A random thought: does anyone know of any work that applies concepts from developmental psychology to academic socialisation? That is, analysing the way that people become academics, or learn academic disciplines, by analogy with the way that children develop.

Here’s two examples of what I have in mind.

When children learn language, they often do so without ever encountering explicit definitions of terms, or remembering them if they do. Rather, they pay attention to how other people – so-called ‘adults’ – use words, and somehow pick up from this a sense of what those words mean. This often results in them being able to use the words 1) without being able to explain or define them, and 2) only in certain contexts, even when the words would apply equally well in other contexts.

In theory, people learn academic terminology in a very different way: they start with a definition of the term, and so their use is ‘transparent’ and ‘reflective’ in a way that everyday terms are not. Indeed, that’s part of the justification of having special academic terms in the first place.

But I have a strong suspicion that a lot of academic terms are, in reality, picked up more in the first way. People encounter them repeatedly, and ‘absorb’ a sense of their meaning by watching how certain people say them (including things like their inflection, their facial expression, etc.) and even if they learn ‘a definition’ it’s often more for show than for use, since it doesn’t really explain how to use the term.

At the very least, it would be interesting to see if the respective contributions of these two modes could be empirically operationalised and measured to some extent.

Second example: a lot of evidence suggests that very young children, impelled perhaps by how confusing and uncertain their world must seem, become ‘attached’ to particular caregivers and then use their proximity to that caregiver to manage their feelings of anxiety. That is, when they feel anxious, they go closer to their attachment figure, which reassures them, and when they feel more confident, they will move further away to explore.

I sometimes feel as though people do something similar in academia, with ideas. That is, to manage the confusing and risky world of ideas, they latch onto one set of ideas, terms, figures, problems, etc. which can provide reassurance, and then use that as a ‘secure base’ from which to explore other ideas when they feel sufficiently confident.

Of course, the ‘risks’ in the world of ideas aren’t quite the same as those a baby faces. Most professors will not physically injure you. Rather, what threatens is that you might make no sense, might be ignorant, might be wrong or stupid, might be condescendingly described as ‘perhaps a little confused’ – and all of these, not only as ‘intellectual’ fears but also and more pressingly as social fears. Many people in academia have a lot of their sense of themselves invested in their ability to command ideas and make themselves understood, so that failing to do that, finding themselves incoherent or ill-informed, can be a powerful fear.

Hence they might adopt some sort of ‘secure base’, an area where they can be sure of being understood and recognised. Studying this empirically, of course, would require some way to operationalise the dimension of ‘distance from’ that base, which might be difficult.

Anyway, that’s just some half-baked thoughts. I’d be interested in any such work that people might have heard about.

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2 Responses to Professional-Development-al-Psychology

  1. Phil says:

    It’s not what you’re asking, but I wrote a short piece a while back mapping the teacher/student relationship on to Winnicott’s idea of the “good-enough mother” – the one who withdraws from her dyadic relationship with the infant, giving the child’s fantasies room to become a real mapping of the world, but doesn’t withdraw too fast or too soon, & hence gives the child the ultimate security of knowing that he can screw up & his errors won’t destroy him. I think it’s a really powerful image.

    Oh, and hi Luke!

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