When Isaiah Nawaz ’25 walked into a MacMillan Hall classroom for his neuroscience course during shopping period, he was surprised by how quickly the lecture hall’s seats were taken up.
“Every single seat was taken,” he said. “If people walked into class two minutes late, there were no seats, so they’d stand … the whole time.”
Nawaz, a prospective neuroscience concentrator, had not anticipated that NEUR 1065: “Biology of Hearing” would be such a highly demanded course. According to data reviewed by The Herald from the Office of Institutional Research, the nearly thirty-year-old course is the most popular class at Brown this semester. The course has 578 students enrolled across two sections, with 427 students in its larger, in-person section, according to Courses@Brown.
“Biology of Hearing” is followed in popularity by: CSCI 0200: “Program Design with Data Structures and Algorithms,” which boasts an enrollment of 461 students; RELS 0010: “Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life,” which has an enrollment of 408 students; CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry I,” which currently has 482 total students enrolled; and APMA 1650: “Statistical Inference I,” which has 408 students.
‘Biology of Hearing’: embracing the ‘unconventional’
“Biology of Hearing” aims to provide an overview of how sound is received and processed by the ears through an interdisciplinary approach, exploring fields like anatomy, neuroscience, physics and psychology, according to the course’s syllabus.
Professor of Biology James Simmons, who has been an instructor at Brown since 1984, said he first began teaching “Biology of Hearing” in 1996 and has taught it “more or less continuously” since then. The course was initially intended to be a companion to the formerly offered “Biology of Vision” course.
The class has remained largely unchanged throughout its nearly three-decade-long existence, with only occasional updates to the course content to reflect new research on the subject, Simmons said.
According to Simmons, this year’s high enrollment — nearly triple the usual amount of students — could be explained by his announcement of his plans to retire in the next two or three years.
“This will be the last time I teach the class,” he said. “I announced that right at the beginning (of the semester), and a whole lot of people flocked to take it.”
In response to the unexpected increase in enrollment, an online section was created for the course, where students watch recorded lectures and look at slideshows remotely.
Sahil Gupta ’26, a student in the online section, chose to take the class as a fifth course after hearing about it from peers and upperclassmen.
“Everyone was talking about this unconventional biology course,” Gupta said. “When I shopped it, the professor wasn’t just reading off of slides. He was drawing on real-world examples and teaching in a very fun way.”
Simmons said that he structured the class so “anyone can get an A if they do the work.”
‘Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life’: taking risks in ‘bold and creative’ ways
Unlike Simmons’ long-standing course, “Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life,” the third-most-popular course this spring, is being offered for the first time this semester.
Taught by Michael Satlow, professor of Judaic studies and religious studies, the course tackles three major subjects: defining “happiness” and a “good life”; asking “Who are we?”; and exploring actionable techniques to work towards a more fulfilling existence.
According to Satlow, “Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life” differs from courses on happiness at peer institutions because the psychological material is “in conversation” with religious texts. Readings for the course have covered Christian, Jewish and Islamic perspectives on happiness, along with texts by Aristotle, Victor Frankl and Jonathan Haidt.
“We've been talking about … how to describe and deal with the psychological conditions we all have as human beings for thousands and thousands of years,” Satlow said.
The idea for the course came to Satlow following the COVID-19 lockdown, when he reflected on the effects the pandemic had both on his own well-being and his students.
Satlow said that his expectations for the enrollment were exceeded tenfold, hitting 100 students during pre-registration and continuing to grow afterward. The course was ultimately capped.
“My sense is that there's a lot of anxiety and stress in students, especially among graduating seniors, who are taking a moment to reflect on what they've done here,” he explained.
“Considering the size of the class, (the professor) does a really good job of making it feel more personal,” said Sam Levin ’26, a student enrolled in the course. Class-wide polls, journaling, mindfulness exercises and smaller discussion groups all help the class feel more individualized, she said.
Levin attributed some of the class’s popularity to its alternative grading policy. Students who miss fewer than four lectures and submit all their assignments on time can choose their own grades at the end of the semester.
This unique policy was intended as “shock therapy,” Satlow said, prompting students to relinquish a “transactional,” grade-based approach to classes.
“My goal is to have students take responsibility for their own learning, which is the Brown way,” Satlow said. “I wanted them to really think about why they were doing what they were doing.”
Wesley Peng ’26, another student enrolled in the course, said he found the class environment “rejuvenating,” pointing to their first assignment: a letter to their future selves graded only on submission.
“We’re encouraged to take risks in bold and creative ways — to experiment,” Peng said. “If it goes wrong, you’re not going to get penalized — you can learn from the experience.”
Satlow said he hopes students will learn to set goals and assess themselves through the class, as “that’s going to be life” after graduation.
“If students are a little bit more able to navigate life in a way that they find meaningful, that's a W for me,” Satlow said.