Archive | April, 2013

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

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American employers more interested in critical thinking than a student’s major subject !

22 Apr

I’ve just come across this survey of major American employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) that makes very interesting reading, and makes me glad that I do what I do. As they seem so important I’ve set out the survey’s key findings below :

  • Nearly all employers surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.
  • Even more (95 percent) say they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.
  • About 95 percent of those surveyed also say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
  • More than 75 percent of those surveyed say they want more emphasis on five key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
  • 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.

Given that in UK university’s students have already selected their ‘Major’ before they arrive, and indeed may well only ever take courses in their ‘Major’ subject area we might well have an even larger issue than the USA.

I was party to a very interesting discussion a few weeks ago about the need to impart ‘cultural capital’ to our students, and that this ‘cultural capital’ was almost entirely divorced from subject-specific content. This seems to chime with the last point made above. What I do gets over the idea of ‘critical thinking’ and a broader understand of science (even if only to my psychology students), but where do they get the ‘liberal arts’ stuff from ? These all seem like ideas that university management need to be grappling with as soon as possible.

Laptops in Lectures – Help or hinderance ?

18 Apr

I’ve just come across a paper that seems like a great way to stimulate class discussion, and to encourage students to think rationally. Get a group of academics together and you will find wildly differing opinion on student use of electronic devices during lectures. Some will see this as ‘the future’ and not worth trying to hold back the tide, whereas others will see is as an excuse for students to play ‘Angry Birds’ or update their Facebook status, and thus something to be banned from lecture rooms. Students will undoubtedly have equally vehement views on the use of laptops/iPads in lectures. This alone ought to be a good prompt for debate, but it becomes more interesting when you throw in some research.

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This is a recently published piece of research suggests that use of laptops in lectures is actively detrimental to learning. It would be interesting to give this to students and see what they make of it. Two things immediately jumped out at me when I read the paper this morning. Firstly it was done with a very small class size (I wonder how easily it would replicate with 300 students ?) and secondly the participants had no incentive to be learning the material presented in the study (so can we really extrapolate to ‘real world learning situations ?).

This paper ought to appeal to students irrespective of the discipline they are studying, and it would be interesting to see what they make of it. I have to admit to secretly worrying what my less technically literate colleagues will make of it 😉

All the warning about the MMR vaccination turn into reality

5 Apr

A few years ago I used to regularly use the great UK MMR vaccination fiasco and the discredited work of  ‘Dr’ Andrew Wakefield as an example in my rational thinking classes. If you are interested in the whole MMR issue Ben Goldacre (as ever) has a very accessible summary. Over the last couple of years I’ve dropped it as a topic, as I rather naively assumed that with Wakefield work being so publicly discredited it was a piece of ‘history’ and not necessarily something that would engage students.

In recent months we’ve seen a very strange case of an Italian Court deciding that all the science is wrong, and now in the UK we have a major measles outbreak.

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In the South Wales city of Swansea 588 measles cases have now been reported. This seems like both the ‘perfect’ ending for a new lecture on the MMR fiasco, and also a very good way to get students to think about complex ideas about what happens when ‘herd immunity’ drops. South Wales appears to be something of a blackspot for immunisation, with 1 in 6 children not vaccinated.

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This graphic from America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases is a nice introduction to the idea of ‘herd immunity’. I’ve also found this website which has a series of online simulations of various disease scenarios (including the ‘Swansea’ situation with a blackspot of low immunisation).

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All things considered, the MMR lecture will definitely be making a comeback in October with an ‘all new’ section on herd immunity. As a postscript to this blog I’ve just searched for ‘Swansea measles’ on the Daily Mail website. The top three responses (see image below) are illuminating !

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In ten years we seem to have ‘progressed’ from 75% of the public wanting an inquiry to ‘measles can kill’. If only we’d had more rational thinking in 2002 !!!

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