The Wonder Years

Brian Rose ’05, a psychology major and a member of the football team, conducted research focusing on team spirit, athletic and gender identity, and alcohol use.

Denise O’Connor ’05, another psych major, parlayed her interest in AOL Instant Messenger into a thesis investigation of how people represent themselves in cyberspace.

A third, Cynthia Roman, polled some 200 Bates students about their sleep habits, GPAs, and use of alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs. “We’re trying to get at whether students are self-medicating their sleep cycle,” said Roman’s advisor, visiting assistant professor J. Roxanne Prichard, who hopes the research will be published this summer.

Anne Barton '08 (foreground) and Gregory Sousa '07 explore sleep deprivation during a Short Term psychology course.Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Such cases illustrate something distinctive about the discipline of psychology: its usefulness as a mirror for many students as they charge through four of the most formative, revealing, and often tumultuous years of their lives. “In my psych classes, almost everything I learned about I could relate to my life in some way,” says Whitney Sheen ’05, a neuroscience major.

The dominance of science over more, let’s say, interpretive forms of discovery is never in doubt in the Bates psych program. But by its very nature, psychology both promotes personal development and attracts people seeking it. Bates’ most popular major for the Class of 2005 and one of the top six for at least two decades, psychology gives some students the keys to understanding self or family. For others it makes plain the facts about the effects of certain behaviors. And as psych students study themselves, their teachers often find themselves learning too.

“Students are drawn to the department, sometimes, to answer questions about their own experiences” or those of people they’re close to, says Kathryn Low (left), chair of the department and a clinical psychologist. She says, “There are certainly times when students have been explicit about it: ‘I’ve had depression, so I want to study something about depression.'”

More common, though, is a broad-based curiosity about one’s own peer group and issues that affect it. In Prichard’s Short Term unit on sleep research, many enrollees were first-years. “I think they’re coming from a high school environment where they got a lot of consistent sleep,” she says, “and now they’re thrust into Bates, where they’re up until 3 or 4 a.m. and have rowing practice at 5. They’re experiencing a lot of sleep debt.”

In some of her courses, Low says, “we spend lots of time in discussions talking about college students. And I’ve collected data and published work about college students.” Students, in fact, constitute a gold mine of intriguing questions and fertile research ideas, from reflections of female sexuality in Sex and the City to the cell phone’s impacts on relationships (more contact with Mom and Dad, for one, since students no longer have to deal with the inconvenience of dorm phones).

And what safer place to bring up the hardest issues than psych, where scientific objectivity eases the awkwardness or discomfort of discussing intimate concerns? “They are under a lot of pressure, and they’re interested in talking about that in the classroom context,” Low says. “Psych is a good place to talk about that.”

A salient issue affecting many students at many schools, especially in the Northeast, is something Low calls “the pathologization of imperfection” — the soaring rates of depression and stress-related complaints resulting from a perceived expectation of perfection. Perfection in this realm meaning straight A’s, endless stamina and concentration, a sculpted fat-free body, and, Low notes, “being absolutely sexually functional all the time.” (To which end, she says, she has heard reports of Bates students taking Viagra.)

“There are things students tell me that I often don’t know,” she says. “An article on stimulant abuse we published was the result of a student saying, ‘There are students on campus taking other students’ stimulants to stay up and to get work done.’ We collected data, and a huge number of students do that.”

Sometimes the classroom topics are quite Bates-specific. For instance, Memorial Commons can be a trial for women self-conscious about eating because the sightlines give others a clear view of how much food you take. “Any Bates student will tell you that women get little bowls of food and go back for multiple helpings — they don’t get trays,” Low says. “Men get trays and pile stuff on them.”

“I had a student actually collect data on it — just fun data — for a course a couple of years ago,” Low says.

Which returns us to an essential truth about psychology as taught at Bates. Whether it’s right at the surface or down a little deeper, the hard backbone of science is always in place. Personal counseling is explicitly not part of the department’s mission, and the curriculum “is certainly not designed to ensure that students increase their self-awareness or self-understanding,” says Low.

Actually, such personal development is one of 10 learning goals for psychology curricula recommended in a 2002 report by an American Psychological Association task force. But at Bates, as elsewhere, there is a creative tension between this view and the more purely scientific approach.

Catherine Reedy ’06 may be typical of many psych majors in that she came for the self-knowledge — and stayed for the science. In particular, she writes in an e-mail interview, “the sections of social psychology on relationships and love were immediately exciting and relevant to my own personal experiences.”

Over time, though, “I realized that my interest had shifted from this primary, superficial desire of applying broad concepts to my own behavior and those of my peers to something new,” she says. “I’ve become more enticed by analyzing human behavior on a biological level and studying neuropsychiatric disorders.”