August 30 , 1999
Volume 52, No. 2
Seminar looks at 'unusual' people on both ends of spectrum
While psychology usually looks at the average performance of a group and ignores extremes, a new freshman seminar focuses on people who are noteworthy either because of their below-normal or super-normal performance.
Psychology 190H, "Case Studies of Unusual People," examines clinical cases of those who are socially isolated or exhibit autism, genius, amnesia, superior memory or recovered memories of abuse. First offered last spring, the seminar is being taught again this fall by experimental psychologist Eugene Winograd, whose field of research is human memory.
The course emphasizes individuals, rather than group averages, and is concerned with what cases of extreme performance can tell us about what is normal, Winograd explained. Noting that the seminar is not "a freak show," he said: "We learn a lot about memory from studying people whose memories are not working right, just a we learn about normal color perception from studying people who are color blind.."
He described the problem of designing a seminar--which is supposed to be advanced inquiry--for freshmen. "I find it much more difficult and challenging to teach a freshman seminar that any other seminar I've taught, whether for undergraduate students or graduate students," he said, noting that first-year students lack a common background or training in psychological principles.
The first time he taught the course, Winograd said he tried to avoid lecturing as much as possible. Now he feels some lecturing may be necessary, "but it seems to me not to be consistent with the spirit of the seminar," he said.
The challenge of teaching such a course is to try to encourage students to see what can be learned from these cases, he said. "And I'm still working on that. I don't think I was terribly successful the first time-I wasn't really aware of how differently a layman looks at these problems from someone who has a background and training in the discipline."
To help get his students up to speed, Winograd gives them some background readings. While these students may not know much about psychology, he said, "The good thing about teaching freshman, in a case like this, is that they ask you questions that you haven't thought about in a while. Sometimes you can get a fresh insight."
The seminar consists of 14, three-hour weekly classes where students discuss readings of case studies and view films and educational videos. When the seminar focused on isolated children, for instance, Winograd's students studied both the modern case of an isolated child in California, who was discovered by authorities at age 13, and a historical case of a feral child in rural France some 200 years ago-a case made famous by a Francois Truffaut film, "The Wild Child."
"Such cases always mirror the environmental versus the genetic argument-the nature-nurture argument in psychology," Winograd said. And since neither isolated child acquired normal language, their cases also raise the question of whether there is a critical period for language learning, he added.
The last three or four classes are devoted to student presentations of term papers written on subjects they have chosen. "A requirement is that they find a case study in some part of psychology that interests them," Winograd said. Their papers often focus on some form of abnormal psychology and present one to three case studies that have been published in scientific journals and books. To get them started, Winograd gives his students a list of suggested topics and training in using the library.
How did last semester's freshmen respond to the seminar? They were "cautious in venturing their opinions," Winograd said, figuring it was because they weren't trained psychologists and didn't want to appear foolish. "I tried to encourage them to get past that," he added.