Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Friday, December 5, 2008

So Whudja Think?

I'm loving the discussions on discussions in the blogosphere of late. Sisyphus (who is actually a cat, but never mind) over at Academic Cog started it. When you get done with that, read Dr. Crazy's response at Reassigned Time.

I am not nearly as intellectual as either of these ladies, so my classroom discussions tend to begin with, "So whudja think?" But like Crazy said in her comment,
"I definitely have an agenda for what I want them to get from the texts that I assign, but I think that the best discussions happen when I'm not terribly controlling in my methods for getting students there."
Before we go anywhere else, I want to find out where the class is at with the assigned reading. Sometimes they have a better idea than I did about where to go with it. Sometimes I find out up front that they didn't even get it, so some explaining is in order before we try to discuss. But I always start with their initial, gut reactions to the thing.

We have to get past that, though. I want them to do in class (and in their reaction papers) more. In ethics, there are, obviously, some clear Rights and Wrongs. You don't have sex with a client. That would be a clear Wrong. But some things are fuzzy, and some things in the ethical code conflict. And some things haven't been sorted out by the experts yet. For example, some say we should never mix the therapeutic and forensic roles. Others say that separation is neither possible nor practical. So how do we as practitioners handle that? I want them to be able to cite cases from licensing board and ethics committee proceedings, the Code itself, and case law to support their arguments. I want them to be able to cite commentators' opinions and research findings when they are available. And finally, I want them to be able to consult with colleagues and document their ultimate decisions as to a course of action.

But Sisyphus complains that "the refusal or just plain inability to dig your fingers into the guts of the text and mush things around is prevalent in my class right now,"and there is some of that in my class as well. Indeed, my students occasionally express frustration that the Code and its commentators don't just tell them what to do! They even accuse people who grapple with ethical issues of the sin of ethical relativism, apparently on the theory that "everybody" already "knows" (or should know) Right from Wrong. I want these folk to come to understand, over the course of the semester, that part of what makes psychology a profession (as opposed to a technical field) is that there isn't just a manual that you can follow, that the work requires sometimes difficult judgments.

I came to teaching in general (and to discussion in particular) with more clinical than academic experience. As I have noted previously, the Georgia School of Professional Psychology was oriented toward clinical practice, not research and teaching. So I never had the opportunity to TA with the professor I most admired, and we had no undergraduate program to practice on either. What I did know how to do was group therapy, and I brought some of those skills (e.g., getting people to talk to each other, not the group leader) to the classroom. And that did give me a good start. It feels natural to me: I don't agonize over it they way I do over my lectures in my Personality classes. (I've never given birth to an infant, but I imagine the process is somewhat similar.)

Classrooms are also similar to groups in that, while you want members of each to be talking to each other more than they do to you, you also must still remain in charge. You have to keep people on task. You can't let someone become a scapegoat for the rest of the group. And as Crazy noted, you can't be afraid of silence. Group therapy is not performance art: Members can't come to group expecting you to 'do them some therapy.' They have to bring something to the table. It is similar with students, at least in ethics class: You can't just lecture people on ethics. That's not how people learn to be ethical. They have to engage with the issues. So if they aren't, you can't be afraid to just sit there until somebody pipes up. I learned a long time ago as a group therapist that nobody can stand it longer than one minute: Try it yourself. Count off 60 seconds in your head next time you find yourself doing all the work and see if somebody doesn't start something before you make it to 60. Works every time.

What I'm still learning is how to be "explicit about how what we do in class... connects to what they do when they read, what I expect of them on writing assignments, and what they do on tests." My Personality classes have been totally at sea on how to use empirical articles to examine a public figure's personality, and my Ethics students tend to write reaction papers that are just that: their reactions. No processing at all.

Crazy's post made me see the obvious: That not only have I got to do this 'make explicit' thing more than I have been in class discussion, but also in instructions for assignments, study guides, and even in my lectures. For next semester's Personality class, I'd already picked one public person (just like they will use for their case study/term paper) to follow all the way through the course, using research and theory to explain her as well as using her to demonstrate theory and research. Before, my choice of examples from one class session to the next was pretty random, and they haven't been 'getting' how to do their papers because of it. Now in addition to using a better class of example, I know I have to lay out for them how to use that example.

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