Monday, March 26, 2012

the day I stopped being a psychology major

I started my college career as a psych major (or, as I usually like to put it, suffering the delusion that I was going to be a psych major). I was also in the university honors program, which was articulated through departments. A student in the program would take a few general ed courses, but the rest of the honors courses were within the major.

My first honors psych class was called History and Systems of Psychology. The textbook was decent, though heavily biased in favor of behaviorists. The class was taught by a professor nearing retirement, who lectured to us for 48 of the 50 minutes in each session from yellowed notes, punctuated only by his coughing tic. He would then ask if there were any questions. I always had questions, but after the first two or three, he did his best to avoid calling on me.

A handful of times we had what the professor called class discussions, usually of about 20 minutes. But the honors psych students seemed incapable or uninterested in discussing the history or systems of psychology. They would find a relevant item from class notes and repeat it. When I tried to raise critical questions during a class discussion, the professor told me that we weren't there to criticize, but to learn, the history and systems of psychology.

We spent weeks on Wundt, and then two class sessions on psychoanalysis, a "system" of psychology the textbook essentially dismissed as superstitious claptrap that only delayed psychology becoming a genuine science. I had been reading Freud since my sophomore year of high school, and was trying to read Jung, and I found this blanket rejection of Freud ridiculous. Text and professor were eager to move on to the real scientific psychologists, and given loving emphasis were the behaviorists Watson and Skinner. I tried to suggest that the argument legitimating the scientific status of behaviorism was circular, but was told that it's real psychology because it can do things (which psychoanalysis, by extension, cannot) - make people stop smoking, or fight the urge to suck their thumbs in important business meetings.

After the long chapter on Watson, the continued frustration with the honors psych students acting like sheep and with the professor expressly precluding critical discussion, I decided I needed to do something. We were just getting started on Skinner when I made my move.

I drove the 45 minutes across town to my parents' house, and dug out my sister's old scuba fins and snorkel. That morning before class, I stuffed them as well as I could into my backpack (the fins stuck out of the top), and walked from my dorm to the classroom, making sure I would be a couple minutes late. In the hallway, I ran into the only other student in the class who seemed to be interested in discussing the history of psychology (a psych major, who turned out to be kinda crazy), and told her I was going to shake things up. She went inside and found her usual seat.

Meanwhile, I geared up. Shoes off, swim fins on. Mirrored sunglasses. Backpack strapped to my chest. Snorkel.

In this getup, I whisked open the door and flapped across the room to my usual seat, just in front of the crazy psych major, along the windows. As I collapsed into it and got out my textbook, the professor said, suppressing a tremendous rage, "That's alright, no one noticed you coming in."

He went back to his notes and tics, and lectured on Skinner. I paid attention, but managed to glance around the room at all the psych majors, staring straight ahead at the prof, blind to my existence. Halfway through class, in mid-sentence, the professor suddenly addressed me, saying that I was to remain after class to discuss my "idiotic stunt."

I got you, man, I thought. You may be a committed apologist for behaviorism, but you're a lousy behaviorist. You fell for it. You gave me attention, while denying that you were giving it. And as we all know about denial...

He got through about 40 minutes, but then gave up. He couldn't concentrate. The class left, and I stayed behind, and I explained myself. I told him I did what I did to protest the total lack of meaningful discussion in the class, to try to shake up the psych zombies - make that honors psych zombies. I even waited until we got to Skinner, to protest the obvious bias in the book, and to do something that I thought would be poorly explained by behaviorism.

I can't remember what he said. I don't think he punished me, except that he gave me a B for a final grade after all the A work I'd done.

After class, I walked over to the psychology department and met with the department chair. I told him what happened in class - well, some of it. I told him about the zombies' reaction. And I told him I was dropping the major.

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