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Jason L. Schwartz – teaching the richness and complexity of public health

December 19, 2022
by Fran Fried

For Jason L. Schwartz, it’s not just the class he teaches and the facts he disseminates – it’s also how he presents these facts in the most engaging way possible.

Schwartz, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Yale School of Public Health, teaches primarily about vaccines and vaccination policy – obviously a hot topic of discussion. (His current course is HPM 564: Vaccine Policy and Politics.)

And the key word here is “discussion.” Rather than using slide after PowerPoint slide, he prefers asking questions and encouraging student participation, sometimes in subtle ways.

“I think having a mountain of slides to get through would be an impediment to the environment I want to create,” said Schwartz, who joined the YSPH faculty in the fall of 2015 from Princeton University, where he was the Harold T. Shapiro Fellow at the Princeton University Center for Human Values.

“So, no PowerPoints,” he said, “which means that I’m not tethered to the podium clicking away while the students feel like they can just come along for the ride. And also, that means I can make it less about the stuff that they need to walk away with having mastered and more about ‘Let’s think through the topic of the week.’ So just those couple of structural things begin to set an environment that we’re just there to explore.”

What Schwartz wants his students to grasp is substance in general over minutiae.

“I don’t need them to pick up a lot of technical skills. I don’t need them to know a body of facts and general knowledge,” he explained. “What I want the students to get is the richness and complexity of these issues – the challenges of trying to turn evidence into policy to promote public health.”

Schwartz knows his students are there for various reasons and engage in varying degrees of participation, from extroverted and eager, to quiet and sitting back. And that’s where his intentional structure kicks in. Early in the semester, he encourages his students to be involved in discussions so that by the fourth or fifth week, all of their voices have been heard. This establishes a culture of discussion in his classroom that is self-propagating.

He also encourages his students to discuss current events and the news and to ask questions. He is interested in hearing “whatever anyone is willing to bring from their professional experience, from their academic experience – something that they’ve seen, something that they’ve lived in real life “– and in creating an environment where those comments are valued and welcomed.

“My hope is that from those kinds of conversations, the course, readings, the assignments, that even students who might find themselves a bit more reticent or a bit more passive can still chime in,” Schwartz said.

I don’t need [students] to pick up a lot of technical skills. I don’t need them to know a body of facts and general knowledge. What I want the students to get is the richness and complexity of these issues – the challenges of trying to turn evidence into policy to promote public health.

Professor Jason L. Schwartz

Schwartz views his discussions through a lens of equity. He doesn’t grade students on the frequency of their classroom participation. Rather, he asks them to write brief notes a few times a semester about what they think about that week’s topics and readings, then uses their input to help guide class discussions. Thus, even the shyest student can have their perspective integrated into the conversation.

“I know that they’ve done some preparation,” he explained. “They’ve done some thinking, and if I can have a conversation with every single student along the way, I’ll get a little nugget or two from each of them. It gives me just a quick little straw poll to know where the room is before I start so that I can frame my conversations accordingly.”

Discussions and engagement are essential to Schwartz’s teachings, but so is a cohesive course. How does he get from Point A to points B and beyond? It takes meticulous planning.

“I usually have a whiteboard somewhere when I’m plotting out a new course, and I think, you’ve got Week 1, intro; Week 13, conclusion – what’s in between? What kind of assignments do we want to do, and what are the big-subject headings that need to be covered in each of those weeks?” Schwartz said. “And then, from there, I can overlay where the assignments should go, and what’s reasonable, and what kinds of readings to pick.”

That planning also includes culling information from his two decades as a professor, teaching fellow, teaching assistant, and student.

“That vaccine book sitting here on the shelf? One chapter is 50 pages, but does it give a good bang for the buck, or is it repetitive or redundant? Or is it just outdated?” he said, elaborating on how he goes about planning a course.

Schwartz wants his teaching to be efficient and respectful of his students’ time. He has learned that less is often more, “even if there’s a ton of stuff that they could think about.” He also will occasionally invite a guest speaker for a “facilitated conversation.”

Schwartz views his approach to teaching as a problem-solving exercise. Questions of policy require deep subject matter expertise and an understanding of the political, social, ethical, cultural, and historical contexts. “I invite students to roll up their sleeves and think – even if it’s the only 13 weeks they spend thinking about vaccinations– just how rich this one little corner of public health can be.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on December 20, 2022