About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.

Unconventional Wisdom

Now that I have a chance to think back on APA convention, I wanted to share a few impressions with my fellow psychologists, both those who attended and those who didn’t.

Cultivated serendipity: The first is a return to the challenge of unification that I discussed in my first post. I think one way that we can each address unification, and try to help make psychology stronger, is not just by strengthening our own science, or our own practice, or our own subdiscipline, but doing what we can to understand others in psychology. As I move further on in my career, I realize how difficult this can be. It is downright uncomfortable to sit in a session outside my subdiscipline, with unfamiliar assumptions and vocabulary. But if we force ourselves to think about how our discipline relates to what might at first seem strange, we can be struck with interesting connections. These serendipitous realizations can be tremendously and unexpectedly rewarding, but we need to be in the room to have them. I had several moments like this. One was on the morning of the last day, after the presentation of Margaret Tarampi, a psychologist who first trained and practiced as an architect, then changed careers into cognitive psychology. Dr. Tarampi had described condominiums in Japan which had been directly inspired by the work in neuroscience finding that enriched environments cause neurogenesis. Tarampi noted in her presentation that this was perhaps not the best research to guide architecture (the research compared cages that had essentially nothing in them to cages that had just a few things for the mice to do), but that architects had found the neuroscience (new brain cell growth!) much more compelling than psychology research. During the question period, in an offhand way, Tarampi mentioned that architectural photos almost never have people in them. I thought this was a fitting example of how a discipline like architecture could use psychology but clearly does not.

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Impact at small sessions: Like at any conference, I went to a few sessions which were very sparsely attended given by junior colleagues. As I look into an audience of 10 or 15 (or sometimes five, as I have on occasion as a presenter), I sometimes feel downhearted. The presenter has often spent months on the research, weeks on the presentation, and days of nervousness and anxiety, and a small audience can leave one wondering if was worth all the trouble. While we may have an ethos of “only the quality of the science matters” in science, nothing confirms that status matters (and you don’t have it) like an 8 a.m. session with an empty room. But in these moments, I am happy to be in the audience myself, and I remind myself that even small audiences can yield great connections and can sometimes be the spark of collaborations. I saw this happen during several question periods, as questioners revealed themselves to have an expertise that complemented that in the presentation. Whether it was an ecologist curious about the psychological work in biophilia and the cognitive benefits of nature, or a sleep researcher interested about the role of sleep deprivation in the obesity associated with poverty, or even my own thoughts inspired by the history of the five senses, or how touch and movement are inextricably linked.

Take home messages and “positive psychology:” As a graduate student attending my first conference, I can remember sharing an elevator with a senior professor in my department, and sharing my youthful ebullience and eagerness at this session or that. He grumbled, “Oh, that’s nice you’re excited, I hate this conference, and actually, most conferences” or something to that effect. Although I had a good time at that conference, I could start to see what he meant. Sessions that looked absolutely fascinating to me on paper would all too often turn out to be mumbling through PowerPoint slides with tables and 10 pt font, or incoherent, or not about what they said they were about at all. In the past, those sessions would make me disappointed and get me down as I felt my time was being wasted. But as time has gone on, I have come to have a more positive outlook on these sessions. I try to take what I can from them, even if it is a reminder of what not to do and a single useful example. This positive psychological outlook has helped me get more out of conferences, and not dwell on those sessions that are not as useful or interesting as others.

I hope that you readers were able to find something useful in my blogging, too. Thanks for reading.

Social Justice and MOOCs

As part of the amazing diversity that APA convention offers, I had a chance yesterday to make some comparisons across topics that I might not always think about in the same day. I went to a fantastic and thought-provoking session on Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech to APA, and later I went to a talk by James Pennebaker on his experience with MOOCs [massive open online courses]. That I experienced them so close together, as well as some of Pennebaker’s points, led me to consider the social justice implications of MOOCs.

I will start with the positives, as Pennebaker’s talk was mostly positive, and I thought he made some excellent points in favor of his version of a MOOC — the SMOC, or synchronized massive open course.

