A handful of students, all wearing face masks, filed into the conference room, and dispersed far apart from each other around the large oblong table. UC Davis cognitive neuroscientist Ron Mangun readied his presentation.
For these graduating UC Davis seniors and their professor, class was about to begin. In person.
The course, PSC 198: “Neuroscience of Attention, Awareness and Consciousness,” is one of seven capstone seminars being taught in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science this spring — each with the option of attending in the flesh instead of online. However, students still have the option to attend class sessions virtually.
Senior seminars, in themselves, are not new. In fact, they are a growing emphasis of the College of Letters and Science. But for most students, the spring 2021 seminars are the first courses they’ve taken in-person since pandemic precautions shut down the campus more than a year ago.
“The first time coming to class felt incredibly exciting,” said Nam Anh Nguyen, a psychology major in the neuroscience seminar. “It is as if a kind of normality has returned — commuting, sitting in a classroom, seeing, listening and watching Professor Mangun in person. It threw me back in time to the days before the pandemic.”
Despite obvious differences that keep Nguyen “grounded in the present reality” — masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing — he welcomed the in-depth learning opportunity offered by a seminar. “I like the fact that we can study these topics in a small group … where it is much easier to ask questions and discuss ideas.”
The neuroscience seminar meets for two hours each week at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain about two miles east of campus. The course’s distinguished professor is the center’s founding director and a faculty member in the Department of Psychology in the College of Letters and Science and the Department of Neurology at UC Davis Health.
“How the brain gives rise to the human mind is the topic of my senior capstone seminar,” Mangun said. “We are digging into some heady science and theory, which we can do in this special class.”
In a recent class session, he offered tips to students for end-of-quarter presentations they’ll give on a scientific paper of their choosing. As a demonstration, Mangun summarized a study on the overlap of working memory and attention, raised questions about the design of the experiment and shared suggestions he gave in a phone conversation with the author, a colleague at Princeton University. He also showed how he adapted charts and other graphics in the paper for his slide presentation to make them easier for an audience to understand the research.
Student D’Angelo Martinez, who graduates in June with degrees in psychology and neurobiology, physiology and behavior, has taken other courses from Mangun before. “I was excited to have the opportunity to do so in a smaller setting,” Martinez said. “This is different from a typical lecture because it is not just the professor relaying information, but rather showing us how he dives deeper into the research.”
A launch into post-college life
UC Davis plans to return to in-person instruction this fall. Under pandemic restrictions, most courses since spring 2020 have been taught remotely. “We have had a few [in-person classes] across departments. Some examples are music, for obvious reasons, and earth and planetary science because there were field courses needed for accreditation of geologists,” said Claire Waters, an English professor who serves as faculty advisor to Interim Dean Ari Kelman.
During winter quarter, Waters proposed to colleagues the possibility of offering in-person seminars for spring. “Once we realized it was possible, I was very happy to see them go ahead,” Waters said.
In addition to Mangun’s psychology seminar, capstone courses are being taught this quarter in art, cinema and digital media, classics, human rights, physics and statistics. Enrollment is capped in each to keep class size small.
“Letters and Science departments are increasingly thinking about how to best run capstone courses to allow as many students as possible a seminar-and-research experience,” Waters said. “Capstone seminars and other research or hands-on courses are an obvious place where we can help our students think about and articulate how what they’re learning on campus will stay with them as they graduate and move into careers and later life.”
When Alexander Aue, professor and chair of the Department of Statistics, asked colleagues in February if they would like to teach an in-person spring seminar, Professor Christiana Drake said yes. “I had been vaccinated at that point, so I thought it would be pretty safe for me to teach such a course,” Drake said.
With seniors frequently asking her about working with real data sets, she developed STA 198: “Data Handling and Analysis,” focused on a statistical analysis software package called SAS that is widely used in data management.
Eleven students enrolled and another couple are auditing, Drake said. Close to half attend online and the rest — who have been vaccinated — come to the classroom.
“It is the first course that I have taught in person since the pandemic,” Drake said. “It is a nice change from sitting in front of a computer and staring into a camera all the time. I will be happy to go back to teaching on campus in the fall.”
Like learning to skate again
Online classes are fine, but they fall short of the “real thing” — especially for a workshop-style course, said Andrew Smith, a filmmaker and professor of cinema and digital media who is teaching a seminar on screenwriting.
Smith and the 11 students in the seminar push several rectangular tables together to make a large square table in the lecture hall where they meet for at least two hours every week. “The room feels livelier, better humored, freer than even the best Zoom classes,” he said. “The only downside is that we can’t see each other’s faces, fully.”
Meeting in person felt strange at first, Smith said. “We were all a little nervous, I think — like a foal trying to walk, or really, more like putting on skis or roller skates after a long time of not wearing them. But after the first 15 minutes, it started to be a relief, more than anything: ‘Ah, life is possible again.’”
Smith said he was eager to teach an upper-division seminar when he learned of the opportunity from department chair Tim Lenoir. “I’m a big believer in capstone courses, and have only so far been able to teach intro classes in ‘visual storytelling’ (or screenwriting),” Smith said. “So I was thrilled for the chance to go deeper into the form. To do so in a small class that also gave seniors a last chance to be at school, was something I didn’t want to pass up.”
A healing experience
Anna Uhlig, an associate professor of classics, said the challenges students have faced during a year of remote learning motivated her to offer her in-person seminar, “The Ancients and Us.”
“Professors and lecturers have been heroic in adapting their courses to a fully online format on an almost impossibly compressed timeline,” Uhlig said. “Nevertheless, students across the board have been missing those all-important elements that only in-person instruction can deliver.”
For classics students, she said, the absence of traditional class community was compounded by the loss of a beloved faculty member — Professor Rex Stem, who died of cancer last fall.
Eight students signed up for “The Ancients and Us,” which meets at an outdoor theater near Putah Creek Lodge in the campus arboretum.
Each week a different student selects the topic and the material, and then runs the discussion. Class sessions so far, Uhlig said, have focused on ancient textile art, a comparison of Norse and Greco-Roman mythical narrative, modern depictions of Helen of Troy, adaptation of ancient myth in the Disney animated film Hercules and the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, and a student-prepared feast of ancient Roman recipes. “Inspired by our theatrical classroom, we will end the quarter with a dramatic performance,” she said.
Uhlig said she designed the seminar to emphasize the value of each student’s voice and contribution, and to create a healing collective experience. “I think that I can speak for the group as a whole when I say that the course has been a balm for us all as we navigate this strange time.”
— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science