Jennifer Cummings with students from her Developing Brain course in 2019

How did your journey start with the Department of Psychology?

I joined the Psychology Department in the fall of 2006 as a postdoctoral research fellow with Dr. Jill Becker at the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute. I used my background in behavioral endocrinology to examine how maternal experience affects drug abuse liability in female rats, and also developed a model for using operant response to measure female sexual motivation in rodents. I truly enjoy laboratory research. However, having taught through grad school and then again as a postdoc, I realized that teaching was my passion. When the Department posted an opening for a Biopsychology-specific lecturer to develop and teach a variety of courses, I jumped at the opportunity. Since beginning as a lecturer with the Department full-time (Winter 2014), I have developed two upper-level Biopsychology courses (The Developing Brain and Sex Differences in Brain, Behavior, and Disease) as well as an introductory course geared toward teaching biopsychology to non-BCN/Neuroscience majors (Introduction to Biopsychology for Non-Majors). I also took over and completely reformatted our laboratory methods and upper-level writing course (Research Method in BCN), and I rotate into Hormones and Behavior and Introduction to Biopsychology (our gateway course).

What does teaching in the Department mean to you?

Teaching in the Psychology Department at UM means access to and collaboration with some of the greatest minds in the field, at all levels of education: undergrads, graduate students, post docs, research faculty, teaching faculty. With that comes the opportunity to connect with people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, offering differing viewpoints and perspectives that have enriched my life in innumerable ways.

For me, teaching in the Psychology Department at UM also means the ability and opportunity to help students find an appreciation and respect for the interaction between brain and behavior. I pride myself on making the material (and myself) accessible, and absolutely love it when I have students tell me that they thought learning about the brain would be difficult and boring, but that my enthusiasm and the way I approach the material made it more understandable (and fun!) than they thought it could be. Not all of my students will fall in the love with the brain (like I did), but if I can make their learning about it more interesting, accessible, and/or exciting, I feel like I’ve done my job successfully. And I consider it an added bonus if they can recall the steps of neural transmission many months later. ;)

Beyond teaching, what are some other ways are you involved in the Department? What inspired you to get involved in these ways?

I love mentoring undergraduates, whether that be advising about course selections or career choices, advising on their senior thesis, or helping with work (or school)/life balance.  Once a student is “my student,” they are always “my student.” As such, I will often have students in my office (either in-person or virtually) who swing by to catch up, let me know how their current classes or interviews are going, or even what their latest research findings have taught them – well after I finish being their teacher. Teaching both introductory courses as well as smaller, upper-level seminar courses is especially rewarding, as I can get to know students during their years here and see them grow academically and personally.

Describe how the pandemic has affected your approach to teaching. The change to online classes has no doubt brought challenges, but has it brought any unexpected benefits as well?

Some of the core components of my teaching – approachability and respect, maintaining high standards and challenging the students – have not changed. However, how I incorporate these things into the classroom look a little differently now that we are remote than when we were in person. Part of this begins with communication and transparency – I frequently start class with any updates and just taking a few minutes to check in on my students. I post announcements on a Course Update Stream on Canvas, and have discussion threads where students can ask questions or simply communicate (and community-build) with one another. Keeping students engaged remotely is also challenging, but I’ve been able to adapt many of my in-person active learning activities to be successful with the use of breakout rooms, discussion boards, group annotation assignments, and a little creativity.

In terms of unexpected benefits, I had a student email me just the other day to update me on the progress she had made. She was in one of my courses last semester and struggled early on with the content delivered in an all-remote class. She was certain the semester was going to be her worst at UM, but as it turns out, it was her strongest – she adopted new study habits, reorganized her time, and found new ways of engaging with the material that truly helped her to understand the content and retain the information better. I think that our students are being challenged these days in ways we could have never imagined, and they are finding that they are even stronger and more capable than they thought they were. I’d call that a huge benefit, to be sure. 

What advice would you give to aspiring Psychology students or to people who recently graduated with Psychology degrees and may be wondering where to go from here?

I always tell students to keep their eyes open for new opportunities, as they will often pop up unexpectedly. You never know where these opportunities will take you, or what they will open your mind to. I remind them that being focused and working hard are important, but so too is taking the time to appreciate what is around you. Finally, I tell them to pay attention to what excites them and holds their interest – and that it might not be what they thought it would. I entered college intent on becoming a veterinarian, but then I had my first neuroscience course. Never before had I been so interested in the material I was learning (or spent so much time reading the textbook!) as I had for this class. Deciding to switch my career trajectory to a Ph.D. in neuroscience rather than go to vet school was an incredibly hard decision, but also one I’ve been thankful to have made every single day.