University of Texas Tower and Littlefield FountainFirst, Pennebaker has always struck me as a curious, insightful and humane researcher, and his approach to his class was no exception. He professed to love teaching intro psychology (he mentioned it as being part of his contract when he came to UTexas). He applied his scientific curiosity and experimental openness to his own class, experimenting with different technologies and approaches to student learning. When approached by Stanford professors to try a MOOC, he was open to the research opportunities it presented.

Second, Pennebaker noted the benefits of collaboration with teaching, finding the back and forth interactions with his co-teacher Sam Gosling incredibly rewarding. He described both Gosling and himself clearing their fall travel schedules so that they could be present for these classes, in a way that they had not done previously. The collaboration clearly freshened up the experience of teaching intro psych for both of them.

176722241Third, Pennebaker paid particular attention to how different social classes did in his SMOC, first noting that differential academic performance by socioeconomic status is a huge problem in intro classes (what he called Big Old Classes, or BOC) and then being optimistic that his SMOC approach seems to particularly help this group of students. I think Pennebaker should be commended for this attention to “telling it like it is,” at least on the baseline of how students performed in previous iterations of intro psych. He also noted the different academic performance of lower SES students as a social scientific puzzle. These students often enter the University of Texas looking great on paper (top 5 percent of their class, etc.) but flail early on in classes. One of the big positives (although tentative) of this class was that Pennebaker noted that lower SES students actually did better in their other classes,both during and after taking this class. Pennebaker speculated that this was likely due to the daily quizzes, instilling good habits (and providing frequent feedback) among students who had likely gotten by without deeper conceptual understanding in (what Pennebaker guessed) lower quality high schools.

Now, the negatives (in terms of social justice). I think the best illustration was an interaction during the question period. There were two, in my mind related, questions. Pennebaker answered one question, “Should I do this with my 30 person class?” with, no, this is a replacement for BOCs. And another question, “Are you able to provide real writing feedback?” with “no, not really, but we weren’t able to do that in the past with 500-person lectures either.” In regard to the writing, he was hopeful that algorithmic approaches like his LIWC [linguistic inquiry and word count] program might in the future be able to offer some rudimentary feedback. So, Pennebaker seems cautious in whether this SMOC should replace courses which are not BOC, big lecture courses. But yet, a few moments later, he expressed excitement about expanding the course, and “moving into the AP market.” This is a huge problem with MOOCs, piloting on high-achieving University of Texas students (even lower SES ones) and then seeking to scale well beyond, in the hope of saving money. I am sure Pennebaker’s and Gosling’s course is a wonderful experience, but I am equally sure that all the online community building and fancy analytics won’t replace the expertise and humanity of a skilled high school Psychology teacher like Steve Jones or Maria Vita.

Related to this negative, I often find that excitement about MOOCs or flipped classrooms is often as much a testament to what they are comparing them to: often poor-quality lectures and inattention to teaching. Pennebaker himself noted how important the daily quizzes are, as well as the interaction between himself and Gosling. Each of these is not a feature of a MOOC, but a discovery of old pedagogical techniques.

In closing, I am still a MOOC skeptic, but I was impressed by some of Pennebaker’s findings, if a little disturbed by his vision of a future of higher education dominated by celebrity superprofessors. I hope that going forward, Pennebaker and his fellow MOOC teachers will recognize that these courses that they are building are not merely fun pedagogical experiments, but are being “weaponized” in a way, in a massive paradigm shift in academic labor (and K-12, too, as his AP comment notes). Pennebaker’s and Gosling’s course might be a wonderful experience, but I don’t think psychology as a whole is improved by an increased reliance on big star celebrities as we further diminish high school psychology teachers, or even teaching of psychology in smaller places like where I teach. Dr. King noted that social scientists have escaped the guilt of the physicists in designing the atomic bomb, but I worry that perhaps in 20 years, we may look back in regret at some of these bold experiments in pedagogy, not seeing the damage that they could do to the profession of teaching psychology.

Creative Maladjustment and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 Speech to the APA

This morning, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend a truly unique conference session. The topic was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the APA, at the 1967 convention. In addition to a riveting session, this topic was an extraordinary lens to view psychology’s struggle and promise of unification.

