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Course Information

Instructor Info:Peter Gilford
TA Info:Gavi Davidson
Term: 2012F
Meeting Info: Monday
02:30 PM - 05:20 PM Harold Johnson Library 205
02:30 PM - 03:50 PM Harold Johnson Library 205

Many people are drawn to the field of psychology because of a desire to both understand themselves and help alleviate the suffering of others as way of working towards social justice. Yet psychology, along with its myriad forms of inquiry and intervention, is inextricably bound up with social and political arrangements. Critical psychology interrogates psychological knowledge and its production by examining the social, historical and political contexts from which it arose and the way it is currently situated. This course will survey the field of psychology from this critical perspective, asking questions about psychological methods, practices, and philosophical assumptions with the intent of understanding psychology as a potent and invisible sociopolitical force. By asking questions about how psychological knowledge impacts how we come to understand ourselves, our relationships, and what it means to be human, we will examine how these understandings support or challenge existing arrangements of power and privilege.

Course Objectives:

In this course we will survey the field of psychology critically, from an interdisciplinary perspective—as historians, philosophers, anthropologist-ethnographers, critical theorists, and sociologists. In conjunction, this will also involve attempting to define and “situate” our own “selves.” That is, we will reflect on how the current historical moment constitutes us by persistently asking questions (as well as questioning the moral sources of our questions) about the essentially invisible and thus unquestioned assumptions that cumulatively configure us as being our “selves” and having the specific sense of ourselves as human beings.


            We will focus intently on understanding how the discourse of modern psychology has come to shape our self-understandings and ideals, and, as noted, even the very questions we come to ask. Can we begin to articulate the relationship between our own psychological understandings and hierarchies of power and privilege? What can an examination of the relationship between psychological knowledge and the power it yields reveal?


In the quote below noted British sociologist Nikolas Rose summarizes his view of the impact of modern psychology:


Over the past half-century in the liberal, democratic, and capitalist societies of what used to be called the West, the stewardship of human conduct has become an intrinsically psychological activity. Psychological experts, psychological vocabularies, psychological evaluations, and psychological techniques have made themselves indispensable in the workplace and the marketplace, in the electoral process and the business of politics, in family life and sexuality, in pedagogy and child-rearing, in the apparatus of law and punishment and in the medico-welfare complex. Further, it is increasingly to psychologists that the citizens of such societies look when they seek to comprehend and surmount the problems that beset the human condition - - despair, loss, tragedy, conflict - - living their lives according to a psychological ethic. The rise of “the psychological” is thus a phenomenon of considerable importance in attempting to understand the forms of life that we inhabit at the close of the twentieth century. (Nikolas Rose (1998, p.81), Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, power and personhood).

Evaluation Criteria:

You will be expected to engage with the readings and to demonstrate that engagement through twice-weekly integrated responses/reactions to assigned readings, 3 (or more)  short reaction papers; regular contributions to class discussions; preparing a mid-term paper (8 pages), and the self-initiated final paper project (15 pages). The form and focus your final project takes will require approval by the professor.


             Many readings will be fairly dense and will require a persistent willingness to think theoretically and abstractly. Engagement with the readings will be evidenced by class comments, the weekly integrated response-reactions, other discussion posts via the discussion forums on the course website, and the evolution of your critical thinking and analysis. Remember, it is your responsibility to continuously demonstrate your engagement with the course material throughout the semester through the above-mentioned pathways.


1.         Attendance:  Please make every effort to attend class.  Students absent more than 3 times from the class without a legitimate reason will not receive a final course evaluation.  


If you are unable to attend class, please send an email informing the professor why you will not be in attendance. Email any work that may be due (including the integrated comments). If you are too ill to do any work, please note this in your email.


Please make every effort to arrive in class on time out of courtesy and consideration to others.


2.         Reading Assignments: This class will require significant reading time. Please complete all of the assigned readings prior to class and be prepared to share and discuss your questions and reactions to them. The amount of assigned reading will vary depending on its level of difficulty, (i.e., when the reading is particularly difficult there usually is less of it). Given the variability in class discussions and dynamics, more often than not we may not have time to cover all the specific readings assigned for a given class.


3.         Integrated response-reactions:You will be responsible for posting your integrated response-reactions to the assigned readings, no later than  9:30PM the evening before class.  Post your response-reaction to the forum on the website titled “Response-Reactions Here!” Please put the class date in the subject heading and make sure it is a new thread (as opposed to posting to an existing one). In the subject heading of the email to our TA and in the forum post, list your first name and the class date (e.g., Sam’s 9/16).


Written Assignments:

Written assignments must be turned in as hard copy on the day they are due. Late papers will be accepted under extenuating circumstances and by prior permission only and will not receive written comments.


**The quality of your writing is extremely important with respect to your final evaluation for this class. If your writing has significant issues it may be returned to you to be revised.**


All written work should be submitted as hard copy in class when due. Hard copies of your response-reactions and all of your written work should be included in the class portfolio that you will hand in at the end of the semester.


 All written work except for response-reactions must follow APA formatting criteria or it will be returned to you. Following APA criteria is essential and will help you to understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Basically, this involves citing other people’s research, statements, ideas, concepts, theories, etc., properly. It will also inform you of when and how to use quoted excerpts as well as the appropriate way to format and put together a reference section.


Also: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th or 7th Edition)

which is in the library.


In addition: See also: which is a website that will correctly format entries for your reference section if you provide an ISBN number (international standard book number).


5.         Short Papers: Up to 4 short reaction papers (3 pages max). You will receive a prompt for the reaction papers unless otherwise noted. These papers will hopefully serve to assist you in determining a focus for your final paper project. Reaction papers should be well-thought out, organized and be proofread out loud to yourself before you hand them in (truly, this really does work to catch errors and to make edits).


 6.        Mid-term paper: (8 pages maximum): This paper is intended to provide the background and theoretical/critical rationale for your final paper project. Specific instructions for the mid-term paper will be emailed to you in late October. Many students choose to incorporate elements of their midterm paper into their final paper project.


7.         Final Project: (15 pages maximum): The final paper project is intended to reflect both your learning and critical thinking about psychology. Potential topics might be about the self, how a particular issue, subfield, set of assumptions or practices in the field of psychology reflects or reproduces the status quo, or conversely how they might be reconstructed to challenge or resist it. Projects may include/involve some aspect of a cultural study in which psychological assumptions or ideas transparently show up; might provide examples of the relationship of psychological knowledge and power, or explore the impact of psychological understandings on different forms of human being.


Final projects in the past have been research papers or critiques of a concept, theory, or mainstream method, practice, or behavior, but your final project could also be a small interpretive, qualitative or ethnographic research project, cultural study, etc. All ideas are encouraged and can be discussed in the consultation meeting dates you will be able to sign up for after Thanksgiving Break (individual meetings will be scheduled). You will need approval for your final paper.