Thursday, March 29, 2012

Eight things wrong with Introductory Psychology

While hopping a bit from one blog to another, I ended up on Graham Davey's blog, reading a nice post titled "What ever happened to learning theory." I commented that, learning theory's disapearance from the curriculum in psychology, struck me as one of many problems started by poorly thought out Intro Psych classes, and mentioned my paper "Eight Things Wrong with Introductory Psychology Courses in America: A Warning to My European Colleagues". Graham emailed me in thanks, and asked if I had any more thoughts on Intro Psych and how to fix it. I think I can add a little more, but first I thought I would summarize the article's points here, and for some help from my readers.

As context, before we can analyze the effectiveness of Into Psych, we must have an idea what the class is for. And in determining the courses purpose, we must take into consideration that the course serves as the only controllable exposure most people will have to academic psychology. Unlike other sciences, US institutions do not typically have separate introductory courses 'for majors' vs. 'for non-majors'. We probably should have two separate courses, but in the meantime, so long as the course serves two audiences, I believe it must serves two purposes:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Evolution and Homosexuality

For a semester at Clark I was asked to organize the weekly 'recitations' for Introductory Psychology. The course itself was quite large, but the recitations were run by upper-level undergraduates, and contained 20-30 students. I transformed several weeks into lab activities. For others, I organized more formal discussion activities. When the main course was discussing evolutionary psychology, a student asked about how homosexuality could be explained from an evolutionary point of view. This student, and several others in class, seemed to see the existence (or at least the relative normality) of homosexuality as proof against the usefulness of evolutionary theory as an explanation of behavior. For that week, I prepared the following discussion paper for students:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why study developmental psychology

While searching through old files, I found an email from an undergraduate student who was interested in developmental psychology, and who asked what she could do if she specialized in that. I had written a reply, which for a while adorned by door at Clark, because it seemed worth sharing with the other students:

Why study Developmental Psychology?

1) Excluding obviously applied degrees like education, engineering, etc. all bachelor's degrees are equally useful/useless. That is, they qualify you to do any job that requires a bachelor's degree. Just as 40 years ago, you had to get a high school diploma because most jobs said "must have high school diploma", now they all say "must have college degree". The expectation is that you will arrive at your job with a core set of college level abilities (reading, writing, analysis, self-discipline, attention to detail, etc.), and the company will give you whatever specialized training you need. In that sense, a degree in psychology is as useful as a degree in philosophy, history, or biology. Hence, you may study developmental psychology simply because it interests you, and with no intention to take it further.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Design, and why we should and shouldn't care about deep theory

Bjoern Bremb, who guy who gave the very cool research talk at WCALB, linked to a good essay on his own blog where he argues that we should banish the term 'design' from our discussions of evolution. I started responding to his comment, but before I knew it, enough was written, and the subject had shifted enough, to justify another post. I appreciate the desire to banish 'design'. I used to hold that view myself, and I think it is a much better position than using the term sloppily. That said, I am now convinced that the current way we discuss evolutionary theory has some deep problems, and that many of those problems could be solved through a fight to reclaim the concept of design. Alas, I'm less convinced that most people should care, e.g., that the work of the day-to-day biologist or psychologist is being negatively impacted by their vague commitment to a problematic version of evolutionary theory. This will not be quite as articulate as I would like, but I will try to explain, in a roundabout way:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

William James and the Problem of Design

At William James exhibit in Houghton Library (Harvard), there was a test from 'Philosophy 9' (academic year 1904-1905), one of the questions read:
How far can any state of facts experienced be taken either as proving "design," or as being incompatible therewith?....
This immediately grabbed my attention, as the context was presumably the so-called 'problem of design' that faces evolutionary theorists... and Nick Thompson and I have been wrestling with how to get 'design' back into evolutionary theory (he's been wrestling with it for 40 years, me only for the last 10)... and as I have been trying to convince Nick that his approach derives strongly out of James's late work. 
While the test was staring up at me, I realized that nothing I had read of James dealt with the issue explicitly. How was James trying to deal with the problem of design? What had he told his students? What might his students have replied? This lead to some digging.