Campus News

Neurobiology course encourages students to look at science through an artistic, feminist lens

Gender and Women’s Studies Department instructor Ann Fink combines artistic teaching styles and science to give students a different way of learning challenging material. 

Image By: Katie Scheidt

Tuesdays and Thursdays on the second floor of Sterling Hall, students enrolled in Gender & Women’s Studies 533: Neurobiology & Traumatic Memory can be found doodling instead of taking notes. But, unlike other lectures, the instructor does not take away participation points for notebook margin art—she encourages students to keep at it.

Sectioned into weekly topics on neurological anatomy, functions and mental health processes, the course encourages students to take notes, complete homework and interact with peers through an artistic lens. This includes drawing and sketching course material in a series of composition notebooks, according to the class syllabus.

Pairing challenging science material with an art-based teaching style is meant to help students learn the material more easily, according to course instructor Ann Fink. Fink, a visiting fellow in feminist biology in the Gender & Women’s Studies Department, started lecturing at UW-Madison after receiving her doctorate in Neurobiology at University of California-Los Angeles with a specific interest in mental health.

“I just got very curious about, sort of, what makes people tip over into things like depression and anxiety and PTSD,” Fink said. “Over the course of a lifetime you see people come back and build their life over after that. I became very interested in the changes that happen as people construct this new and adapted life when they recover.”

Fink also said she was inspired by the work of Lynda Barry, a professor and cartoonist in the UW-Madison Art Department. Barry’s book “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor” is the required text for the course.

“I’ve always made art, been interested in art, used it as a teaching tool so I was very interested in Lynda Barry’s way of teaching here,” Fink said. “I thought it would be interesting, especially for this subject matter, to teach something at the intersection of the political, personal and biological to both science majors and GWS majors.”

Though the class is only in its fourth week, it has already received positive feedback from students. Rebecca Penn, a UW-Madison junior studying communication sciences and disorders, said she enjoys the change of pace.

“I am a more hands-on, visual learner, so the way we interact with the anatomy we’re presented by actually drawing it and mapping it out is helpful,” Penn said.

However, the course goes beyond just teaching basic neurobiology. According to Fink, the class, like others in the Gender & Women’s Studies department, is meant to educate students through a feminist angle.

“There’s so much in the history of science and biology that comes from ... a very European perspective,” Fink said. “It’s attributed to a lot of whiteness and a lot of maleness and there’s a lot of assumptions based on white male culture that go into why people think science is the way it is. I think the feminist lens de-centers that point of view.”

As the semester continues, Fink said she hopes her students take away a broader knowledge of feminist health and know that health is always changing in response to the outside world.

“This is something that can be directed and impacted at the micro level and the personal level and also at the social level,” she said. “Thinking about this in terms of public health [and] thinking about the mutability and changeability of people and working towards social solutions and individual solutions is a worthy goal.”

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