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What did I draw from my undergraduate classes?

This isn’t a psychology post.  It’s about being a professor.

One of my favorite courses as an undergrad was Science Fiction, taught by the late Professor Frank McConnell.  One of our required readings was Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I just finished rereading a couple nights ago.  As an undergrad I knew I was supposed to value this book, so I sort of did, and certainly said I did.  And I remember bits and pieces of the book from my first read.  It had some impact even then.  But I took so, so much more from my reading this time than I did back those decades ago when I first took the course.

My first class meeting of the year is just over 48 hours away, and I’m wondering what my experience with Professor McConnell has to say to my own efforts as a professor.  Perhaps one useful distinction is between teaching my students knowledge of psychology and planting the seeds of love of learning, of love of psychology, of love of the life of the mind.  Day after day I’ll try to get students to understand detail.  And I’ll evaluate their work in large part based on their ability to master that detail.  These details will fade from their memories.  I remember very few details from my time as an undergrad, and I don’t see why my students will be different.  As a student it’s easy to understand this and to wonder about the point of it all.  Why learn detail that will be forgotten?  And in that state of mind I think being a student is very hard, very easily filled with a sense of pointlessness.

But here I am decades later, remembering that course.  Professor McConnell loved this book.  He loved the way it was crafted.  He loved the language. He manifested that love in his presentation of detail.  I can still recall him reading aloud the last paragraph of Leibowitz.  I didn’t really get what he loved, but I got that he loved.  On one level the details were the substance of the class.  But in important ways those details might be better thought of as seeds, planting love of reading fiction.  He scattered many seeds.  He tested, as I recall, on grasp of those seeds.  Most of those seeds probably did not fall on fertile ground when they found me, but a few did, and in important ways that was enough.  His love of the material, manifest in these seeds, made me want to read more attentively.  I came to understand that there was more in the books I read than I had known, even as I was unaware of what that “more” was.

When I evaluated this course I certainly didn’t know that I would still be thinking of it decades later.  I am confident my recent delighted reread of Leibowitz did not factor into Northwestern’s evaluations of whether Professor McConnell was a good teacher! At the end of the semester I don’t know how he could have discerned that I would reread this book.  Perhaps he could not even have discerned my increased love of fiction.  But I wonder if that’s what he would have wished to assess. What did he want to accomplish as a professor?  That I remember particular details of particular books and have the ability to think meaningfully about those details?  Or that I carry forward a love of looking at and thinking about new details in new (and old!) books?

I can’t speak for him, but I know for myself that I want the latter, or the equivalent of it, for my students.  I have no way to assess that directly.  (Well I could come back decades from now to see what their lives are like, but that seems a bit daunting.)  And so I have to live with the fact that at the end of this term I won’t know if I’ve done a good job, and I probably never will.  The only option I can think of is to shrink my goals to something much smaller, something I can know about at the end of the term.  But in shrinking the goal what would be lost?

What’s the purpose of higher education? I’m going to quote from Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What it was, is, and should be. “About a hundred years ago, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, John Alexander Smith, got to the nub of the matter.  “Gentlemen,” he said to the incoming class (the students were all men it those days), “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life–save only this–that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”  Americans prefer a two-syllable synonym, bullshit, for the one-syllable Anglicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter.  It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.”

I think this is what I took from Professor McConnell’s course.  Perhaps it is better expressed in a slightly different way.  I draw this quote, too, from Delbanco’s book. “,,,I once heard my colleague Judith Shapiro, former provost of Bryn Mawr and then president of Barnard, make [the following comment] to a group of young people about what they should expect from college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.””

The trend in higher education is to reductionism, to measuring detail, to review progress toward narrowly defined learning outcomes.  And those surely matter, but I suspect they only matter insofar as they are tied to something larger, and the attention to detail, to learning objectives, can draw attention from that which is more important.  Mon ami, Professor McConnell helped me make the inside of my head an interesting place to be,  May I keep my eyes on this prize as I teach this term.

