptable on most counts and ten to exceptional on all counts. Scores on the papers will be combined, with the final paper given twice the weight of each of the other two. The combined paper score will contribute seventy-five percent to a course total, with other contributions to class success, including weekly web postings, contributing the balance. Course totals in the vicinity of 90 percent and above will translate into final grades of 4.0, those in the vicinity of 75 and above into final grades of 3.0, those in the vicinity of 60 and above into final grades of 2.0. Final scores above 50 percent are needed to pass the course.