Transforming a Developmental Psychology Course to Reflect Students' Diversity

Article excerpt

Transforming a Developmental Psychology Course to Reflect Students' Diversity

I've been working for several years on transforming a large lecture course in developmental psychology, striving to give greater attention to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religion along with the more traditional topics for such a course. On other campuses, this same course might be called "childhood and adolescence," or "human development," or "child and family development." Many developmental psychology courses and textbooks are organized chronologically, from infancy through early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, and sometimes adult development and aging. Other developmental psychology courses and textbooks are organized topically, addressing in turn the development of perception, cognition, language, personality, the self, social relationships, and related topics. For example, a well-known textbook in developmental psychology, otherwise one of my favorites, now features a series of "across cultures" boxes for the presentation of "variations of developmental patterns as functions of culture or subcultural differences." In other words, the story of normative changes and development -- as though white, middle-class, heterosexual boys and men had no race, social class, sexual orientation, or gender -- is presented in the main running text, and then on the margins of the pages, safely circumscribed in boxes, are presented the stories of the children of groups that are "deviant" from the norm and thus implicitly abnormal, subordinate, and inferior. I felt that it was important to have race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religion be not merely add-ons to the existing structure of a course on developmental psychology. Instead, I wanted these topics to have a continuing presence as core, foundational constructs in the course. One way to begin making the experiences of a more diverse group of people central, rather than marginal, to a developmental psychology course is to incorporate autobiographies as main texts in the course.

Goals in Transforming the Course

My principal goals in transforming this developmental psychology course were twofold. First, I wanted to increase significantly the students' engagement with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious sectarianism. Granted, there is far more attention to these issues within traditional textbooks than there was a decade or two ago. 1 Yet, in general, these issues remain marginalized within the discipline of developmental psychology (Meacham, 1996a).

My second goal in transforming this developmental course was to provide students with a greater range of voices and viewpoints -- beyond mine and that of the author of the textbook -- on significant dimensions and issues of human development (Meacham, 1997a). Ideally, a course on developmental psychology should include opportunities for students to observe and interact with children, adolescents, and families of a variety of backgrounds and experiences and in a variety of settings. However, I lecture on developmental psychology to classes of 200 to 350 students without small discussion sections. Hence, arranging opportunities for students to observe and interact with children and families is not possible. Having children or adolescents as guests in the lecture hall would be intimidating for a number of these guests and unlikely to elicit typical behaviors and responses. Hence, the series of autobiographies (chosen to represent child and adolescent development of individuals of diverse backgrounds and experiences) serves another valuable function: testifying to the class about a variety of human developmental experiences.

Teaching With Autobiographies

One immediately obvious advantage to using autobiographical voices rather than textbook voices is that students find it easier to become engaged with the real individuals portrayed in the autobiographies than they do with the modal (but abstracted and impersonal) research participants presented in the textbooks. …