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Summary of 1/27/06 Discussion
with Alexis Bennett and Kelly Strunk

"A Case Study of Teaching/Learning at Bryn Mawr:
"Psychology 340-Women's Mental Health"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Nell Anderson (Praxis), Anne Dalke (English/Gender&Sexuality), Alexis Bennett (Psychology), Kristina Durante (Psychology/Education Minor), Wil Franklin (Biology), Diane Gibfried (Psychology), Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society), Emily Muluihill (Pyschology/Elementary Education), Maeve O'Hara (Math/Education), Odile Schalit (Psychology), Laura Severance (Psychology), Cheryl Shelah (Chemistry) Laura Sockol (Psychology/English/Education), Kelly Strunk (Praxis).

Alexis first gave some background in how this course came to be offered. Traditionally, psychological research was been based on the experiences of men. The idea here was to provide an overview of current research related to women's mental health. The course looked at categories of health that disproportionally affect women (for example: unipolar depression), at choices women make about issues such as work and family roles, and coping w/ stress. It approached such topics from a developmental framework, following women's lifespan. In addition: this was a praxis course, w/ each student fulfilling 3 hours/week of field placement. Alexis lectured, and the students led discussion sessions based on their fieldwork (although those two aspects of the course weren't always satisfactorily integrated). The ultimate goal of the praxis component was clinically oriented. Each group of students was asked to make an informal assessment of the mental health needs at their site; to plan for what they could they provide that would match those needs; to develop a psychoeducational workshop for their clients; and then to carry out the workshop. For instance, one group provided information about a specific mental health need (stress management), by offering background material, ways to manage, and an interactive activity. Another group helped young teenaged girls to acquire "critical media literacy," by learning to interpret how the media portrays women. Alexis and Kelley shared the positive responses to these workshops from several fieldsite supervisors, although there was little documentation of how well the clients themselves "got it."

The underlying concept here was the idea of reciprocity: to do something that the organizations really needed. Students consulted with the clients and assessed the situation by talking w/ people about what they were capable of doing that might meet their needs. The project involved putting research into a "totally foreign" environment. Students found that their preconceptions were broken down as clients shared their experiences, as relationships slowly opened up, as intentions came to be known (for instance, one student was able to gather "affirmations" from a group of mentally ill patients by asking them to complete sentences beginning "I enjoy..." and "I can contribute..." rather than asking them to give an affirmation, which they would have found difficult). Such interactions gave the students in the class a chance to "take that head in the computer out into the world." It gave them insight into others, and ways of applying the theory they were learning in the classroom to women who have to deal with (for example) the stress of mental illness.

Discussion turned to what happened--both to the students and to the field of psychology--as a result of their engagement at the praxis sites. Did students learn anything there that challenged what they were learning from their textbooks? One student said that, at the Ardmore senior center, "what I had read about older women went out the window." Common myths about menopause, bereavement, social life, dating and remarriage were unsettled. Other students said, "I didn't disprove what I knew, but I learned to learn better about what I already knew, to use the tools I learned in the classroom." "Being at the fieldsite heightened my awareness, enabled me to tie in what I knew with the lives of real people." "It required additional tools to understand a little more, but I didn't see a tool that didn't fit." "Learning psychology enabled me to go beyond the surface experience of sharing a wonderful interaction."

One student reported on her frustration at doing research by reading empirical articles about (for instance) an intervention program, which never specified exactly what was done to get the final outcome. Perhaps this is a copyright issue, but it was a problem not to get those tools. This seems to be a particular issue in the discipline of psychology: it is common to report how well a program worked, by presenting the empirical evidence of its success rate, but "without telling us how they got there."

The challenge was laid that that was not really providing empirical evidence. A key principle of a scientific paper is that it has to describe its methods of research w/ sufficient clarity and detail so that someone else could repeat the experiment. Reporting numbers as a success rate isn't empirical research; it's just quantifying the effectiveness of an intervention. The only way to repeat an experiment is to have a clear, detailed account of what was done, so you can copy it. A writer who says, "I'm not going to tell you what I did, but I got a statistically significant outcome" is not writing as a scientist.

Another way of talking about this, of course, is as the difference between quantitative and qualitative. It is thought that "being quantitative is being empirical," but simply "reporting numbers doesn't make it empirical." What constitutes research is the process of going in w/ one perspective, having a set of experiences, and modifying your perspective based on those experiences. This is not just anecdotal--and it's far more interesting than supplying a set of numbers describing the effectiveness of a process that is not itslef described. Real empirical research happens when a student describes her presumptions, and then the experiences that caused her to change them.

Alexis and her students were asked what their intentions were for the praxis dimension of the course. Were the students applying, in the field, the research they were learning in the classroom? Were their field sites case studies, or test cases, for the theory they were reading? Alexis thought of the praxis work as "in part application, in part qualitative research, and in part what a psychologist might do." She wanted the students to "come away with what I could use in teaching. Let's use this method: did it work? What can we change?" She said that, although this process wasn't particularly "methodical," it did have a personal research benefit.

