Kids These Days – My new class

I thought my readers might be interested in a description of a new class I am teaching. I am super excited about it, but it is very new to me, and I can tell there will be challenges ahead.

The class is designed for our First Year Experience Courses, at Randolph-Macon which are yearlong, interdisciplinary, team-taught courses that include field trips and a lot of project-based, interactive pedagogy. So, right up my alley. I am really enjoying talking about the day-to-day choices of teaching and pedagogy with another thoughtful professor. It is one thing to banter over a meal about students, but quite another to say “In this particular case, for this syllabus, I would say it this way instead of that way.” It is also interesting to see the choices I had internalized about my teaching that I don’t always realize I have made, like bathroom policies (other professors apparently have more stringent bathroom policies) or how to contact me (how can you not prefer email?).

My class is co-taught with a fantastic professor from the English Department, Prof. Jennifer Cadwallader, an expert in children’s literature, 19th century history of science and ghost stories (again, right up my alley). We talked about our interests and the different ideas we had for a course, and we came up with a course with childhood throughout history at its center, but as a lens to look at many of the fields that students will be exploring in college.

Here’s a basic description:

Puppet Kid

Photo series from Winkler + Noah

Chances are, at some point in your childhood, you heard an adult utter the phrase, “Kids these days!  Why, when I was growing up . . . .”. What followed was generally some tale of woe, perhaps involving being seen but not heard or walking barefoot through the snow to school — uphill both ways.  You may have dismissed these stories (“Sure, Grandpa”), but they raise an interesting question: was childhood different for earlier generations?  This course will take on that question, examining the way Western society has treated children and defined childhood over the last few hundred years.  We will examine four major views on children: as puppets (to be controlled), as geniuses (to be amazed), as plants (to be tended), and as animals (to be tamed).  In the

“and did mischief of one kind . . .”

psychology portion of the course, this means studying how our scientific views of human nature have changed along with our understanding of what goes on in the mind of a child.  In the English portion of the course, we will read texts ranging from The Secret Garden to Where the Wild Things Are, and study cultural objects aimed at children such as toys, games, and films.

I am really looking forward to the different opportunities and challenges of teaching one of the first college classes taken by freshmen, having a class full of freshmen, and teaching a course so different from what they have taken in high school. I am a little bit nervous at the fact that there is no textbook, no other course on such a thing, but the freedom is also exhilarating. I will attach the syllabus below, but I will also give you a quick idea of where we are going in the beginning.

Our first unit is “Puppets.” I am using this metaphor as a way to show them how the theme of mechanism and the problem of free will runs through the beginnings of science as well as the science of psychology. Today we talked about the body as a machine, with some of the great early automatons as examples of machines that gave people faith that if we just identified the gears, the problems of psychology and biology would be solved just as the problems of the “basic building blocks” of chemistry had been. They’ll read about Descartes and how he laid the seeds for scientific inquiry. Then we’ll launch in to Pavlov, Watson, Skinner and Behaviorism. I think it will be an interesting way to introduce psychology, through these mechanistic views of human nature. As we do this, we’ll consider what each of these thinkers thought about children (Watson in particular is quite interesting) and how that reflected their world view. Anyways, I am trying to keep it fun and relate it to their own experiences. Many kids have some sort of behaviorist reward system in their past, whether stars and candy in elementary school, or being paid for grades in high school.

I’d love to hear if any of you have done anything similar, or your own experiences with teaching and designing new courses.

Here is the syllabus and here is a schedule of readings and assignments if you are interested.



About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, psychology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Kids These Days – My new class

  1. Sounds like a fantastic class. Best wishes for a fruitful and engaging term.

    • Whoops – I hit “post” too soon. I thought I’d add that though I don’t do it often (or is it often enough?), I love teaching without the constraints of a text book. Even though students often balk at first when they are asked to read and discuss primary sources, I think the overall experience is much richer. It is eye opening to them too, to experience the difference between primary and secondary sources and actually makes them appreciate their text books more, in the end.

  2. Joe Riener says:

    Some comments from others, who have guided my thinking on this topic.

    “Childhood is a nightmare.” –Sheldon Kopp, in his “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.”

    “How would you like to be half the size of everybody else, without a dime to your name?” (Can’t remember the book title or the author, but it was about latency.)

    D.W. Winicott’s writings on children were quite important to me, particularly on the ambivalence parents feel towards their progeny, that’s often obscured by sentimentality (e.g., Christmas).

    Let us not forget that Greek myths start off with Cronus, eating them as fast as he can, till mom and Zeus figured out a dietary substitute, of rocks I recall.

    The founding myth of psychology starts with Oedupus’ daddy Laius wanting to kill him, because the son might do him in some day. Freud only added, “Come on, Laius, all sons feel that way.”

    From Medea and Abraham, children are just there for us to send messages to others. Children don’t exit as independent beings, no matter how proud we are of all of them. They sense that. Makes ’em unruly.

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