I chose the "Faces or Vases" query for the title of this article because essentially it is about how psychologists decide what the figure is versus what's mere background in our field, and how students influence that process. What factors influence our decisions about the questions worthy of research study, and who gets to make the decisions? Most of us might readily agree that what stands out as the figures—the really important questions—is influenced by at least three factors: (a) What we thought was important in the past, commonly referred to in our psychology textbooks as "the classic controversies"; (b) the current zeitgeist, culturally held beliefs about the nature of people and how we operate; and (c) scientific paradigms, the approaches to studying psychology that operate during our lifetime. By the end of this article, I'd like more of us to agree with the proposition that as amateur discoverers and researchers, our students are more likely than we are to identify something in the background as an important question worth studying. One result of this is an opportunity for us to reenvision our field and make new discoveries about the limits of our knowledge.
I started thinking hard about the role of students in helping to rejuvenate our field after talking with a psychology colleague at a major research university. She confessed that her graduate admission committee was especially delighted with the thinking of students who came into their programs from liberal arts colleges. Besides having solid research preparation and strong writing skills, faculty had noted that these students often came at things in really unusual ways, and it was exciting to teach them.
My first thought was, "No duh." After all, I've been teaching these bright, interesting students for the past 21 years at my small liberal arts college, and could easily agree with her admission committee's insight. Furthermore, for the past 20 years I've listened to and read hundreds of Psi Chi students' conference papers and posters. I know that students' research questions and studies are often fresher, with a sometimes quirky edge and approach that you don't find in the regular conference sessions.
So I thought harder about the comment by my research university colleague, and decided to explore this issue in my article. Why might students come at psychological topics in more exciting ways than we do? Starting with those who graduate from liberal arts colleges, one possibility is that these psychology students are taught by faculty who are removed from the "seats of authority" in our field; "the major research universities. These faculty are typically less wedded to the "discipline" of psychology, less likely to teach psychological theories and findings as dogma, and so are more likely to approach teaching psychology with an emphasis on critical thinking, personal reflection, and writing skills.
Let's look at both of these ideas for a minute. First, I mentioned the word discipline. Used in the context of an academic discipline, the word generally means following an established method of inquiry and adopting the conventions, laws, or rules of the field of study. We teach, and often believe, that the benefit of following the laws or rules of the psychology discipline is that it gives us a coherent way of viewing the world of human behavior and of sharing information with each other. The downside is that we may become conventional in how we view our world and after a while have difficulty seeing another perspective. Or, given the title of this article, of seeing the faces rather than the vase.
I'll admit that I still occasionally find myself annoyed with students eager to criticize a theory or study before paying it the homage I think it is due. I might confide to a colleague that the work was outdated, that some of it was probably hogwash, but I wouldn't share that outright with my students. No, I'd keep that to myself until I felt satisfied that they really knew what it was that they'd been so ready to criticize. In other words, they had to agree that the vase was central before I allowed the frequently more interesting discussion of why the theorists or researchers missed seeing the faces.
An occupational hazard of most disciplines is the tendency on our part as teachers to agree among ourselves, but initially deny to our students that our knowledge base has holes in it. Plato noted this tendency a millennium or so ago. In Laws (Jowett translation), the first law described by the Athenian is as follows:
Assuming that you have reasonably good laws, one of the best of them will be the law forbidding any young men to enquire which of them are right or wrong; but with one mouth and one voice they must all agree that the laws are all good. . . . But an old man who remarks any defect in your laws may communicate his observation to a ruler or to an equal in years when no young man is present.
A more contemporary thinker at the end of this millennium makes a similar point about the nature of disciplines. In an interview about his book, The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel Boorstin (1985) claims there are two enemies of scientific discovery: The first is the disciples of the discoverers, who turn their ideas into dogma; the second enemy is the professions. He could be talking about what happens at major universities when he says that "every profession creates channels that become ruts in which ambitious people in the field have to stay; otherwise, they're not respectable." One of the ruts that professionals get into is the concern with "classic controversies"—"topics that it is proper to argue about. By sticking with these classic controversies, you establish yourself as a professional because you know the names of all the people associated with the controversies, but you fail to break new ground yourself. In other words, the professionals argue about the vase, rather than discovering the faces in their midst.