A sidenote–Science Fiction has 600 students when I took it.  There’s a trend in higher ed away from the lecture, and surely there are virtues to other forms of education.  But my life would be so much poorer absent this particular lecture course, and so I hope they always retain a space in higher ed.  If you’re interested in learning more about Professor McConnell, here’s a remembrance of him.  A good quote: “There he wrote as he spoke–in a voice that combined the stand-up comic and the smart friend who just wanted you to like what he liked.”



old post: Be kind to your webfooted friends…and yourself!

I have been copying posts from my old blog site.  This is the last I will copy over, from 2012.  Copying into WordPress is not easy and so there will be formatting issues, I am sure.  Thanks for bearing with.

What's your greatest weakness, that thing or action about which you most feel shame, guilt, or other badness?  Now...can you speak to yourself about it with compassion?  If so, what are you then inclined to do? 
This morning, I read a beautiful set of four studies by Berkeley's Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  The common thread was to have people think about a weakness or an action that they had done and found, well, shameful. They then asked people to express compassion and kindness to themselves.  The control groups were terrific.  One was a standard "do nothing" control. The other typically involved thinking of a strength or something participants were proud of.  Seems like a natural thing for us to do when we've messed up--think of something else, something good about us to make us feel better. 
Afterwards, those who had been compassionate toward themselves were more inclined to self-improvement than were those who had thought about something that made them proud, or who had done nothing.  In the first study, self-compassion bolstered the belief that the weakness about which people had written was changeable.  In the second, the compassionate wanted more to make reparations to the person they had harmed and avoid doing the harm again.  In the third, they studied more before taking a follow-up test on which they had initially done badly.  In the last, they were more likely to want information about someone else who had had their own weakness, but had overcome it (vs. someone else who simply had the same weakness). 
We live in a culture that seems to value perfection, so it is so tempting to serve up the illusion of perfection.  But we are creatures of light and darkness...we often do that which we would not. And if we are to be perfect in the sense of complete, then surely acknowledging, with kindness, that from which we are tempted to run is necessary.  How else can we make the most of the gifts which we have been given?

