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.

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.