As I already stated, I think this is less likely to be the case for faculty teaching in liberal arts colleges and in small teaching universities. With three or four course preparations each semester, no graduate students to help, and little research money, few of us are at the top of our fields, or using Boorstin's 180-degree phrase, few of us are stuck in the ruts of our professions. And frankly, it's hard to be a disciple of a theorist or researcher, or to be very dogmatic about psychology when you teach daily with faculty in English, modern languages, religious studies, and other departments. These folks often show no respect for disciplinary boundaries and have quite a lot to say about psychological theory and research, both to us and to our students.
What effect does this have on our students? I think that one effect is that when we teach, we are more likely to emphasize critical thinking, personal reflection, and writing processes. These skills have questions at their center, and asking hard questions in psychology is something that seems to come naturally to undergraduates trained in critical thinking and writing. Students frequently are better at asking hard questions about psychology than psychologists, even those of us liberated from the ruts of the profession. After all, we faculty are only human and across time become pickled in the biases and beliefs of our discipline as well as those of our larger culture. Our students, then, get to be the discoverers, the amateurs who are willing to see and ask questions about something new.
Let me give you a few concrete examples. We'll start with the question: Do women talk too much? There are lots of jokes in our popular culture on this topic, and the tellers of these jokes are often the men who claim it's tough to get a word in edgewise when they're in a group of women.
I decided to investigate these claims for my research topic when I was a student in a seminar on gender differences. I found some interesting but limited research published in the late '60s and early '70s, but no clear-cut answer to the question. It seemed to me that the answer depended in part on the operational definition you used, that is, how you measured the amount of time someone talked, as well as your perspective; "What is talking too much? And who decides?
If you look at the length of individual speaking turns, men talked more than women, hands down. They'd talk for a while about a topic, and didn't look all that reliably at their conversation partners at turn-change boundaries in order to "hand over" or to "receive" the next speaking turn. If, on the other hand, you looked at the question dyadically, that is, how long a pair of women talked during a fixed interval of time, you found that they did talk more. Each of their individual turns was shorter, and there was more turn-taking during their conversations compared to men's conversations, so that the women had more turns at the speaking role than in the male dyads. But it wasn't true that any one woman held the floor for a long time.
What's your perspective on talking too much? It depends on a lot of things, like how you define the function of talk. If it's to share task-specific information, that's one thing--you can get by with short, precise conversations that end fairly quickly once the relevant information is shared. Think how relieved we are when we hear the answering machine pick up when we're calling someone just to share a piece of specific information: answering machines are efficient for that function of talk.
But what if your goal is to share perspectives, get comfortable with another person, and/or elaborate and build on a shared topic? Then you want lots of turns, and reciprocity in each speaker addressing and recognizing the content of the other's statement. That'll take more time and changes in speaking turns.
According to some men, it's tough being in a group of women and trying to get a word in edgewise. Well, that is sometimes true. As Deborah Tannen (1990) has eloquently described in several books on the subject, you have to know how to read the subtle inflection patterns and nonverbal cues that signal a speaker is ready to stop talking, and you have to provide cues that you're interested in taking the next turn. Do women talk too much and too fast, or are some men, compared to women, less skilled as conversationalists?
Do you see faces or the vase? Which version, which truth about men and women have you heard your whole lives, and why? Which version better supports the cultural stereotype about women as frivolous talkers who go on and on about nothing? And who's going to point out the opposite yet apparent way of interpreting the research results? You know part of my answer; students trained in critical thinking, students taught outside of large universities by teaching faculty. And students who are members of groups that have been marginal to, and have been stereotyped by, mainstream psychology. They are especially likely to ask these questions once they enter our classrooms and enter the profession. If my thesis has any validity, the more women students, gay and lesbian students, students of color, and disabled students enter psychology, the more we should find people asking questions that will revise and revive psychology.
I'd like to discuss two of the ways that students in my classes have of re-envisioning psychology. The first approach, one I referred to in the title of this article as the "180-degree question," means turning an issue or interpretation around and looking at it from a completely opposite perspective, as I did with my example of "Do women talk too much?" The second approach, which frequently goes hand in hand with the first, is called "What or who is left out?" Here, the questions have to do with what's been overlooked or not mentioned. Once students start raising 180-degree and "Who's left out?" questions, they get even better at identifying the biases and limiting assumptions that drive some of the theory and research in our field.