old post: Facing into the waves–about a mentor and career changes

from November 2012

Professors often have jobs for life, but we teach people who change their careers quite often. I don't have career change stories I can tell about myself, but I do have one to tell about my friend and mentor Antonette (Toni) Zeiss. I heard Toni speak this past weekend at the annual convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. I'm going to write a bit about her, then a bit about my experiences with her. Hopefully if she stumbles across this blog, she'll appreciate the telling! 
Out of graduate school, Toni landed a tenure line job at Arizona State, then left it for a one year spot at Stanford.  She was a native of Santa Cruz and she and her husband Bob decided that they wanted to return home, so they did, hoping that one or the other would land a job that would last. And they did. They both eventually took positions with the Palo Alto VA, a very different spot than a tenure line position at a major research university!  Toni became expert at gerontology. 
But that wasn't the last of Toni's career changes.  Within the VA, she developed new interests. She took on interdisciplinary team training--the idea that care for someone might work best if people with different expertise could work together as a team to provide that care.  And she later became expert at the training of young clinical psychologists when she headed up direction of interns at the Palo Alto VA. 
Finally, Toni was called to the VA in DC where "she became the first psychologist, the first woman and the first  nonphysician to head the department's mental health policy office," head of an organization with a $6 billion budget and 20,000 employees (per this piece: <a href=""></a>. This has been a terribly important job in recent years. Toni got there in 2004. The VA had shrunk from having around 1900 psychologists in the '90's to just 1400 in 2003.  It's grown to 4200 today. Well over a million vets seek psychological services in the VA in a given year. We're trained as psychologists to do research, sometimes also to do clinical work.  And yet Toni became an administrator deeply involved in policy making.And that policy making is critical for the mental health of so many.  For instance, as a psychologist, she brings a voice at the policy table for nonpharmacological treatments for the vets.  What treatment people get depends so much on who is there in the administration. 
Toni's career has been one of changes. 
Part of this story is the *that* of Toni's job changes. She could not have predicted where she landed.  Neither she nor I thought of the VA job when I knew her in my grad school days, but there she is. 
Part of this story is the *how* of Toni's job changes. In her talk, Toni spoke mostly about the VA, but also some about her career. She mentioned three lessons she had learned from her mother, and one was to do what you love.  And that's what drew Toni to psychology, then to the Stanford job, then the VA, then training, then policy.  Love is a bit mysterious--hard to know where it will lead in the end, but something you can at least follow and trust. (I now have Linda Ronstadt in my head singing "Love is a Rose..."  Maybe that analogy will help.) Having grown up near the ocean, Toni also told of her mother warning her to face into the waves rather than running from them.  And so she looked into that wave of change in the VA, and came to serve it most admirably. 
Part of this story is the set of *constants* in Toni's job changes. Sonja Batten, also a psychologist at the VA, gave a lovely intro to Toni's talk, thanking Toni as a mentor for the kindness and grace Toni displayed in challenging circumstances. And for demonstrating the importance of believing in the best in others.  In leadership, whether it is the leadership of teaching, of training, or of leading a bureaucracy these strike me as central.  Kindness and grace make others want to join the enterprise, and it leads them to model kindness and grace and bring in still more.  Belief in the best of others keeps the focus on what you can do together, rather than on self-protection. And I suspect it draws out the best in others. 
My first memory of Toni is at a lunch that David Rosenhan held for her at the faculty club at Stanford, in my first year of graduate  school, her one year on the faculty there.  I was pretty lost at the time--I had only taken my first psychology course two years before and had such a limited sense of the field or even why I was in grad school. I had (largely by a quirk of chance!) done depression research as an undergraduate. Toni did  depression research, and I was just drawn to her for reasons I probably  couldn't name.  And so I asked if I could do some research with her and she  became one of the most important of my mentors. 
Partly I remember her patience with my struggling through ideas.  In my first year in graduate school, they weren't particularly good ideas, but her patience let me at least develop them, rather than seeing them as static.  This put me in a spot from which I could listen better my second year of grad school when I was fortunate enough to take a course from Albert Bandura, at which time I started to build a few somewhat ok ideas. 
Partly I remember her trust in me when I was a grad student.  There was the trust that I would figure things out.  But also I housesat for Toni and Bob sometimes when they travelled, and that was such a treat as a break from my grad student digs.  Given the trust, I think I learned a bit to trust myself. 
Partly I remember her graciousness.  Toni always made me feel welcome. And generally I'd laugh in our meetings. Work was invitation rather than command. 
We've stayed in touch over the years.  Some of our students from AU ended up out at the Palo Alto VA.  Toni would sometimes come to Washington, then came to stay these past years.  And throughout Toni has been a model of doing what she loved, and of playing nice, and of facing into the waves. Those habits stand one well whereever you go, even if the temptation is too often to do only that which happens to be in front of you, to play for oneself, and to run from the waves.  And perhaps that the story to tell to students who will often change their jobs.

old post: Am I a consumer or am I something else?

