‘Ask questions’

Good instructors are happy to talk to students, so don’t be shy about talking to them

David Ragsdale, winner of last year’s Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching (Associate Professor category), has been teaching undergraduates and grad students about the complexities of the human brain for more than two decades. In this Q&A, he shares his thoughts on teaching and learning – and what he likes about living in Montreal:

How did you get into teaching?

David Ragsdale: My first real experience as a teacher was as a TA in graduate school, but I’ve always been predisposed to teaching. By my nature I enjoy explaining things. When I deal with difficult concepts myself, my tendency is to try to reduce them to their essence and to understand them intuitively, through mental imagery. So, for example, to understand the gas law, I have to imagine the molecules of gas. I can’t understand it by just looking at the equation. Maybe this is because I’m not smart enough to understand complexity, but I think it helps me be a better teacher. I think a lot of times university professors have so much knowledge in the field they are teaching that they don’t understand what it feels like to not get it. I definitely know what it feels like to not get it, so I try hard to put myself in the students’ perspective when I teach.

What are the best things about being a teacher?

Ragsdale: The best things are the students and the relationships I build with them. I’m so impressed by McGill students. I love it when I run into an ex-student in some random place and they tell me how much they enjoyed one of my courses.

What are the biggest challenges?

Large class size, which creates challenges for both instruction and assessment. The explosion of information is also a challenge, because it can be hard to keep classes up-to-date.

How do you create a strong connection with your students?

Ragsdale: The students with whom I build the strongest relationships are the ones who make the effort to talk to me; the ones who ask me questions and show a real interest in the topics. I think one of the biggest (and most legitimate) student complaints about McGill is that they don’t get to know their professors. But good teachers are interested in their students and want to talk to them. So, my advice for students is not to be shy about talking to your instructors. Good instructors are happy to talk to students.

What advice do you have for undergraduates about how to get the most out of your courses?

  1. Show up for class. You may think, “Oh, the classes are recorded, so it doesn’t matter” but it does. You will do better if you show up.
  2. Ask questions; before class, during class, after class or whenever you feel comfortable. This will serve two important purposes. First, it will help you to understand the difficult concepts and give you feedback on your understanding. Second, it helps you develop a relationship with the instructor, which could lead to research opportunities, the possibility that the instructor will write you a letter of recommendation (typically two or three letters are required for applications to graduate school, for fellowship applications, etc.) and the satisfaction of talking to a world-class expert on a topic that interests you.

Is information technology changing teaching?

Ragsdale: Yes, very much. Technology is inexorably making the traditional notion of a classroom obsolete. The mere fact that lectures are recorded dramatically changes the entire dynamic of the course. I’m a slow tech adaptor, so I’m not likely to take the lead on introducing new technology to teaching and learning, but I can see that it is dramatically changing how we teach, learn and assess.

As a neuroscientist at one of the world’s leading research institutes, how do you balance research and teaching?

Ragsdale: Balancing research and teaching is a challenge for all McGill professors. There is substantial pressure on academics to pursue their research; nevertheless, most of my colleagues take pride in doing their best at everything they do, so they also try to be good teachers. In my case, as my academic career evolved, it became more and more clear to me that I was a better teacher than a researcher, so my emphasis has gradually moved toward teaching.

What got you interested in studying the brain?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a kid. Initially, I was interested in astronomy. When I was an undergrad, I took some courses that got me interested in the biology of the brain. What especially intrigued me was that the brain was not simply an incredibly complex biological system (like, say, the heart or the kidney), but an incredibly complex biological system that creates a mind. How does that happen? That’s what got me interested and keeps me interested in the brain.

What are some of your favourite things about living in Montreal?

Ragsdale: I moved here from Seattle, which was a great place to live, but, aside from the winters, I like Montreal more. I’ve been in Montreal since 1996. I’ve lived in Mile End for 20 years, and I love it there. I’m a committed Mile-Ender. I basically love Montreal. I haven’t had a car for 20 years and I walk everywhere. I love the culture, the cosmopolitan diversity, and the vibrancy of the city. Seattle is regarded as one of the most liveable cities in the US, but even there most of the downtown is a no-man’s-land after 5 PM. Montreal is alive. People actually live in the city.

Could you tell us about the teacher who most influenced you, when you were a student?

Ragsdale: I can’t say that I had a specific mentor in teaching, but I’ve had inspiring teachers. What they shared was a passion for their subject matter that they transmitted to their students and the ability to challenge us, while at the same time being empathetic to our struggles with difficult material.

Anything else you’d like to tell students who are thinking about coming to McGill?

Ragsdale: Come visit McGill and Montreal on a beautiful day in June or September. There’s no place better.