496664943It began with Dr. Nathaniel Granger, a psychologist and Martin Luther King scholar (here he is re-enacting the I Have a Dream speech), giving a re-enactment of a shortened version of the speech. I began to try to tweet it, but quickly rested my fingers to listen and appreciate as Dr. Granger was able to perfectly capture the cadence of Dr. King. It was so uncanny I half expected to hear crackles of an old recording. You can read the speech yourself here at the King Center or here on the APA website.

Here are two paragraphs, right at the beginning of the speech that drive home to me both the genius and the tragic prescience of Dr. King, in elucidating issues that social scientists still struggle with:

For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction. Negroes too are eager for a rendezvous with truth and discovery. We are aware that social scientists, unlike some of their colleagues in the physical sciences, have been spared the grim feelings of guilt that attended the invention of nuclear weapons of destruction. Social scientists, in the main, are fortunate to be able to extirpate evil, not to invent it.


If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions — the Negro himself.

This is still painfully true — especially with respect to the thinking of white America. Dr. King goes on to assert that black Americans want social scientists to “tell it like it is” — to expose the psychological and social reality of a people long oppressed. But yet, he argues convincingly,

It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth.

This surely has changed, but has it changed enough? Dr. King’s speech, and Dr. Granger’s re-enactment, as well as the compelling presentations by Dr. Joseph White and Dr. Jennifer Selig immediately following, left me with a new framing for the science of psychology. To address social justice, we first must carefully document injustice. Social science need not lead the way in changing an unequal world, but at the very least, we can tell it like it is, documenting that we still have a long way to go to fulfill Dr. King’s admonition nearly 50 years ago.

King left psychologists at the end of that speech, urging us to apply what he called a great psychological word — “maladjustment” — into a hopeful, productive use. He (rightly) notes that some things we should never “adjust” to, like segregation, bigotry, systemic discrimination. I carry that with me even today. Since injustice persists, we should not become “adjusted” to injustice, but should instead use our discomfort to address injustice, or at least document it in our role as social scientists.

Some Convention Tips and My (Best Laid) Plans

I thought I would share a few convention-attending strategies that I have developed over the years, as well as my own plans for the sessions that seem interesting. Please share your own in the comments below.

First, I plan, but not too much. If I use a convention book, I will highlight or circle talks and posters that I want to go to, but leave myself some choice to see what I feel like in the moment. I also try to be aware that even if I am interested in *all the things,* my poor limited brain will be unable to concentrate for eight straight hours. So programming in breaks helps, or sometimes just skipping a session is necessary for me to maintain adequate attention to make the other sessions worthwhile. I also think a vital part of conferences is making time to talk to people outside the sessions. This is one area in which I have enjoyed using Twitter at conferences, to connect with people in a back-channel way, see what people are interested in and see people’s reactions to the talks and posters they are attending.

As far as a strategy on which kinds of events to attend, I try to get a good mix of many different types of talks and experiences. I attend some scholarship of teaching and learning talks, some research summaries, some practical job help talks (tenure, work-life balance, etc). Finally, I think it is important to attend some talks, especially at a conference such as APA, that just look interesting, but don’t fit into any of my research interests, or typical teaching examples, or any other neat categories. Allowing for moments of spontaneity and serendipity are part of what makes conferences worth it for me.

So, for this convention, I’ve mapped out some of the sessions I am interested in (these are  all on Friday). I thought I would give just a brief sentence or two to indicate why I am interested. I am already wishing I could be two places at once, as you can see, I’ll have some tough choices to make.

Cedar playing catch with Cedar

Here I am very busy in graduate school (playing with photostitching software)

Friday 9 a.m.

A comprehensive examination of resilience (High Risk/Extreme Environments)

Two years ago, I taught a first-year seminar at Randolph-Macon entitled “Kids these Days.” It was a yearlong interdisciplinary course taught with a partner in the English department. She was an expert in children’s literature, and I taught my portion of the course as a history of psychology, viewing historical approaches in psychology through the lens of how they treated and explained children. We read about resilience, and students (and I) found it quite interesting. I am curious about continuing research in this topic. You can read more about the course on my blog. (Convention Center, Room 103B)

Scholarship of teaching and learning across the faculty lifespan

I am always interested in integrating the scholarship of teaching and learning into my classroom, both for my own research in the classroom, but also to apply it to my pedagogical choices. This approach (how does this change as I become more senior) looks interesting. (Convention Center, Room 146B)

Friday 10 a.m.

