You have probably played the game in which there are three people, and the first person whispers a message to the second, the second whispers the message to the third, and the third tells everyone what he or she heard. Often the message is garbled beyond comprehension. This game illustrates a common phenomenon--people do not always perceive, understand, and remember the information with which they are presented. This phenomenon will undoubtedly recur in many areas of your life, including this class.

As the instructor, I plan to present you with a wealth of new information. I have gleaned this information from various sources, such as journal articles and conversations with colleages. If I had not found it exciting or relevant in some way, then I would have forgotten it, and you will too. In this class you will be forgiven for forgetting. You are, arguably, presented with much more information than you need, and you must somehow learn to sift through it. What is important, from the perspective of this course, is not what you forget, but what you can remember--and use.

To succeed in this course, you must take ownership of some of the ideas in the course and weave them into your own network of understanding. You will summarize, criticize, and evaluate them--you will pick them apart and reassemble them. In the process you will make use of a form of memory of which everyone should become a deft manipulator: external memory.

External memory is memory that exists on paper in some form of representation. There are many possible forms of representation. Some are better than others for certain purposes, such as giving a speech. We will strive to perfect the form of representation that has perhaps the most drawbacks, but that allows perhaps the greatest subtlety--namely writing. I have chosen to focus on this form of representation because I aim to instill subtlety, not a surfeit of information. I not only want to teach you what I know; in the end, I also want to learn from you.

It is a joy to reach the end of a term and, reading a student's paper, to hear a faint echo of what I have taught. But the echo must, and will, be faint, changed in some way to reflect a student's own understanding. If that understanding is strong, then it is because the student has filled in the holes left by my own presentation, or perhaps has taken a different position, which might involve poking some new holes.

Holes in understanding are likely to occur in different places in different students. On the other hand, strengths of understanding are also likely to diverge, if students have not relied solely on the instructor as their knowledge source. These divergences present an important opportunity for mutual correction--discussion by students with one another.

Unfortunately, for all their benefits in establishing rapport, in-class discussions rarely permit the subtlety that is this class' aim. Therefore, we will make use of an alternative version of peer commentary that is actually quite typical in academic journals. Authors who have written particularly good papers will have them published on the web, and other authors will contribute written peer commentaries on these papers, to which the original authors will respond. Because the publication outlet attracts many visitors, this process has the ancillary benefit that authors' work will be read by many persons interested in their chosen topic.

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