Let's look at a few examples. My developmental psychology class recently watched a film about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. In the 1992 film, Russell Barkley, a noted expert on ADHD, said with a straight face that ADHD is often identified when children enter school and "encounter routines that are inherently tedious, repetitive, and boring." Students saw lots of possible 180-degree questions here. For example, perhaps we should worry about the children who don't get distracted in the face of tedious, repetitive, and boring routines? Of course, in a more serious vein we wondered why we couldn't change some of these routines so they don't drive as many children to distraction.
Let's try another example. In a contemporary child and family course that I teach, we read the research on the effects of maternal employment on children. Hundreds of researchers have studied and written about this topic over the past 35 years since women began entering the paid labor force in record numbers. After reading a goodly chunk of this literature, students became sensitized to the biased assumption that permeates much of this research "that maternal employment is equivalent to maternal deprivation. But look what happens when they ask who's left out? Fathers!
What if we substitute fathers for mothers, and then ask, "What are the effects of paternal employment on children? What are the effects of father's absence from children 50-60 hours per week or more as they pursue professional careers in law, medicine, academe, the corporate world?" How many researchers would you guess have asked this question? None. Zero. And if any of us did, would we ever assume that father's employment was equivalent to deprivation, as researchers have with mother's employment?
We can also do the same with the attachment literature. For example, 90% or more of the research on the effects of maternal employment on infant attachment looks at infants' attachment to their mothers; only rarely have researchers looked at infants' attachment to their fathers. Jay Belsky, who restarted the war on the issue in the late 1980s, included assessments of infants' attachment to fathers but never discussed his findings on fathers. Yet his numbers show that when women worked full or part time outside the home, infants had significantly higher attachments to their fathers, as compared to when mothers stayed home full time (Belsky & Rovine, 1988). But no psychologists suggested that the dynamics in working families may have evened out children's attachments to both parents, compared to the imbalance in attachment relationships in traditional families whereby infants preferred their mothers and screamed bloody murder when left with fathers. Aren't infants' attachments to their fathers important, and if not, why not? Why haven't professional psychologists asked and studied this question? The inquiring minds of my students want to know.
Rather than impressing you further with examples of questions from my students, I'll tell you about what happened when a former Harvard graduate student asked several really big 180-degree and "Who's left out?" questions. In 1995, a woman dropped from Harvard's PhD program in psychology 30 years earlier published an article in the journal Psychological Review, followed by a book that stood the field of developmental psychology on its ear. In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris (1998) asserts that psychologists' obsession with parents' influence on their children's personality is misplaced and myopic: Parents have less influence than we think, and peers and genetic temperament have more, she asserts. National Public Radio featured her in a discussion in September of 1998, and there were no less than five major (male) psychologists gunning for her. Boy, did she push their buttons! Like the researchers who have looked at the effects of maternal employment, socialization researchers have spent years and years, and millions of tax dollars looking at the effects of parenting styles on children's personality development, even though the correlations are modest and frequently not significant. WHY? Harris argues that it's because those trained within the discipline get trapped in our discipline's models and can't shift out of them (or as Boorstin says, they're stuck in the ruts of thinking the same way for years). And these models usually mirror social beliefs that become the unexamined assumptions that are implicit in conventional theories. So, even though the evidence is scanty, we believe that parents are the most influential factors in their children's lives, and we'll stubbornly cling to this belief, evidence to the contrary.
second example of a conventional theory that we're all familiar with is the one that says that highly talented, promising African American students don't achieve at high levels in college and graduate school, and have high dropout rates, because they're ill-prepared and need remediation. But programs that provide remedial courses for minority college students haven't shown positive effects on retention rates. Claude Steele (1997), a black psychologist at Stanford, reexamined the assumption that gave rise to the remedial programs. He asked whether these programs reinforced what he calls the stereotype threat by reminding minority students of the cultural stereotype that they would perform more poorly than majority students. His answer? Turn the assumption around 180 degrees: Smart, capable minority students need more challenge, not remediation, in a context that communicates the expectation that all students will succeed and provides the support that makes that happen. Successful programs have demonstrated that he's right, such as the Xavier University program in New Orleans that produces the largest number of African American students in the country who enter and complete medical school.
What is the legacy, the danger in not empowering students to ask 180-degree and "Who's left out?" questions in psychology? Myths are perpetuated, faulty assumptions and biases persist that distort our scientific efforts into affirming the status quo. Bad enough that this occurs in our theories and studies, but we perpetuate these distortions with our students, with the public, and with government policies that affect millions of people's lives. And the science of psychology stays myopic, fixed stubbornly on the vase as the central figure, unwilling to shift perspectives and entertain other possibilities.