How psychologists think about environmental issues

I think it is fascinating to see how psychology is applied to hot contemporary issues that many think do not have an immediate application. Environmentalism and climate change are a great example of how psychological science has a broad reach. I am eager to learn more about this. (Convention Center, Room 302)

Neuroimaging in the courtroom: Promises and perils in the coming decade

Many of my students are interested in psychology and legal issues, and I think this is a fascinating topic. I am in general a skeptic of applications of neuroimaging, as I wrote here, but I am open to hearing more. I’ll also add that I have heard Scott Lilienfeld speak a few times and have always learned something new, even when he is talking about something about which I am quite familiar.  (Convention Center, Room 101)

Martin Luther King Jr. and APA — The legacy of his 1967 speech

This looks like a fascinating session. I did not know that Martin Luther King Jr. had given a speech to the American Psychological Association, and I see that one of the presenters (Dr. Nathaniel Granger Jr, a Martin Luther King Jr. scholar and performer), will be doing a re-enactment and performance of the speech. I hope they have a big room, because I think this will be great. (Convention Center, Room 150A)

Friday 11 a.m.

SAW Woman of the Year – Libby Nutt WIlliams, Ph.D. – The joy of juggling: Ingredients for work-life balance

My wife and I had twin boys when I was a fourth-year doctoral student. When I received my PhD (in my seventh year), my daughter was only 3 months old. Now my wife is entering a doctoral program herself at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. So, yes, work-life balance is a perennial issue. I have made many decisions in favor of spending time with my family, but I know that I am often blinded by the many dimensions of my privilege to the struggles that many face in achieving work-life balance. When I attend these sessions, it is as much for finding tools and strategies for improving my own work-life balance as to remind myself the barriers that others face, and thinking about ways that I might be able to facilitate better balance for others if I find myself in a position to do so.

Deconstructing promotion and tenure – a re-examination of the faculty review process

I just received tenure at the beginning of this summer. While I am happy to have it behind me, I also have thoughts on the process, both at my institution and in general. I am curious about what this panel will discuss, given that this is a topic that is so often political, vague and quite opaque.

Beyond social media – technology tools every student should use

As the new director of our first-year program at Randolph-Macon, I am eager to expand my knowledge of the critical skills and competencies that college students should acquire. I am often amazed that while we may think that our entering students are “digital natives,”  they are often more unfamiliar than we are with even basic elements of technology. This session (should I be able to attend it) should fill me in on some technologies and websites outside of social media that can be helpful for students.

Friday 1 p.m.

Address by MIchael McCrea: Scientific update on sport related concussions: What does the evidence tell us

I am very interested in this, both because I often teach student athletes, and also because my own children are athletes. My boys play soccer, and we watched some horrific looking head injuries earlier this summer during the World Cup, only to see the player quickly get up and go on playing. I am also on the board of my local youth soccer organization, and I hope to be able to pass on scientific insight to my fellow board members and our volunteer coaches.

During the 2-4 p.m. block, I have a meeting scheduled with a colleague to talk about a new project. And perhaps a brief nap or maybe just staring off into space.

Friday 4 p.m.

Capstone experiences in psychology

I currently teach the capstone experience in our psychology department, which is entitled “Systems and Theories of Contemporary Psychology” and is in fact a history and philosophy of science class. I love the history of psychology (I was even a history of science major in college) but students often find this course a bit jarring in that it is different from some of their previous psychology courses. However, I love teaching with Stanovich’s “How to Think Straight About Psychology,” and guiding seniors in some reflection about what makes a psychology major so great. I am hoping to get some more tools and strategies here, and learn what other people do in their capstone courses.

