Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology

 

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Textbooks and Teachers

If you haven't yet taken psychology in college you might find its writing and us teachers a little strange. Then again, it might all be very similar to what you're accustomed to. Let's start with the textbooks.

Most of your undergraduate courses will use standard encyclopedic-style textbooks. Our PSY-101 (Introductory Psychology) uses one, most developmental courses use one, social psychology uses one, etc. Some of these courses might have an additional text as well, and those range in styles so I won't directly address them. Nor am I here to give lessons about active, productive reading. I just want to show you what textbook material looks like and how to approach it in general.

Here's a sample paragraph from an introductory textbook:

Scientific evidence suggests that subliminal perception does occur but that it has no potential for "mind control" (Greenwald, Klinger, & Schuh, 1995; Strahan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2005). Subliminal effects are usually small and short-lived, and they mainly affect simple judgments and general measures of overall arousal. Most researchers agree that subliminal messages have no special power to create major changes in people's needs, goals, skills, or actions (Pratkanis & Aronson, 2001; Randolph-Seng & Mather, 2009; Strahan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2005). In fact, advertisements, political speeches, and other messages that people can perceive consciously have far stronger persuasive effects.

It's obviously out of context, but it's not unintelligible; it was the concluding paragraph of a short section on subliminal perception. Now, what stands out? For one, there are statements of fact. You're used to that: it's standard textbook style. "Scientific evidence suggests that subliminal perception does occur but..." and that information might show up on a quiz. Nothing unusual there. But what's all that parenthetical stuff at the end of the sentence? There are names and dates. Those are citations, and if you have the whole book in your hands, you'd be able to find the full reference for the original work that the citation refers to (either at the end of the chapter or at the very end of the book). But it is not important. You needn't read it. Those citations are important from a scientific perspective. There was a statement of fact and a reader might wonder, "says who?" and the citation is the answer to that question. But only the very curious wonder about things like that. It will never be on a quiz or test if it is only a parenthetical citation.

What does that mean for you as a reader? It means you can ignore those citations. Read the paragraph like this:

Scientific evidence suggests that subliminal perception does occur but that it has no potential for "mind control." Subliminal effects are usually small and short-lived, and they mainly affect simple judgments and general measures of overall arousal. Most researchers agree that subliminal messages have no special power to create major changes in people's needs, goals, skills, or actions. In fact, advertisements, political speeches, and other messages that people can perceive consciously have far stronger persuasive effects.

I've removed the citations.

So why aren't they removed by the textbook author to make it easy for you? Because technically the writing would be guilty of plagiarism if there weren't citations. The textbook would have stolen information (or exact wording in the case of quoted material) without giving credit. And why not the less intrusive superscripted symbols for footnotes or endnotes? Because the use of footnotes or endnotes is not APA style. What you're seeing in your textbooks is APA style. When we summarize information from somebody else's work, we give credit by showing a citation in parentheses with the author(s) name(s) and the date of publication. You might have to learn to ignore it, but eventually you will.

Sometimes the citations are not just "hidden" inside parentheses. Sometimes the names of the authors are used to build the sentence in the textbook. For example, here's another passage:

In one early comparison study, Harold Stevenson (1992) followed a sample of pupils in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States from first grade, in 1980, to eleventh grade, in 1991. In first grade, the Asian students scored no higher than their U.S. peers on tests of mathematical aptitude and skills, nor did they enjoy math more. However, by fifth grade, the U.S. students had fallen far behind.

In this case, the name of the author of the study on Asian and American kids has been included in the sentence describing his work; "Harold Stevenson followed a sample of pupils in..."; the citation is his name plus the parenthetical date (which I removed just now, like I did above, to show how you'd read it). Usually your teachers will not hold you responsible for knowing those names either, but I can't speak for everyone.

Now, just briefly, back to the substance of the examples. The first one is packed full of information. It was a concluding paragraph to a section on subliminal perception. No doubt what it states was said in more detail previously. Nonetheless, there you have one fact after another, each interesting, and each perhaps fair game from your teacher's perspective as quiz material.