1. Women talk too much. Therefore, when women talk, you don't have to listen, they're not really saying anything. The legacy is that women's voices and perspectives are silenced and excluded from public and scientific discourse.
2. Maternal deprivation will occur if women work because mothers are the only really important parents; children won't have as secure attachments and that will really mess them up. The legacy is that we get maternal guilt, and we devalue and let men off the hook as fathers. The legacy also lets the field of psychology off the hook from doing the hard thinking and research required to reexamine the assumptions about what is good for children. And it also lets psychologists and policy makers off the hook from asking how to turn cads (who abandon families) into dads, as Draper and Harpending put it (as cited in Silverstein, 1991).
3. African American and other minority students are less capable and need remedial, dumbed-down courses. The legacy of this belief is that we lose the potential of millions of children who, in Claude Steele's (1997) words, "disidentify" with school. In the long run, this view keeps African Americans and other exceptional people of color from contributing to the psychology dialogue and adding their perspective on the nature of human beings, besides wasting their potential and ruining lives.
To the Psi Chi students reading this article, I say that we need your voices and questions if psychology is to truly evolve as a science. We need everyone's voices and questions: men's and women's, majority and especially minority voices and perspectives. And we need you to be careful and broad readers, not just of psychology, but of lots of other fields as well. Read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (1999) and see how he approaches the question of why white Europeans established a foothold and in some cases wiped out the indigenous populations in every continent in the world. Diamond argues forcefully that it wasn't due to white Europeans' ethnic superiority (nor just to the guns, germs, and steel mentioned in his book's title). The answer is 180 degrees from that tired old superiority assumption. His book raises some interesting implications for psychology, too, in terms of the effect of our ecological system on human behavior.
Take English literature classes, history classes, art classes. Remember that Freud based his theory of neuroses on Sophocles' play, Oedipus the King. Read it again sometime. And ask which scenes you would have liked to have read if they hadn't been left out. And why weren't they there? Where's the scene that depicts how Jocasta, Oedipus's mother, reacts when she sees her husband pierce Oedipus's ankles and order him killed? Where's the scene where Jocasta, rather than having him killed, gives her infant son Oedipus to the care of a trusted servant? Why aren't those scenes there? Whose perspective is left out, and why?
Turn the story around 180 degrees. Is it really about a boy's unconscious rivalry with his father and lust for his mother? Or is it about the psychic damage that male rage, domestic violence, child abuse, and abandonment have on children? About the damage that secret adoptions (remember Oedipus is adopted by a loving couple) have on children, about the damage that male domination has on all of society?
There are hopeful signs that we as a field are shifting perspectives a bit. Think of Albert Bandura's (1999) recent studies of serendipitous events and their effect on the direction of people's lives. This seems a fairly dramatic shift from the usual claim that psychologists are concerned with lawful, predictable influences on human behavior! As is Carole Wade's (2000) call for us to take a sharp razor to much of the so-called sacred cows of psychology, arguing that "less is more" in terms of ridding our texts and student's minds of unsupported theory and so-called scientific facts.
I'd like to claim that both Albert Bandura's and Carole Wade's shift in perspectives is partly due to their close mentoring ties to Psi Chi students, a reasonable hypothesis given that both are careful listeners and value their students' ideas. Though this may be speculation on my part, I do know that our field is only as strong and vibrant as the creative and varied strengths of the students we teach, and our willingness to listen and encourage their exploration of the faces that they see.
Bandura, A. (1999, August). Serendipitous events and developments. Conversation session with students and faculty at the Psi Chi Miniconvention, Boston.
Barkley, R. A., & Dockers, K. (Producer). (1992). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: What do we know? [Film]. (Available from Guilford Productions, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012)
Boorstin, D. J. (1985). The discoverers: A history of man's search to know his world and himself. New York: Random House.
Belsky, J., & Rovine, M. J. (1988). Nonmaternal care in the first year of life and the security of infant-parent attachment. Child Development, 59, 157-167.
Diamond, J. (1999). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: Norton.
Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: The Free Press.
Silverstein, L. B. (1991). Transforming the debate about child care and maternal employment. American Psychologist, 46, 1025-1032.
Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
Tannen, D. (1990). You just don't understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine.
Wade, C. (2000, March). Teaching more by teaching less. Invited address presented at the 7th Annual Midwest Institute for Teachers of Psychology, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.