Presidential Column

Isolation, Interdisciplinarity, Inspiration

Peter Glick is approaching his 18th year of teaching at Lawrence University, an undergraduate only liberal arts college of about 1400 students. In this guest column, he reflects on doing research in that setting, drawing in part on how the setting necessitates bridges between areas in psychology and even to other social sciences and the humanities. This column is the third in a continuing series about psychological science across areas and disciplines.

– Susan Fiske
APS President

Many APS members are intimately familiar with the particular challenges (a popular euphemism for frustrations, difficulties, and obstacles) of establishing a research career at a small liberal arts college. Frequently, the missionary founders of our colleges built them in remote locations, reclaiming swampland or cutting a clearing in a forest, to fulfill their mission of bringing enlightenment into the wilderness. Although perhaps conducive to the study habits of our students, isolation — both physical and social — can be alienating and disheartening for faculty members who want to contribute to the ongoing development of their field through research.

The isolation has lessened due to email and travel, but it still exists. In small departments there may be only one social psychologist, one developmental psychologist, and so on (insert your field here), there is no steady stream of visiting researchers giving “brown bags,” and the affiliation on your name tag at conferences may give you special insight into the psychology of stigma. And did I mention high teaching loads, no graduate students, few resources, and a small pool of potential research participants? Our lot is indeed a difficult one.

The virtues of the liberal arts college are usually expressed in terms of the teaching, not the scholarly, mission of these institutions. But there are advantages to the liberal arts college setting that can deepen a faculty member’s research contribution. One of the most important is an intellectual climate that fosters knowledge of other disciplines and intellectual breadth. Specifically, three forces promote interdisciplinary awareness: colleagues, students, and the structure of the curriculum. Interdisciplinarity need not weaken commitment to one’s own field (though this is a potential danger); rather, it can encourage fresh approaches to enduring topics, leading to innovative research and theoretical advances.

Having small departments (in my case, six full-time faculty covering all of psychology) means that colleagues and close friends not only work in different subfields, but that many will not be psychologists. At the lunch table where one mixes with philosophers, physicists, and English professors, conversations often revolve around the mundane (such as whether a new restaurant in town has raised the local, depressingly low, culinary bar), but not always. Exposure to people in entirely foreign fields can have a salutary effect; information is accrued through what seems like a process of osmosis. Knowing that witchcraft accusations in Ghana often included charges of infanticide may not be necessary, but such bits of information have expanded my perspective as a sexism researcher.

Students often serve as the indirect conduit of intellectual stimulation from one’s colleagues. Undergraduates at liberal arts colleges usually have wide-ranging interests (and distribution requirements ensure their exposure to a variety of fields), leading them to connect the dots between their classes. I may first learn about the theoretical perspectives of an anthropologist, whose office is just down the hall, from the student who is taking both her class and mine. Not infrequently, in-class discussions determine the subsequent content of exchanges with colleagues. Exposure to different fields (through both students and colleagues) has influenced me to take account of different levels of analysis, not just the psychological, in my own research (e.g., emphasizing the role of social structure in generating prejudice).

Students are also a direct source of inspiration. Teaching undergraduates and doing research need not be competing obligations; they can be mutually reinforcing. In psychology, as in other empirical fields, undergraduate research meshes perfectly with the liberal arts mission. Undergraduate students are capable of participating in high quality research (they have served as co-authors on many of my own publications), and involving them in research is one of the surest ways to foster their intellectual development. Because they have not yet acquired the blinders of specialized knowledge and are immersed in classes from a variety of disciplines, students often generate (more readily than those of us with a PhD) basic, yet innovative research questions. My first foray into gender research — now my bread and butter — stemmed from a project in my Research Methods class generated by two students’ interest in sex discrimination.

Looking at curriculum, the liberal arts college demands that faculty teach a wider range and a greater number of courses compared to our colleagues at research institutions. We may be expected to teach outside our own sub-areas of psychology, to contribute to interdisciplinary programs, and even to participate in a college-wide course that is completely outside the field.

The specialization encouraged in graduate school does not prepare one for these wide-ranging demands, and it is extraordinarily difficult for faculty just beginning their careers to fulfill them while maintaining a research program. But there are advantages to taking a wider focus. Teaching more broadly within psychology diminishes the tunnel vision that can develop in graduate school, and thus can enhance one’s creativity as a researcher. The development of courses in an interdisciplinary program entails exposure to alternative approaches to shared questions. Teaching outside of psychology entirely is a daunting experience, but can be an intellectually energizing chance to relive being an undergraduate, but with a set of skills you did not have back then.

Teaching in Lawrence University’s signature Freshman Studies program (a great books course) has been valuable to me as a researcher. Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” have deepened my scholarly approach to sexism and to prejudice in general. Virginia Woolf’s little gem of a book, which is full of psychological insight about how men think about women and vice versa, directly influenced ambivalent sexism theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996; 2001).

I may have benefited from reading such works on my own, but (a) I probably wouldn’t have picked them up if not for Freshman Studies, and (b) the desperate knowledge that I had to teach these books to undergraduates and lead intelligent discussions on them motivated a deeper engagement with the works that has been truly eye-opening.

Similarly, teaching an interdisciplinary course on the Holocaust with a Religious Studies professor (in this case, my wife) directly informed the development of a general model of scapegoating (Glick, 2002). Teaching about the Holocaust required me to know specific historical details, and this knowledge sparked insights about the nature of scapegoating that contradict psychology’s conventional wisdom. For example, I propose that targets are scapegoated because they are perceived as powerful, not weak, and that the lessening of frustrations, if attributed to the actions of a genocidal political movement, can foster, rather than diminish, commitment to genocide. Although these insights were rooted in a particular historical case, comparisons to other genocides (e.g., Rwanda) suggest that they can be generalized.

I do not mean to leave readers with an unrealistically rosy view of research in a liberal arts context. I urgently needed to spend my first sabbatical at a research institution to develop and test some of the ideas inspired by teaching at a liberal arts college. The sabbatical had an equally important effect of helping me to expand my connections with others in the discipline. Although faculty at liberal arts colleges have to work harder to forge and maintain such connections, the current age of global communication, along with the fact that research in psychology is conducive to collaboration, mean that isolation can be overcome. The reward is involvement in two intellectual communities: one local and interdisciplinary, the other international, but more narrowly focused. Having a foot in each world creates a friction that can spark inspiration.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.