from 2012

It's the new television season and an opportunity to watch many commercials! Those television shows exist primarily because they can sell products, they can make people consumers. Is there any unintended consequence of this emphasis on consumerism?
Think about what you might do with your time. Among the possibilities (e. g., watching my Cardinals march on to the World Series, doing laundry, looking for the bugs the CIA has planted.) are that we might consume, take things in for ourselves. Or we might build social relationships. Might the consumerism that drives so much of our experience affect our choices? 
A set of studies by Monika Bauer, James Wilkie, Jung Kim, and Galen Bodenhausen published in May's Psychological Science  gives us a partial answer. Across four studies, priming people with consumerism reduced their tendency to want to associate with others, except in competition. 
For instance, in the first study people were assigned to rate the pleasantness of either consumer goods (e.g., electronics, cars, or neutral images. Afterwards those who had rated consumer goods were higher in depressive and anxious affect. They also wanted to spend less time in social activities (e.g., being part of a student group or going to parties). 
In another study, participants were given sets of five words and needed to construct a sentence using four of them. For half the subjects, some of the sets included consumerist words (e.g.,buy, asset). For the other half of subjects they did not. Those with the consumerist words subsequently said more that competition was important (e.g.,  Doing better than others gives me a sense of self-respect.) They also said they would be less willing to volunteer for a good cause. 
Finally, in one study participants read of a water crisis involving four people using a well. (Lassie, go find help for Timmy. Ooops. Wrong story.) Sometimes the people were referred to as consumers, others as individuals  Consumer or Individual, for instance). When they had been called participants felt less responsibility for dealing with the crisis. 
Might the consumerism that drives so much of our experience affect our choices?
This is one of a series of studies that has highlighted the problems arising from thinking of money, material goods, and the like. There's good evidence that depression and narcissism have been on the rise in the US in recent decades. Is part of that rise attributable to our focus on being consumers rather than, say, friends, servants, citizens? One of my pet peeves is to hear those working at universities refer to students as customers. They are students, and it likely makes a difference that we construe each other as members of a community, each with distinct roles, rather than some people trying to sell something to others. 

old post: More than what is dreamt of in our philosophy–Snowquester goes bust

From 2013

I woke up Wednesday morning looking forward to the view from my window, anticipating an expanse of whiteness for the first time in over two years. Most local weather forecasters had predicted that DC would get 5-10 inches, with the first couple before I would wake up. Alas, the view was of pavement with grass poking up through what little snow there was. And so it remained through the day.
What happened was largely about psychology, and about one of my favorite problems, grappling with uncertainty.
As the linked piece suggests, the forecasters have a really, really hard time knowing where the temperature will switch from being cold enough for snow to cold enough only for really cold rain. But they can't really admit to it in public! The best forecast they could have made?"The best forecast for Snowquester was one we could not issue with a  straight face, and one most Washingtonians would have ridiculed: Rain,  sleet, and/or snow likely--heavy at times--with snow accumulations of   0-14 inches. In other words...."we know with really high certainty that it will be very, very wet.  But we don't know what form it will take." 
The forecasters knew that there was uncertainty "But," per the Capital Weather Gang, " we watered down some of this uncertainty information the day before the storm--a major communication error. Our headlines and lead paragraphs, for example, overstated our own confidence in snow materializing."
Why would forecasters water down uncertainty? My guess is because the people who pay the bills want certainty. Would you go to their website if they predicted 0 to 14 inches of snow?
That, in turn, begs the question--why do we demand certainty of the forecasters even when it's beyond their ability? Why don't we like forecasts that say "I only know a bit. Beyond that space, there are dragons"  (OK. I would like hearing about dragons. But you get the idea.)
The problem can be explained at many levels. I suspect Eddie Harmon-Jones would argue that uncertainty leaves us frozen (pun intended). The thought it might snow makes us want to hole up at home with warm beverages preparing to watch. The thought it might just be freezing rain makes us want to brave it to get to work to sit in the beautiful Asbury building till the ark is no longer needed. So which will I do?Perhaps neither very well, committed to neither. Certainty got me to commit to working at home yesterday. Sometimes commitment is what matters, and that to which we commit is less crucial. 
That's probably part of the picture. But I wonder how much is due to the stories we tell each other hear in the States. When we speak to our co-workers do we tell them that we might or might not be able to make something work. The phrase "Yes we can" rings in a way that "Mabye we can, but maybe not. We'll see" does not. Doctors are supposed to have sure cures, not questions. Students are expected to boldly tell their elders and friends where they will go to college, what they will study, and what great career will follow from this.  Has this always been the case?  Was "I don't know" more tolerable as a career path once upon a time? 
"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Maybe accepting that uncertainty we'll find our father's ghost (though then I'd suggest avoiding fencing matches). And maybe we'll go to bed wondering whether there will be snow on the ground in the morning rather than being sure of it.

