Looking to liven up the required reading list for the class you teach? Consider assigning memoirs, narrative nonfiction or popular science books that showcase psychological concepts at work in the world, says Barney Beins, PhD, a psychology professor at Ithaca College in New York. He has been using such readings in his classes for more than a decade. A few chapters from "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis can help make a statistics class come alive, while Ian Brown's memoir "The Boy in the Moon," about having a special-needs son, brings new dimensions to lessons on developmental psychology, abnormal psychology and ethics.
Such books give students "a broader depiction of what psychology is all about," Beins says. "In grad school, people tend to be narrow in their focus, but to be a good teacher you need to be broader."
Psychology programs vary on how much autonomy they give grad students to design their own syllabi, says Mark Silvestri, a clinical psychology PhD candidate at Auburn University in Alabama. Silvestri taught Introduction to Psychology last year and was free to show clips from YouTube and the TV show "Hoarders" during his lectures. He stuck to the textbook but says he is intrigued at the idea of broadening his required-reading list. "As I get more comfortable in my teaching, it will become easier to incorporate outside books," he says.
gradPSYCH asked both grad students and master teachers for their favorite psychology syllabus additions. They recommend:
"The Boy in the Moon" by Ian Brown
Synopsis: In this memoir, Brown recounts life with his son, Walker, who has a rare genetic disorder called cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome. At 13, Walker still wears diapers, can't speak and has a compulsion to hit himself. Brown meets with medical experts and other parents of children with the syndrome on his journey to understand and accept Walker — "my teacher, my sweet, sweet, lost and broken boy."
What it teaches: "It brings up interesting genetics questions," says Kenneth Keith, PhD, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of San Diego. It also gets students talking about the very nature of disability: "A lot of times a person is labeled ‘disabled' simply because somebody, at some time, said they were."
Ideal for classes in: Developmental psychology, abnormal psychology and ethics.
"Memory's Ghost" by Philip J. Hilts
Synopsis: In this biography/scientific exploration, Hilts spends extended time with the famed Henry M., the young man who had experimental brain surgery in 1953 that left him unable to form memories. The book explains the nature of memory and how the hippocampus — the part of Henry M.'s brain that doctors removed to cure his epilepsy — organizes information into memory. In textbooks, the gruesome surgery and its aftermath are often sanitized, but Hilts details it all.
What it teaches: "It's a story that everyone has heard, but the book puts some meat on the bones," Beins says. "It shows that the people who are involved in the famous case studies are actual human beings, and sometimes the research has an impact on people's lives that the researchers don't imagine will ever happen."
Ideal for classes in: Introduction to behavioral neuroscience, cognitive psychology and history of psychology.
"The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson
Synopsis: This historical nonfiction book takes place during London's 1854 cholera outbreak. The popular assumption was that the disease was transmitted through "foul air." Physician John Snow determines that it's in fact carried by water after he maps the neighborhood and sees that massive numbers of people who live near the Broad Street pump are dying.
What it teaches: Keith taught "The Ghost Map" to illustrate the scientific method in a cross-cultural psychology class in a University of San Diego study abroad program at the Queen Mary campus, University of London. "It was a perfect time to use that book because we could get on the subway, go to Soho and see the buildings where everything happened."
Ideal for classes in: Statistics, research methods and health psychology.
"The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester
Synopsis: James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s, corresponds by mail for 20 years with a volunteer named Dr. W.C. Minor on the finer points of English lexicography. Finally, after Minor has contributed nearly 10,000 definitions to the dictionary, Murray goes to meet him in person and learns that Minor has been an inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum the entire time.
What it teaches: "It interweaves psychology with literature and with language and suggests that a person who's got serious problems in one aspect of his life might be very competent in another," Keith says.
Ideal for classes in: Abnormal psychology and the history of psychology.
"Moneyball" by Michael Lewis
Synopsis: This nonfiction book tells the story of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics general manager, who used statistical analysis to turn his team into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball despite its shoestring budget. After a systematic scientific investigation of their sport, the A's snap up undervalued players who they believe can win them games — and it works.
What it teaches: "It's far more interesting and engaging than most statistics texts," says Mark Sciutto, PhD, a psychology professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "And you can draw excitement from the students in seeing the application of what they're learning to the world around them. It is also a great illustration of a wide range of cognitive biases."
Ideal for classes in: Introduction to psychology, cognitive psychology, statistics and research methods.
"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell
Synopsis: Gladwell studied successful people — geniuses, rock stars, business tycoons and the like — and investigated how factors such as their families, birthplaces and birthdates set them up for success. For example, men who are born just after Jan. 1 are most likely to be hockey stars. Spoiler alert: That's the cutoff date for youth hockey teams in Canada, so those youngsters may be nearly a year older than some of their teammates. Because they are generally more physically mature, those boys get to play more often and under better coaches, making them better at hockey than their teammates over time.
What it teaches: "I connected it to my area of specialty, ADHD, where they've shown some similar interesting things with diagnostic rates and kindergarten cut-off dates," Sciutto says.
Ideal for classes in: Developmental psychology, introduction to psychology, statistics and research methods.
"Spook" by Mary Roach
Synopsis: Roach shows the scientific method at work as she travels the globe meeting people who earnestly study the afterlife. She interviews reincarnation researchers in India, enrolls in medium school in England and meets a Duke University doctor with plans to weigh the soul.
What it teaches: "It can generate good conversations about the relation between critical thinking and belief, and about our propensity for fooling ourselves," Keith says.
Ideal for classes in: Research methods and history of psychology.
Rachel Saslow is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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