Emory Report
December 12, 2005
Volume 58, Number 14


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December 12 , 2005
What’s the pitcher thinking? Seminar seeks the answer

BY rachel robertson

Using baseball as a framework to teach neuroscience and psychology was an obvious choice for Hillary Rodman; a self-described sports fan and “hard-core neuroscientist,” she also is a veteran teacher of introductory psychology. Rodman tapped into all of these roles in designing the freshman seminar, “Science and Myth of Baseball.”

“There are all sorts of phenomena in baseball that one might relate to concepts in introductory psychology and research design,” said Rodman, associate professor of psychology.

Consider, she said, what goes on in the brain when a batter decides to swing at a pitch. This deceptively simple example involves several domains of neurology and physiology, including perception, decision making and physics—all of which Rodman teaches in her class.

Rodman keeps the topics flexible, however, depending on her class’ interests. When she first taught the course in fall 2001, 9/11 was on everyone’s minds. Although it was not in her original plan, Rodman used the tragedy to talk about the role of sports in society.

“The Yankees and Mets and other teams were looked at, to some degree, as a way of helping New York City get back on its feet psychologically,” Rodman said. “There was a lot of discussion in class as to whether it was the responsibility of baseball—and sports in general—to either [resume its season] very quickly or not to do so.”

This semester’s class spent several days hashing out the distinction between superstition (for which athletes are well known, but baseball players are notorious) and strategy on the diamond. By entertaining this interest from the students, Rodman also could delve into behavioral psychology and operant conditioning (modification of behavior based on perceived consequences of previous actions).

Although Rodman’s initial concept was to use baseball to examine topics related to psychology and neuroscience, she’s found the seminar helps students learn to think critically from a variety of academic perspectives. This year she added to the syllabus Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box, a book of essays edited by philosopher Eric Bronson. And to get a more experiential account of being a baseball fan, Rodman’s students read Steve Kluger’s novel Last Days of Summer.

Discussing eclectic and diverse topics, however, is really just a way to accomplishing Rodman’s true goal: to introduce freshmen to the skills of critical thinking. For example, a trip to a Braves game at Turner Field was one of the more fun class assignments, but Rodman also had a serious purpose: Students were required to come up with a hypothesis about human behavior, which they would test at the ballpark.

For example: Are the most attentive fans seated in the most expensive seats? Is fan behavior altered by the music and entertainment in the ballpark? Do children follow the example of their parents?

The students talked in class about how to operationalize their hypotheses—what variables to measure, how to collect data, what limitations they might encounter—and then headed off for the game, data sheets in hand.

“This was a way of introducing very basic concepts of research, to get the students thinking about things in terms of paradigms and difficulties in interpretation,” Rodman said.

Another assignment was simply to take notes and ask questions during their fellow students’ presentations. “One of the goals of freshman seminars is to get people used to the style of a seminar—the idea of listening and reacting to each other,” Rodman said.

Although Rodman hopes to equip her students with some intellectual tools as they begin their college careers, this Mets-fan-turned-Braves-fan doesn’t forget the best part about America’s pastime. In fact, she lists it as a goal on her syllabus: “To have fun. This is about baseball, after all.”