A Major By Any Other Name


Many students enter the Psychology Department with what psychologists would call "incorrect expectancies." While most concentrators expect a more patient and therapy-oriented course of study, the department emphasizes the empirical, quantitative approach to Psych.

"There's a popular version of Psychology and many students enter the field with preconceived ideas, and they're often the wrong ideas," Brendan A. Maher, professor and former chairman of the Psychology Department, says. "It's a combination of scholarly and scientific skills in understanding and working with the problems of human behavior." The rationale behind the empirical bias, Maher explains, is that Harvard's Psych Department stresses the areas in which it's strongest. "We've got considerable strength in the research areas," he says, "but Psychology is a very large field, and to be strong in everything you'd have to have a faculty of about 100."

"I was kind of surprised at how much emphasis was put on the empirical aspect of Psychology," Cheryl S. Feldman '80, an honors candidate, says. "The department does not have a whole lot of courses about clinical psychology, courses that deal with people as complete functioning beings with an emotional past. It's not a kind of cocktail party Psychology."

But Charles M. Judd, assistant professor and head tutor, says that the department offers students a number of course options in clinical studies such as abnormal psychology, adding that both Maher and George W. Goethals '43, another professor, teach courses in psych-pathology each semester. "There's always the possibility of taking some pretty good courses in clinical Psychology," Judd says.

However, many Psych Faculty do admit that clinical material might be neglected, yet they stress the value of a strong empirical background. Martha Danley, a tutor, says that, although the department "does not have a clinical bias, the quantitative emphasis gives students a good background for clinical Psychology. You can't do anything with a B.A. in clinical Psychology anyway," she adds.


Both Maher and Danley contend that psychology is a broad enough discipline to offer plenty of flexibility to concentrators. Independent research projects and honors theses provide students with an opportunity to work closely with a senior faculty member, Maher says. Aldo A. Badini '80, for example, has spent three years working on projects with Robert Rosenthal, professor of social psychology.

"Most of the good experiences I've had with the department have been in independent projects," Badini says, adding that if a student is willing to take the initiative, "there's a lot of room for independent projects." He adds that independent projects are integrated into many of the courses. "I would only encourage someone to concentrate in Psychology if he were willing to take a lot of initiative to get what he wants out of the department," Badini says. "If he's just looking for the courses and lectures, then I would discourage him." Judd agrees that it's imperative that students intending to enter Psychology professionally should become involved in research projects. He adds that, although Faculty members involved in research will rarely solicite an undergraduate's aid "if students take the initiative and ask for an opportunity to do independent research, then most Faculty members will respond positively."

Although Badini says he didn't enter the department expecting a more clinical bent, he adds he has been disappointed in many of the department's courses. "A lot of the middle-level courses overlapped the introductory courses," he says. Lee C. Rubin '81, a concentrator, echoes this complaint. "The redundancy of the courses surprised me," she says, adding. "The basic concepts keep popping up in advanced courses, so that the surprise and wonder of each new course is minimized." Badini, a member of the department's Committee on Undergraduate Instruction, says the committee is presently working on reorganizing courses.

"That's been a continuing complaint," David M. Green, chairman of the department, says, adding that some of the overlap should be eliminated next year when the two introductory courses. Soc Sci 15a and 15b, are combinded into one semester course. Beginning next fall, the department will require concentrators who haven't already taken the two intro courses to fulfill a distribution requirement. Students will have to take at least one half course in experimental Psychology, plus two additional half courses in either social, personality or developmental Psych, Judd says.

Many concentrators say that the sophomore tutorials in the department tend to be weak, adding that too many unmotivated students drag down sections and discussions. "We're aware of these potential problems in the sophomore tutorials," Judd says. "The dilemma is trying to achieve two goals at once. For one thing, we think it's important to have house-based tutorials. On the other hand, the problem is trying to find something that the tutor can teach that will be interesting to all the students."

Badini says that sections also often leave much to be desired. "Often people in the sections would correct the grad students and that was kind of disappointing," he says. But Green says that he hasn't received "massive complaints" about the sections, adding, "They're small intensive groups and if you don't happen to hit it off with your section leader, then you might be disappointed."

The section system will be reviewed next year as a part of an overall departmental review, Green says, adding that there will probably be no major changes.

"A lot of the dissatisfaction that people feel in the department has to do with the nature of psychology," Rubin explains. "It's not an exact science. Psychology is inherently different from other fields because people often enter because of personal reasons. A process of introspection has led them to feel that they have a knack for Psychology."

And although this "knack for Psychology" may provide students with the sensitivity they need for late-night talks with their roommates, it may not carry them through three years in Harvard's empirically oriented Psych Department.

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