Spring semester 2020 started like most do in late January. I was gearing up to teach three courses that term: Psy 206, Cognitive Psychology, Psy 353: Cognitive Development, and Psy 416: Cognitive Science. Prepping my course syllabi, as usual my thoughts were on what topics to cover, how much time to allocate to each, what active-learning techniques I would use with which class, and importantly, what the final exams and/or projects would look like. While I’d been following the news of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, I was not yet concerned about an imminent pandemic that would change so much, so rapidly.
Classes began, and each class took on it’s own rhythm. My plans were whirring and buzzing along, just as I’d hoped. I was enjoying my students and all was well. Of course, we now know that this sense of complacency didn’t last long. By mid-February word of the Corona Virus spreading was all over the news, and we (my family and I) were starting to take heed. By mid-March, the pandemic was in full swing and life as we knew it had irrevocably changed.
With the national call to stay home to flatten the curve, Pacific University’s College of Arts and Sciences reasonably gave us faculty two weeks to prepare for the change from face-to-face teaching to distance teaching and learning. In those two weeks, after managing some of my own anxiety about what was to come, I dug in and started to adjust. On our last face-to-face days together, I surveyed students on what they most wanted to preserve as we changed to a distance format and I used that as a jumping off point.
In Cognitive Science, as it turns out, not much needed to change. Our group was small our discussion dynamic was already powerful. From a teaching perspective, all I needed to do then was learn how to manage the Zoom environment and figure out how to digitize weekly reading assignments. Regarding the assessments, in our face-to-face classes, we had already decided that the writing assignments would be essays targeted towards a general readership, along the lines of an engaging yet detailed social media article, or an open letter. Rather than stick with the “summative” [turn in for a grade] form, we switched gears to “formative,” wherein students were given feedback aimed at improvement, with an eye towards creating a class e-book. As the semester came to a close, students selected their two favorite essays, turned in their revisions, and the results are what you find here.
The students’ work here is noteworthy for several reasons, the pandemic notwithstanding. The reading materials in a Cognitive Science course like this are difficult. Undergraduates are used to reading text books that relay “known facts” and that downplay open questions, though in reality, the state of the field is that the open questions loom large. The “hard problem” of consciousness persists, neuroscience and psychology are often not working in tandem, and grand theories are far from complete explanatory frameworks. Indeed, despite over a century of concentrated work, we still do not have a solid definition of natural Intelligence. Changing one’s focus from knowns to unknowns takes remarkable mental agility and the students in this class took up that challenge. As such the “light” conversational tone of their essays showcases just how hard they worked. Going from challenging technical writing to conversational consideration is a commendable accomplishment. So as you read the student-authors essays, please give them a round of applause and heed their advice. While work in the field of Cognitive Science and AI has come a long ways, we are far from the Singularity often depicted in Science Fiction. If you’d like to do some deeper reading yourselves, the class reading list and a series of related TED talks on the matter can be found in the appendix of this e-book. Enjoy!
~ Professor Erica Kleinknecht, PhD
Department of Psychology
Pacific University Oregon