Melissa Beers 'leans on' racial justice through enhanced Intro to Psychology course
The Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX) announced a pilot racial justice grant program this fall to support instructors incorporating diverse voices into curricula and inviting conversations around racial justice into their courses.
Of the nine grant winners selected to each receive $500 this fall, eight are in the College of Arts and Sciences, including Melissa Beers, program director for the Introduction to Psychology course. She hopes to deepen the conversations and course content surrounding social diversity within one of the college’s most popular classes, which this semester serves almost 2,000 students. In this interview, Beers shares how she and her team of instructors have adapted the course for autumn 2020.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What interested you in applying for this ALX grant?
Well, like everyone else over the summer, I sat here in utter frustration and grief and disbelief that police killings of unarmed Black people unfolded as they did, yet again. Sitting here in my house, I felt powerless, and I wanted to do something. And then I thought, what an opportunity we have to reach our students and especially to support our students of color and our students from marginalized groups.
I don't think we could have a conversation about stereotyping and prejudice and not directly address what's been happening in the world. ... But beyond that, this is an opportunity for us to make (racial justice) an integrative theme across the course because it is part of the whole human experience and not just isolated to one piece of it."
In Psychology 1100, we have always cared very deeply about social diversity; one of our course objectives is to help students appreciate diversity, to think beyond their own perspective and be inclusive and accepting of other people in all the ways we vary. But race is one source of variation that we really need to prioritize now.
How have you changed this course for an online format this semester?
We took a long time reflecting on how to balance the needs of our students and the needs of our graduate instructors and how to best structure the class. We have a synchronous component and an asynchronous component. We made a variety of changes to create more flexibility for students and instructors. We also tried to end many of the formal assessments before November because everybody's going to be online and in different places at that point in the semester. The last week will be a period of reflection, something we are trying for the first time this semester. We want to give students a chance to reflect on the things that they've learned, which is nice because in a traditional semester students are learning new content right up until the very end.
We realize that throughout this semester, students are going to have a lot of unexpected things happening — we're all going to have unexpected things happening — and we wanted to create as much flexibility as we could so everybody can have a consistent, high-quality learning experience. We want to afford each other grace in a way that is less constrained by some of the traditional teaching and learning methods we've used in the past.
I imagine all those considerations apply to any course, but probably especially for courses like Intro to Psychology.
It’s a class largely populated by first-semester students. We're very sensitive to the fact that this is one of the first course experiences our incoming students are having, and we want to make sure that they are feeling supported in their transition to college life, even though it is not at all what we would normally do or what anyone expected.
Additionally, they’re learning content that we think is really important, especially now. We have a lot to tell students about stress, health, managing wellness, cognition and how we interact with other people.
Intro to Psychology is often one of new students' first academic experiences at Ohio State, something Beers has been cognizant of when organizing the course this semester.
Do you want to talk more specifically about what the racial justice component will include in terms of coursework, topics or themes you want to connect to psychology?
We cover a unit in our course on social psychology, which includes stereotyping and prejudice. I don't think we could have a conversation about stereotyping and prejudice and not directly address what's been happening in the world. We have, really, an obligation to do that for our students of color. We need to support their experience. But beyond that, this is an opportunity for us to make it an integrative theme across the course because it is part of the whole human experience and not just isolated to one piece of it. I want to bring in content that our textbook and our curriculum have not included at the level that I wanted, and I want to help support our instructors to have these conversations with students.
Do you foresee the instructors for this course incorporating these resources and having these discussions this semester?
We definitely want to talk about this this semester, and this is just the beginning. We want to be thoughtful and intentional about it, and we want to be inclusive and sensitive in these conversations. We want to be grounded in science. That's what we do. We want to try to create a structure within our team so people can contribute and help grow the course with each iteration.
There's not one flavor of psychology. We have developmental psychology, social psychology, behavioral neuroscience, clinical psychology and health psychology. Intro to Psych looks at all of these areas, so when we create opportunities for our instructors who come from all these diverse perspectives to work across specializations together, the whole is so much richer. I’m hopeful that with all of us turning our attention on this one issue together, it's going to start some great conversations.
When we create opportunities for our instructors who come from all these diverse perspectives to work across specializations together, the whole is so much richer."
What do you hope students will take away from this course?
As with everything we do in psychology, I hope students will understand a scientific approach to studying these issues, understand the research literature better and understand that all of us see the world through an imperfect lens that we don't necessarily fully appreciate because that's all we see.
In a class like Psychology 1100 where we can objectively pull back and show how we study and tease apart some very complicated ideas, I'm hopeful that it will first help students appreciate social science research. I also hope it will help students critically reflect on their own perspectives and possibly understand more about sources of bias in their own and others’ behavior. Hopefully, it will help them be a source of positive change in whatever field they choose to pursue. Psychology is a hub science, so the research we do informs many other disciplines. Anyone who's coming to take psychology from another program is going to learn things they can take back and apply as they prepare for their own career.
Is there anything that you would like to add or emphasize or you feel like we've missed?
I know this is a difficult time for our students. I know this is a difficult time for instructors. Everyone is working so hard to just adapt to try to do our best in really unfamiliar territory, and I just have a lot of empathy for everyone. Our goal is not to make anyone's life harder, but to try to make everyone's life better. We want to impart things that will help people be healthier and more informed about the world and enable them to make good judgments grounded in evidence.
It feels good to be able to work on these issues. ...That's just a real privilege, and I'm really grateful for that. No matter what else is going on, as teachers at Ohio State, that's an opportunity we have, and it’s a gift."
Now is the time for us all collectively to lean on the topic of racial justice together, and I'm just happy to be doing that. I'm glad ALX is supporting this conversation and lending its voice to this effort, and I’m proud that psychology is doing something.
Even though the world has been upended, it feels good to be able to work on these issues that are so important, to do our part to help other people, to help our students learn and to try to help the world. That's just a real privilege, and I'm really grateful for that. No matter what else is going on, as teachers at Ohio State, that's an opportunity we have, and it’s a gift.