Students testified that the "praxis part really pushed us to be engaged:" observing people and assessing their needs "helped us to integrate the formal and informal." This was a feisty class, one in which people weren't afraid to say "my experience was different." Alexis was asked what shifted in her approach to teaching the course, as she was observing her own process, and getting feedback on it from the students. She said that there was one particular "battle in my head throughout the semester," which had to do with how much discussion there was of students' personal experience as women. Whenever that happened, Alexis was worried that she was "straying too much from academic teaching." She knew that it was "really beneficial to discuss personal links to course material," and she wanted her students to feel this was part of their educational experience. A number of students agreed that they didn't need the articles read back to them in class; they found it a good process, to do the science reading in their rooms, and then discuss applications of it in class. For such students, this was "a huge part of why the class was so great."

But other students were much less pleased with the large amount of personal discussion, with the way that inquiry was repeatedly bound into students' experience. This is a fairly common split across campus. Some students say that engagement w/ other students--learning about them and saying things to them--is satisfying. Others are impatient with listening to their classmates speak, and want to hear more from the professor. The issue is not really content vs. personal experience, but rather different sets of student aspirations. The way to mediate these different expectations (and perhaps meet them all?) is to be sure that discussions that involve personal experience are anchored in a principle: teachers need to create an atmosphere where everyone is asking what is generally significant about a particular personal experience. That component could be relevance to a theory or to someone else's life.

In other words, this is not a split between being academic and non-academic, but a question of whether people see the classroom environment as group therapy or as inquiry session. Do they want it to be personally cathartic and affirming, or as generative of new ideas? What happens when we take the risk of sharing our own psychology with one another? This is a challenge in every psych course that has a discussion component: what does it mean to learn about and from other students? A problem arises because our motivations are different. Some students are interested in others' lives as empirical evidence; others are interested in the applications to their praxis site, or to their own lives. Is it the role of the teacher to challenge and push students in the direction of making their knowledge of their experience more generally applicable? Yes, but only as a role model, with the expectation that students are at work on the process of acquiring that character for themselves.

Sometimes it seems that this is where the "fuzzy line" between science and non-science is drawn: between connecting with others around personal stories, or listening to those stories with an empirical mindset, suspending personal investment in one's reflections. There may be different expectations in a psych or humanities class, but there is a personal distance in science classes: students expect their minds to be filled w/ knowledge, rather than making the personal effort to go on a "give-and-take journey." They expect professors to "give" them the knowledge, without any creative give-and-take. Students think they have nothing to contribute on a personal level.

How much do you put you in, how much do you take out, and what is the relation between those two activities? Those questions are inherent in a teacher's query about whether she is "doing too much content." This course seemed to involve two distinct things: "one to interact w/, and one to absorb." How can we "destroy the necessity" to make that distinction, to design courses that both teach and practice psychology? But psychology as a field enforces that distinction. The key point here is that many people go into psychology because they want to engage with an inquiry. But then they hit a psych course that "1/2 engages" (by inviting "personal" experience into the classroom), and "1/2 absorbs" (by presenting science content). In a course on the psychology of close relationships, for instance, students were told that the class was "not on how to improve our own." Students learn to put up a guard: they know what is appropriate in the classroom, and what is not.

Another student observed that math courses are most engaging when there is discussion; there need be "no line with science." Being impersonal is a convention of science education, but it doesn't have to be. All science educators can learn the lesson of making their class material "more engageable." But psychology is a particularly interesting case, because of the discipline's "willingness to make a separation that isn't necessary." In psychology--since everyone's interested in human behavior--it should be very easy to get people to engage with the content of the discipline. But the tendency (at least in this account of this class) seemed to be for students to restrict their active engagement to their own personal experiences, and to withhold it from the analytical material. Why did they hesitate to engage text material with personal experience, to use their own experiences to challenge the conclusions reported in the literature? (Mention was made that some of that research can't be replicated; the conditions under which it was conducted are no longer possible to imagine, and judged not to be any longer humane.)

When one draws a line between "hard" sciences and social sciences, where does psychology fall? Its history at Bryn Mawr includes the "unhappy merger," several decades ago, of the departments of human development and experimental psychology. The discipline is also "very conscious of its youth"; it feels the need to prove itself, to defend itself--and seems to be doing that, in part, by relying on a misconception of what science is, as a practice that "keeps emotion out." There was some discussion of how "pop knowledge of Freud has hurt psychology as a discipline," as well as about him as an interesting example of just where the schism is occurring. Methodologically, he relied very heavily on case studies and qualitative description--yet he was one of the great scientists of the 20th century.

We ended with some thoughts about balancing: Alexis wanted the students to "take the reins" in this 300-level course, rather than have it be a "class where I was yapping at them all the time," but she always felt uncertain about this dimension of the course. This is a generic problem in lots of classes. It is partly the result of another schism, which is that significant number of faculty are highly prescriptive in their educational style. They are not the only source of this problem: students been through lots of prescriptive courses, and have expectations based on those experiences. But the problem could be lessened if negotiations could be conducted with faculty, to move them toward the possibility of a wider consensus that students are responsible for their own education. Both faculty and students here are "good at a certain type of schooling" (one that really depends on a system of grading), and they all find it "hard to trust more openness." Some teachers say they "want to be more open, but you can tell they really don't." This class, however, really gave students the "opportunity to define their education on their own." They also kept journals, which helped both them and their instructors keep tabs on what was going on.

This conversation has continued in the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning, and the storytelling will resume in person on February 17, when Peter Brodfuehrer and his students will bring ""Biology 321-Neuroethology" to be workshopped.

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