Co-Teaching Spotlight: Philosophy of Psychology

March 24, 2020
image of book

Interdisciplinary research and teaching have been at the core of the Center for Science and Society’s mission. In the past five years, the Center has facilitated the development of more than forty cross-disciplinary courses for undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia, through grants, workshops for instructors, and the development of materials and resources for both faculty and students. Some of these courses have been co-taught by instructors from STEM and non-STEM fields, working together. This spring, we began the next phase of our co-teaching initiative, which will provide grants and other support to increase the number of interdisciplinary co-taught courses at Columbia. 

A new course this spring, “Philosophy of Psychology” pairs John Morrison, Associate Professor of Philosophy (Barnard College), and Raphael Gerraty, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience (PSSN). Morrison received his PhD in philosophy from New York University in 2009 and Gerraty graduated Columbia in 2018 with a PhD in psychology. While having been educated in different disciplines, they share a common interest in the intricacies of the human mind. Our work-study student Ariana Novo sat down with the creators of the course to discuss their thought process in developing it as well as their experiences with co-teaching. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Image of John Morrison, Raphael Gerraty, and Ariana Novo

Raphael: I was in my final year of graduate school when David Barack, a former Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, connected me to John given our mutual interests in computational models in neuroscience. While we had been sharing research papers and participating in the same events and discussion groups, it wasn’t until I was accepted into the Presidential Scholars program that I began working closely with John as one of my mentors. 

John: I had already applied for a grant to teach a course on Philosophy and Psychology but did not originally plan to have a co-instructor. We had started meeting regularly to discuss the philosophical connections to Raphael’s project. I soon realized that teaching a course together that combined both our backgrounds would be helpful. I'm new to computational neuroscience, and I wanted there to be an expert in the room to correct my mistakes and answer questions.”

John: This course is a truly interdisciplinary education on the philosophy of the mind. We consider the complex philosophical questions and concerns surrounding neuroscience and explored theories of perception, memory, and decision-making; learning how these brain functions are the result of complex neural models. We use a combination of teaching tools, including both traditional papers and scientific problem sets. (For more information on the class, please read the syllabus.)

Raphael: Currently, there are two graduate students and twenty-five undergraduates from a variety of fields including theater, architecture, and computer science. The class format is also diverse, with a mixture of neuroscience-focused lectures and philosophy-driven discussion. 

John: Luckily, there was limited red-tape. The most complicated process in creating the class was the syllabus because it includes readings that pair philosophy and psychology while still being accessible to students with very different levels of expertise. The syllabus went back and forth between us many times before being set into place for the semester.

Raphael: The biggest benefit is that no one is an expert. We try to create an environment of shared exploration, encouraging the students to ask questions.

John: What makes the course unique is that one of us is not that far away from the students in terms of understanding in each lecture. Raphael’s a natural teacher. Getting to know each other intellectually has been a great experience for both of us with our approaches to each subject and teaching styles. As a philosophy professor, this experience has forced me to reconsider my own field from a different perspective. It has also helped me understand the questions that interest neuroscientists. And, perhaps most obviously, I've learned a lot about computational neuroscience.”


John: Thankfully, Raphael and I already had the experience of working and learning together through discussion groups. Looking back, those meetings gave us the opportunity to establish a shared vocabulary and communication style, which is not easy to do across different disciplines. What do you know about the other field being covered? What assumptions are you making about your co-teachers work? What common phrases that mean one thing in psychology mean a completely different thing in philosophy?

Raphael: It is worth it. John and I both agree that creating an interdisciplinary course is difficult. But the payoff is not only for the students, but for the instructors as well. 

John: To those interested in co-teaching an interdisciplinary course, I would recommend spending time to get to know each other intellectually beforehand to reduce the risk of disconnected lectures. It may seem counterintuitive, but co-teaching deepened my understanding of philosophy. I wasn’t just forced to explain my work to students, but to Raphael. Being able to communicate a complex topic to someone outside your own field is an incredibly valuable experience.

The Center for Science and Society at Columbia University is accepting applications for interdisciplinary co-teaching course development grants. The proposal must include at least two co-instructors, one from the natural sciences or other STEM field, and the other from a non-STEM concentration. To view more information about this opportunity and apply, visit the call for applications. Deadline: April 20.