history

Diversity and Speech No. 27: Training Future Psychologists Using the Lens of History – by Carlos E. Cortés, Marjorie Graham-Howard

A Co-Authored Interview

Carlos: Marjorie, as a historian, I was blown away by the richness of your class syllabus.  How did you come up with the idea of using history to ground a clinical psychology course?

Marjorie: I was a history major in college, so I have always loved it.  I remember when I first discovered that history is not just facts about wars and dead people, but was an interpretation of past events.  Then I began to learn that most history was controlled by those with power and privilege, which meant there were those whose voices were silenced or never heard from.  I knew it would be important for therapists.  Once I began teaching at Azusa Pacific University, I found that students were often overwhelmed when working with older adults and clients from a different historical era.  They did not know their history, which became a barrier to providing effective treatment.  We decided to add a class to close this gap.

Carlos:  Your syllabus indicates that the course will help students “understand the impact of historical events on their clients’ lives.”  Could you expand on that?

Marjorie: Sure!  For example, students might be unaware of the historical roots of oppression and racial discrimination.  They might be working with a client whose family had difficulty with home ownership due to redlining or encountered barriers to good public education because of efforts to keep schools segregated.  Without knowing this history, our students might narrowly interpret the client’s struggles as based only on individual factors.  By contrast, knowing the history would widen their understanding of the client and the impact of this history on their lives.

Carlos:  Your syllabus mentions that you emphasize “systems thinking.”  In my medical school classes I, too, explore the idea of systems.  I’d love to know how you address this.

Marjorie:  We try to make students aware that their clients live within a network of various systems – family, work, neighborhood, culture, community – and all of these systems impact their clients.  When it comes to understanding power, privilege, and oppression, we emphasize there are systems that create, perpetuate, and expand these distinctions, and they need to consider these systemic factors when working with clients.

Carlos: Since this column is on the issue of diversity and speech, I noticed that your. class emphasizes a “discussion-based approach to learning.”   It’s becoming more and more difficult to talk about difficult diversity topics, like equity and racism.  Could you share your experience in helping students talk about these delicate issues?

Marjorie:  It can be a challenge.  For one thing, I co-teach this course with a colleague.  She is a faculty of color and I am white.  This enables us to query each other and say things the other would be reluctant to say.  On the first night of class we set discussion ground rules.  We tell students if they experience an “ouch” during discussions, if they feel uncomfortable, they can let us know later and we will address it in subsequent classes.  This enables us to intervene if students feel hurt by something that we or another student has said.  For example, during a discussion of immigration, one Caucasian student kept using the words “they” and “them” to refer to immigrants.  This hurt another student who had the experience of being labeled “other.”  She reached out to us and we were able to discuss it in class.

Carlos: One final observation, Marjorie.  You teach at an evangelical Christian university and your course promises “the integration of faith/spirituality and practice.”  How does that influence the direction of your diversity discussions?

Marjorie: Faith is an important aspect of diversity.  It also provides a basis for discussing social justice issues.  Most of our students are people of faith.  They want to use their faith in clinical work.  When it comes to diversity, since Christianity emphasizes the fundamental value and worth of every person, we find it a good lens to start from.  But we don’t shy away from discussing the fact that faith communities have also caused pain and injustice.  Students appreciate having a place to put their feet as they wrestle with topics that can be tough on them.

Carlos: Thanks, Marjorie.  This has been terrific.  See you in our next creative writing class, where we can both be students again.

CLICK for additional articles in this series by Carlos Cortes.

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