The University of Pennsylvania tries to gut Gil-White's course Psychology of Ethnicity


PREFATORY NOTE from Francisco Gil-White

Here below is what the university had to say about my course, "Psyc472," which was the official designation in the University of Pennsylvania's numbering system for Psychology of Ethnicity. In this course I teach, among other topics, the historical origins of Western antisemitism and also of anti-black racism. This is what Robert Rescorla is talking about, below, when he refers to "the last several topics of the course." If you would like to read my reply, you may do so here:

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 2004 10:02:19 -0400
From: Robert Rescorla <
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.0; en-US; rv:1.0.2) Gecko/20030208 Netscape/7.02 X-Accept-Language: en-us, en
To: fjgil <
Subject: psyc472
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As I mentioned in an earlier email, the approval of psyc472 to be offered a second time is still pending. As part of the process of course approval, I ask our department curriculum committee to comment on courses that we forward to the College. The idea is to anticipate difficulties that might arise at the College level and facilitate the approval of our courses. At a recent meeting of our curriculum committee several issues were raised about the Psyc472 syllabus that you provided. Based on my past experience with the College, I think we can anticipate that its committee will identify the same issues. Consequently, we need to address them before I can forward the syllabus to the College.

The first issue is the most straightforward. You propose to evaluate the work of students in the class by allocating 30% of the grade to class participation and 70% to a paper due at the end of the term. The consequence is that students will have considerable difficulty telling how they are performing in the class until it is over. This makes it hard for a student to make informed choices about how to improve his or her performance or, for that matter, whether or not it would be wise to drop the course. The committee would like to see some assignment that is due earlier in the course, on which you would provide students with feedback. Perhaps you could assign a short paper or two, asking students to address the kinds of questions that you pose in your syllabus.

The second issue is more complex. The committee applauds your willingness to deal with the psychological issues that are involved in topics as controversial as those of the course. It can be especially valuable for students to see how scientific psychological methods and findings can be applied to topics about which they care deeply. But the committee expressed concern that your description of how you will approach the last several topics of the course seems to have little to do with the psychological issues involved and instead to hinge on political interpretation of historical facts. The committee feels that this focus may not be appropriate for a course in psychology. Moreover, the committee noted that while the readings for the early part of the course appear to contain balanced presentations from peer-reviewed journals, those of the last several topics are from sources that have not been vetted in the usual manner of the psychological literature. Since the course instructor is the author of some of those articles, the committee is concerned that the balance evident in earlier topics is absent for the last several topics.

Of course the most extreme way to deal with such concerns would be to delete these topics from the course altogether. But I suggest instead that you attempt to recast the description of the topics on the syllabus to emphasize the psychological principles that will be explicated and that you add several peer-reviewed readings that take a different point of view on those principles.

The third issue is the most difficult of all to think about. You have deliberately set the course as a kind of debate between you and the students. You properly note that such a format can be a highly valuable pedagogical tool. Moreover, you go out of your way to emphasize that you want the students to disagree with you. But the committee is concerned that the students who take this course may not be in a position to enter into such a debate in a way that makes the experience positive for them. There is, of course, an extreme asymmetry between your knowledge and that of the students on these topics. As a result, it is almost guaranteed that the positions you take and the arguments that you make will prevail. Under those circumstances there is the danger that students will feel coerced into accepting your position. I appreciate that this is far from your intent. But you must remember that the students in this course are undergraduates, many of whom have relatively little background in psychology and even less self-confidence in their knowledge. They are not graduate students or colleagues who can confidently adopt a position different from yours and defend it. The committee is concerned that some of the students may feel extremely uncomfortable and even bullied by the instructor. This is particularly a problem when the students know that the instructor will be issuing their grade. Whether instructors like it or not, students do not easily shake the belief that they get a poor grade if they challenge an instructor's beliefs. I know from talking with students about the last occasion which this course was given that this concern needs to be taken seriously. You should anticipate that although many students will thrive on this teaching style, a significant number will find it oppressive and bullying. It is not acceptable for even a few students to feel this way about courses we give in psychology. You need to think about how you can take steps to reassure students. You also need to craft prose that will convince the College committee that you are sensitive to this issue and will incorporate special measures to deal with it.

I am sorry to dump this on you, but I need you to revise your syllabus taking these comments into account before I can forward it to the College. Unfortunately, we are under real time pressure because the College deadline for course submissions is October 11. In order to give me time to read and react to your revision, I need to have it by Wednesday, October 6. I apologize for such short notice.





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