Music to your Ears | A Fresh Approach to Teaching

The songs of Billy Eilish and Nina Simone aren’t usually associated with lecture hall learning, but that is exactly what happens when you take a class with Dr Mark Philbin.

The Assistant Professor in Health & Society in the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health has gained a reputation among his students for creating a curriculum that is ever-changing and culturally relevant. Not an easy feat when the subject matter tackles serious societal issues such as drug addiction and mental health.

Little wonder so, that he has been previously nominated for the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, an accolade that recognises contributions to DCU’s teaching and learning activities from staff who really go that extra mile to make a difference.

“Most of my teaching is on an undergraduate programme called Health and Society,” he said. “It is a fairly broad programme looking at health from questions of biology through to global questions surrounding inequality and social justice. When we designed the programme in 2011, we deliberately wanted to target modules on live health questions.”

One of these topics is called Drugs and Society, a module that tackles the issue of addiction but also generates a healthy debate on the subject.

“I encourage my students to take the subject seriously before making a judgement and after that we can debate the issue from all angles,” said Dr Philbin. “That gives you a pretty good idea of my approach to teaching.

“When I worked as a nurse and now in teaching one of the important things is to be interested yourself in what you are doing. If you don’t have an interest or passion, then there is no reason to assume anyone else will. I’m not saying I am doing things the right way but when I give lectures it is in a very theatrical way and with a certain melodramatic approach to teaching. This has its advantage because it brings a certain amount of life to the issues you are teaching.”

Which is why the inclusion of popular music in his lectures suddenly makes sense. Dr Philbin said he likes to discuss topics with the helpful addition of something that students can relate to.

“For the Drugs module in September, I’m actually going to make even more use of music,” he said. “Music will be an anchor for the whole module, and I’ll play a song that is relevant to the topic and then we can discuss the issue on foot of this.

“I’ve got more than 10 songs that bring about certain claims or raise questions about drugs. Nina Simone’s ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” is fundamentally about us being free and whatever we do or don’t have we will always have our own bodies to what we want with, and that’s our freedom. So, I’ll play the song and then we’ll have a look at the issue of bodily rights. Billy Eilish has a song about abstinence from recreational drug use and I’ll use this to discuss the topic of abstinence.

“My modules are never the same every year. The idea of reproducing the same material year in, year out, simply doesn’t compute for me.”