Learn To Think. Too Much.
September 14, 2006
CLASS REVIEWS:Psych 1, "Introduction to Psychology"
Psych 15, "Social Psychology"
Psych 1603, "Adolescent Development"
Psych 1703, "Human Sexuality"
Best word to describe the Psychology concentration? Overanalysis. Second best? Extremes. Fantastic Steven Pinker-quality professors to less-experienced new recruits and visiting profs. Enjoyable concentration electives to tougher, more painful requirements. Rigor-seeking neuroscience buffs to kids dreaming of a more amusing undergraduate experience than the miserable pre-med existence.
A cop-out for would-be doctors, a safe haven for fun-loving athletes, and a recourse for girls who just wanna have fun, this concentration is still home to a handful of serious honors-track scholars seeking a deep understanding of the complexities and truths that lie within the perplexing human mind.
Petrified by the thought of reading four novels per week? Of draining your bank account at Dunkin’ Donuts because you’re stressed out about calculus problems? Step into my office—the Psychology undergraduate office, that is, located on the second floor of William James Hall (a.k.a that tall white building on Kirkland Street that thankfully is not as far a walk as Vanserg, and, yes, does house the famous “Monkey Lab”). You will quickly develop a love-hate relationship with William James. While the small classes, friendly professors, and the handy bike-rack outside will have you salivating like Pavlov’s dog, many students are quick to curse the broken revolving door, the slow elevator, the violent gusts of wind outside, and the hard-to-deal-with undergraduate office. More than one student has been seen in tears inside that office, bemoaning the office’s inflexibility in rearranging tutorial assignments to accommodate students’ schedules.
Advising, similar to teaching fellow quality, is hit-or-miss: your concentration advisor will certainly not come begging to help you, but can offer sound advice in times of desperation near Study Card day. However, faculty mentors, assigned to each student when they enroll in the concentration (and under-utilized by many students), are more than willing to open their doors to you.
In Harvard’s psychology world, readings either consists of textbook chapters (like grade school!) or, in higher-level courses, complex yet interesting journal articles (like grad school...). Grading is based largely on multiple choice and short-answer examinations, as well as analytical research papers. And although the only required math course is statistics, sleeping through these classes will come back to haunt you in your future academic career, particularly come senior thesis time.
Cliché though it may sound, Psychology is really what you make of it. Seriously. Although you must take a standard set of requirements typical of any concentration, Psychology allows you the flexibility to either enroll in a hodgepodge of classes—from the legendary “Human Sexuality” and “Psychology of Leadership,” to the more concrete neuroscience offerings—or to steer towards either the purely cognitive or social ends of the psychological spectrum. And along the way you’ll learn cool words like “gestalt” that will make you sound really smart in cocktail conversation (because though they won’t admit it, nobody else knows what it means).
The honors Mind/Brain/Behavior track tends to parse out the more “hardcore” science geeks from the party- and people-loving folks veering towards the social side of the concentration—as the new Life Sciences track will likely do as well.
The Psychology department will be sure you don’t leave on graduation day without repeatedly pounding core concepts and famous experiments into your already-overworked brain. If you haven’t learned that Phineas Gage had a tamping iron blown through his head, discussed the evolutionary explanations for gender differences in mate choice, and watched the video of Stanley Miligram’s Obedience Experiment, you should bolt to the Registrar’s Office to ensure that you are indeed enrolled in the Psychology concentration. Did you catch that? Maybe we should go over it one more time…
Oh, and who could forget? Sex. Disappointed at the lack of gender balance in your classes? Fear not, ladies and gents. You’ll have plenty of time to talk about gender, love, relationships, attraction, and—get excited—sex. A word used much more frequently in Harvard psychology classrooms than Harvard bedrooms, sex is habitually repeated by professors, an almost painfully-obvious but always-effective means of arousing dozing students at the back of the lecture hall.
But be warned. While boasting its fair share of what jealous economics, biochem, and math majors deem “fluff” courses—which draw students from all concentrations, including a large crowd of senior spring-ers—Psychology is certainly no academic Disneyland.
Sophomore tutorial, a full-year course led by graduate students and taught in small groups inside students’ residential Houses, tends to be a pretty laid back experience. But as sophomore spring progresses, groans resound from young Freuds stressed out over the 25-page sophomore essay. Despite moments of panic (agony?), however, most students ultimately find the essay to be a rewarding experience, and solid prep for the senior thesis—which is required to graduate with Honors.
All honors track students must also enroll in a mandatory “lab course,” usually involving 8-10 hours in the lab per week under the supervision of a grad student or post-doc. Fortunately, you can apply to work in labs whose areas of study span a wide range of phenomena, including animal cognition, language, conceptual development, and memory. If you’d rather not play around with primates or test out tiny tots, you can play with the minds of your peers, who will often serve as participants your studies. Many Psych courses, including mandatory “Introduction to Psychology,” also require “study pool” participation as a percentage of your grade.
The best aspect of the concentration? Real-world applicability. You can see it, use it, act upon it, and apply the theories you have tested in the lab, the critical thinking skills you have gained, and fun facts you’ve picked up along the way in everyday life—everywhere and anywhere. Regardless of your initial reason for first stepping into William James Hall, you will undoubtedly leave with an irresistible desire—and sometimes-scary ability—to scrutinize (and criticize) the motives, desires, and intentions of your foolish yet lovable best friends, your annoying and irritable family members, your brilliant but zany professors, and even your own crazy self.