Scientific evidence suggests that subliminal perception does occur but that it has no potential for "mind control." Fact. It occurs; it doesn't do much to us. Subliminal effects are usually small and short-lived, Fact and they mainly affect simple judgments Fact and general measures of overall arousal Fact. Most researchers agree that subliminal messages have no special power to create major changes in people's needs, goals, skills, or actions Facts. In fact, advertisements, political speeches, and other messages that people can perceive consciously have far stronger persuasive effects In fact, another fact.

And did you catch the line about "most researchers agree..."? Why not all of them? Maybe there's some controversy about the topic. Or a few die-hard contrarians who have a little evidence for their less conventional beliefs. Sometimes it's the one: genuine controversy among the sober researchers in the field; and sometimes it's the other: a strong believer who has a minimum of evidence to support his beliefs, and is appeased by the textbook author. (The politics of publishing is an installment you might get in the years ahead.)

In comparison, the excerpt on math skills summarized one particular study. It told you what Harold Stevenson found in his study on Asian and American kids, and it described a little bit of the study, along with the facts it discovered. Your teacher might not care about the author's name, but might want you to know a little bit about how the research study was carried out, in addition to the facts discovered. He followed a sample of pupils over time. That's different than comparing today's first-graders to today's fifth graders to today's tenth-graders. It's a different type of study. It might be important to know that, given your specific course, your teacher, etc. And what did Stevenson discover? That although there was no nationality difference in first grade, "by fifth grade, the U.S. students had fallen far behind" Fact. (Notice that it doesn't tell us why they had fallen behind - that might be left for theory; it just discovered the timing of the fall.)

 

Okay, now on to those teachers. Nothing juicy, salacious, or catty here. I work with these people, after all. I treat them as I wish to be treated (more or less). But it would be silly to ignore differences in teachers' approaches, interests, styles, personalities, and so on.

You already know that some of your teachers are funny and some are not; some are highly organized and some are not; some are warm and supportive and some are not, some grade tough and others are easy A's, some lecture endlessly and others assign countless group activities in class, etc. (or for a relatively famous cartoon on it: the 9 types of college teachers). Those differences are found throughout education. I only want to look at some differences in psychology teachers, and my focus will be on approaches and interests.

Perhaps the biggest difference among psychology teachers is whether they have a clinical background or a research background (see the page on The Variety of Psychology for an introductory description of that difference). Do I want to generalize here? No, but I'll have to. I think the research folks will more likely be sticklers for facts and theories while clinical folks will emphasize application a little more. And research-trained faculty probably emphasize scientific method a little more than clinically-trained faculty. That's probably the end of the generalization, though. I don't know if one grades writing more carefully than the other, or what not: you get some who are more attentive to it and some who are less; some of your psychology teachers will emphasize your personal experiences related to the material studied (through the use of journals, reaction papers, etc.), and others won't, but those are random differences. Mostly, teachers trained in clinical psychology have slightly different interests than teachers trained in one of the research fields of psychology, and you'll probably notice it in the classroom.

Then you have some teachers who stick very closely to the book and the facts and theories defined therein, and others who want you to think beyond the text, to know things beyond the text. Psychology itself is not just facts and recitable theories, but also a logic, and some teachers want you to comprehend that logic and see if you can apply it to situations not described in your readings. They want to teach you to "think like a psychologist."

Some emphasize facts (including names), while others emphasize ideas. Some of your teachers will tell a lot of personal stories because they hope you'll see the application to the material being covered in class in those real life examples. Others remain detached from their personal experiences and only use examples that are "third-party" (like movies). Students sometimes complain that this teacher or that "always talks about her grandkids," as if the teacher is rambling on narcissistically, but most of the time those types of teachers are using those stories to provide real-life examples of the material (not all the time, of course; see the cartoon).

Some of your psychology teachers will demand that you write following "APA style," which is a style for writing in the field of psychology, covering things like citations (as shown above), reference lists, pagination, spacing, and so on. Some might not bother. A few assign nothing but multiple-guess tests.

And of course some are old, some are new, some are borrowed, some are blue. Most are probably a little nutty once you peel back a layer or two; after all, for some reason we took a special liking to studying the mind and behavior.