old post: gratitude and moral hypocrisy

from July 2012

I recently finished (I hope!) writing a chapter on gratitude (with Courtney Forbes). I'm going to start the blog back up with brief mention of a few of the studies we describe.
You want to be fair, don't you? Can you think of times when being fair was, well, inconvenient? One slice of pie (Happy 4th!) is a bit larger than the other. Do you take it anyway? You and your spouse have to divvy up the chores. Do you choose the easier version? (Hey, honey, you scrub the bathroom. I'll take out the trash!) Do you say you want to be evenhanded in your arguments, but find, if you dare reflect, that you allow yourself to make weak points, but criticize such weakness when you see it in your debate partners? And in each of these cases do you nevertheless claim to be fair?
It's likely easy enough to think of instances when you have been just a bit hypocritical. If you can't perhaps you should try harder? It seems common, per research by Dan Batson and others.For instance, in one study only 1 in 20 participants said it would be fair to assign themselves an appealing task that would offer the chance to win money and assign a stranger to a boring task with no rewards. But...80% gave themselves the appealing task anyway. Participants could flip a coin to decide who gets which. Of those who flipped, 90% gave themselves the appealing task. (Hint: Coins don't come up heads 90% of the time. If they do, call in the cops.)
So what can we do to make people more generous, or at least less inclined to choose themselves over others? Maybe evoke gratitude. Tong and Yang gave Singaporean undergrads a task like the one I described above. Beforehand, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions--no recall or recalling a time they had felt either grateful or proud. 24 of the 30 people in the neutral condition assigned themselves the good task. So did 31 of the 37 in the pride condition. But only 18 of the 39 of those in the grateful condition did.  What of those who opted to flip a coin? 78% of the neutral condition coin flippers and 86% of the pride condition coin flippers gave themselves the favorable task.  But only 36.4% of the coinflippers in the gratitude condition did so. 
So, would you like to be treated fairly? Encourage your friends, loved ones, and random acquaintances to recall a time they have been grateful! Maybe they'll be more likely to give you the larger piece of pie. You might just try recalling times of gratitude yourself--maybe you'll feel less need for that larger piece.
The link below takes you to a brief interview with Mr. Tong, who thanks, among others, Phoebe Ellsworth, who was one of my early mentors. (I didn't know the connection till just now!)He also cites as influences David Hume, the Beatles, and Craig Smith. One of those three is a good friend of mine. I'll let you guess which.
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And with that, have a happy and safe July 4th. Go ooh and aah periodically in response to the fireworks, and perhaps pause at some point to recall something for which you are grateful.

old post: Is it better to give or to receive

from 2012

Which makes us more prone to give, being a giver or being gifted by others? A Psychological Science paper by Adam Grant and Jane Dutton suggests the former.
For instance, in one study fundraisers working for a call center at a university were randomly assigned to keep a journal for four days, 15 minutes a day, in which either (a) they had felt grateful for a benefit received from another; or (b) they had made a contribution that made others grateful. Then they counted the change in calls made by these fundraisers. In the beneficiary condition, calls per hour only increased from 3.76 to 3.84. In the benefactor condition, they went from 3.33 to 4.31. Thinking of times they had given led the fundraisers to make more calls. 
In a similar study, some participants wrote about giving to or receiving from others (or were in a control group). From 1 to 4 weeks later they came to the lab to get their payment at which point they were asked if they wanted to give part to an earthquake relief effort, given the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Of the control participants, 13% donated. Of those who had focused on their own receipt of gifts, 21% did. But the donation rate for those who had thought (many days before!) about giving was 46%. 
There's good evidence that gratitude sometimes increases giving. But this study highlights the importance of giving for subsequent giving. There are many reasons why giving gifts should make us give more. My favorite is that we know ourselves much as we know others--through watching our actions.  Thus I realize I was hungry when I see that I've eaten all of my food in nanoseconds. How do I know whether I'm a generous person? Maybe the same way I would know if someone else were generous--by seeing what I've done. Reminding myself of my specific acts of generosity should, then, help me to be more generous. 
So--done anything good for anyone lately?

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