Rethinking massive online classes: The educational, social and economic upsides

I am a MOOC skeptic. What I take that to mean is that I see MOOCs as an excellent supplement to (and even in some cases, replacement for) a traditional college textbook. However, I am highly dubious that a MOOC could come anywhere close to replacing a teacher. I am also wary of pretending we are scaling up to reduce educational costs or solving large educational problems in front of us, when we are merely providing new educational enrichment to the already educationally enriched, what the inestimable Tressie McMillan Cottom refers to as wandering autodidacts. There is a lot of great writing about this, from the excellent Jonathan Rees, but I am curious to see what two excellent teachers of psychology, James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling have to say about their experience.

Friday 5 p.m.

Psychology and Astronauts

Are you kidding me? How could I not turn up for the Right Stuff? I love the example of NASA as a place most people might not expect to have psychologists, whereas in fact there are a wealth of psychological problems, and interesting psychological research. People also often forget that the first A in NASA is Aeronautic — meaning civil aeronautics and commercial aviation. NASA researchers have helped with the design of many air traffic control towers and even in the processes of air traffic control itself. It is a great way of expanding students’ definitions of psychology, as well as a way to see how psychology is out of this world. This panel will talk about behavioral health and performance in high-risk/extreme environments for astronauts. I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say, and sharing it with students and anyone who will listen to me blabber on about psychology.

What are some sessions you are looking forward to? How do you handle wanting to be two places at once? I’d love to hear your tips and interests in the comments.

Livetweeting: Delightful Sharing or Attentional Scourge?

I expect to be doing some livetweeting of sessions this convention (as I have for recent conventions I have attended) and I thought I would address some common questions and concerns. If you are interested, you can follow along at my twitter account: @criener

What are the benefits of livetweeting?

Signal boost to other interested experts: If you are giving a public presentation at a conference, why not have the signal spread far and wide? While the APA convention is certainly enormous, there are surely many interested parties who might not make it, due to distance or costs. Livetweeting a session can reach interested psychologists who may not be in the room.459894721

Giving psychology away: Some sessions might also be interesting to the general public. At most talks, there is a short section at the beginning with some general context and a summary of the prevailing consensus on that topic. This can be useful for a non-psychologist.

What are the potential drawbacks?

Too may tweets! Many twitter skeptics are wary of the overwhelming nature of tweets flying by in a rapid fire stream. Livetweeting can accelerate that. Excessive or poor livetweeting can seem both overwhelming to your followers, yet obviously a pale comparison with actually attending the talk.

The talk has been prepared for the people in the room, not the hundreds or thousands of Twitter followers represented. My Twitter followers include mathematicians, high school teachers, other liberal arts college professors and science writers. A talk at a convention such as APA may be targeted to psychologists, or even to cognitive psychologists, and livetweeting jargon may be incomprehensible to followers unfamiliar, and unfair to a speaker who is (appropriately) addressing the lecture to the audience present.

How to address the drawbacks?

96106082I think these drawbacks can be addressed, and a successful livetweeting experience can be enriching for everyone involved. For the tweeter, you help spread good knowledge, and raise your reputation as an interesting source for good information. For the speaker, an 8 a.m. conference talk with 20 bleary-eyed travelers can reach thousands.I try to maximize the livetweeting experience with a few general principles. I’ll start with advice for the tweeter, but also include advice for speakers.

For tweeters:

First, Twitter is an oral medium, so don’t worry too much about overwhelming followers. It is not hard for them to mute you, or for your uninterested followers to unfollow or ignore you for a little while. As Ian Bogost once said after a 32 Tweet mini-manifesto about the digital humaniites: “It’s an intentional performative feature” of Twitter.

Second, even given that you shouldn’t worry too much about limiting the number of tweets, don’t try to transcribe what the speaker says. At best, livetweeting is a live precis of what they are saying, with a few tastes of cool stories or quotes. Often, it is just a few choice quotes, perhaps a joke or two and a pithy take-home message. And that is OK. If it is enough to whet the appetite of a small percentage of the audience, it is worth it.

