Handbook
About
Syllabus
Books
Exams
Project
Timeline
Terms

An informal introduction to the class

I began teaching this class 11 years ago when I saw students eyes glaze over at the 204th multiple choice question about minutiae from an obscure subfield of psychology. I talked with a dear colleague of mine (Wes Brown, now living happily in California) about how Psychology might be taught as a liberal arts course to students at a liberal arts college. We took an inspiration from the Great Conversation and designed a course in the "great books" of psychology.

In terms of content, the course still had to serve as an introduction to the major, so I had to find "great books" from a variety of areas in psychology. But I also wanted the course to focus more on the great ideas or great theories of psychology. The resulting course goes into depth in enough areas so you get both some idea about how particular psychologists thought and a good feel for the broad outlines of the field. Some of the books don't qualify as "classic" great books, but they are excellent representatives of the latest great work being done in an area (e.g. creative cognition).

In terms of pedagogy (a fancy word for the process of teaching learning), I wanted students to work with ideas rather than memorize (and then forget) facts. I knew from the literature that working with others increased most forms of learning. So I designed the course so that almost all of your grade was based on work done in collaboration with other folks and that focused on writing essays about the big ideas in each of the texts.

Why have a handbook?

A fine question! Basically I designed this handbook because students asked for it. Be careful what you ask for. I've been teaching an introduction to psychology with this "great books" format and I've changed the books I use, reorganized the class, added help sessions, subtracted several projects, and tried various approaches during that time.

But a constant in the class has been the difficulty that students have "finding their place" among all the books we read for the class. You will be reading books that were considered revolutionary in their time, and that are still considered important today. But that means you won't have any bold words or a glossary and all the terms won't be defined. This is the least of your difficulties.

Most of these books were written as a contribution to an ongoing conversation in the field of psychology. The authors will refer to other works with only short summaries, they will often use words you haven't yet encountered, and they sometimes make statements of fact that are currently considered incorrect.

This handbook will help you put each book in its place in the history of psychology and help you understand why it was written and why it is still important. In addition, it will help you prepare for the exams and for the class sessions.

But don't be frightened by all this ambiguity! The class is actually very interesting. Most students find they can go through the texts with a minimum of difficulty. There is lots of help, both in this handbook and in class sessions too. And finally, Chuck is a nice guy and will glad to help you if you ask.

Reading old books in a young science

But isn't psychology a science? Why are we reading such old stuff? Why read stuff that we know is wrong? Why all this philosophical stuff? Can't we just get the current facts? I admit this course is a little funny, but I expect (and most students have found) that it will get you ready to ask the appropriate questions about psychology for at least the rest of your time here at St. Olaf. Here are my short answers to the standard questions.

Isn't psychology a science? You bet your boots it is. At least, most academic psychologists think of themselves as scientists. And you will see some quite elegant use of scientific method in our texts. But we are doing the "big ideas" and theories so you can see where all those little facts fit in. Besides, much of what we now know to be true in psychology will be out of date in 20 years. It's not that "facts" change much over time (though some do) but their meaning and their place in our understanding of psychology do change regularly. What I hope you will learn is how psychologists think and how to find out the what they think regarding any psychological question you might have.

Why all the philosophical stuff? I suspect you mean to ask why we are constantly arguing over whether or how our behavior is determined. Philosophers often call this the free will debate, since it is about whether we can make decisions freely. But psychologists have to decide on some form of determinism, since its hard to do science without it. I simply want you to know how many forms determinism can take. Each of our books takes a different approach to the causes of behavior.

Why read stuff we know is wrong? Well, this one is harder for a course that styles itself as science. What we are reading are some of the central books of their time, whose theories still influence how psychologists think and how they ask questions of the world. Some of the facts are wrong. I'll be sure to point them out. But the big ideas are still with us. Look for them. And remember that many of the facts we now claim as true may be found to be only half the story soon. Here is an example: not long ago we thought that dreams only occurred during REM sleep, and this was taught as "fact" and we even called it "dreaming sleep." But we now know dreams also occur during other times during sleep, and even during the day in catnaps.

Handbook
About
Syllabus
Books
Exams
Project
Timeline
Terms

Disclaimer