Third, leave space to quote, use last name and conference hashtag. Be careful of quoting without attributing in the same tweet. If I have to do this, I make sure to use quotation marks, and quickly follow that with attribution. Related to this, it is a good idea to ask speakers if they are OK with livetweeting. I tend to think that if one is giving a quasi-public talk, one should be comfortable with the talk reaching a broad audience, but it is a good idea to politely remind and ask the speaker.

Fourth, own your summary, and don’t be afraid to add your own opinions or interests. “This reminds me of …” or “I wonder what she would think about ….”  A little personality and opinions help keep it interesting, and remind your audience that you are not merely transcribing, but reacting. If you can, supplement with links to a speaker’s website, papers or other relevant material. This is a great way to add value to a talk that might not be as easy for people in the room, but for people sitting at their computer in Cardiff, they can read more if they are interested.

Fifth, don’t be afraid to put down the keyboard and just listen.If a section of the talk is untweetable (of course this happens), just give up and wait until the next section, or the next talk. Your followers know they are getting a noisy connection in eavesdropping on the talk, and are just catching snippets anyway.

Finally, a few practical tips for livetweeting. I use an iPad (1!) and a Bluetooth keyboard with a silicone cover, so the keys are very soft. This allows me to be relatively quiet. I will take pictures of slides sometimes, but if no one else is doing it in the audience, or if I am farther back, I try to limit that.

For speakers

Livetweeting and blogging are likely to become more prevalent, so why not plan for it? First, and I may be in the minority on this, but if you would rather your words not leave the room, why say them at all? Conference talks do not strike me as the place to tell secrets to a room full of people. If they are not secrets, but tentative results, then present them as such, and perhaps politely ask people not to take pictures. Second, maybe think about designing your talk for a few tweetable moments. I think imagining a concise take-home message at the beginning and the end of the talk is just good practice for talks in general, but Twitter is just another reason to include a pithy one-sentence summary of your talk. Third, if you are on Twitter, schedule some tweets with links to your website, your papers, etc. Then, you can tell people at your talk to spread those. It becomes a virtual handout for your talk that doesn’t just reach people in the room. Think of tweeting as another way to extend the conversation. The conference talk need not begin and end at the convention center, but can be the continuation of an ongoing conversation.

That’s my $0.02 on livetweeting. Any tweeters out there? What are your impressions/opinions/tips about livetweeting? Any speakers have opinions or tips? Please share in the comments.

“I Contain Multitudes”

121921438“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

While dear old Walt was referring to himself in 1855, his words are just as apt to describe the American Psychological Association convention in 2014. Contradictions? Both Peace Psychology (Division 48) and Military Psychology (Division 19) are well represented. Large? Well over 10,000 attendees. But to me, my eyes are drawn to the “contain.” Can psychology contain all this diversity without bursting apart at the seams? I see I am not alone in that the Presidential Theme for this year’s convention is “Unifying Psychology for the Future”

In suitably Whitman-esque fashion (and indeed, like a psychologist), I turn inward for reflection before looking outward for guidance. How do I sustain and inhabit the different identities that “psychologist” means for me? I am a teacher, a scientist and a public scholar, yet a psychologist in each. My research interests range from my primary training in visual perception, to how we internalize the laws of physics, to applying cognitive science to educational settings. As a scientist, I hope to narrow my focus on clear and specific empirical questions, controlling for confounding factors and making my small and gradual contribution to chipping away at those known unknowns. But as a teacher and adviser to psychology majors of diverse interests, I am always on the lookout for creative ways to expand what psychology means in my students’ imaginations. As a public intellectual, I am eager to advocate for psychology’s place at the policy table, as a useful science in improving people’s lives.

Even as I foster an expansive view of psychology, I am wary of going too far, of spinning the lovely multitudes of psychology until they lose their coherence. I am apprehensive of applying uncertain, cutting-edge psychological science before it is ready, thereby undermining public confidence when such application doesn’t effectively address the real-world problem.

So these next few days I hope you will share my convention journey, as I try not to wax poetic too often. I’ll close with how Whitman opens Song of Myself, with just a few words judiciously changed. See you at convention!

I CELEBRATE <Psychology>, and sing <Psychology>,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every <conference talk> belonging to me as good belongs to you.