Graduate Student Corner by Mike Roche
Graduate Student Representative
Graduate Student Representative
Teaching Interpersonal Theory
The Pennsylvania State University
As the fall semester approaches, I thought it would make sense to reflect on my approach to teaching interpersonal theory at the undergraduate level. This fall will be my third semester teaching Introduction to Personality Theory. This has given me several opportunities to learn from my mistakes and to refine my approach to teaching interpersonal theory.
Agency and Communion. My first mistake as an instructor was failing to recognize how the integrative nature of agency and communion can be applied across multiple theories of personality. I knew that agency and communion were considered meta-constructs from the many research papers I’ve read on the subject, and from my experiences in clinical work, but I never truly understood how integrative these dimensions were until I found them existing in practically every theory I was lecturing on. The first time I taught the class I didn’t introduce A & C until mid-way through the semester, and I found myself wanting to reference A & C during the first several lectures. The second time teaching the course I introduced these terms on day 1, and used A & C as a reference point to tie different theories together. A & C are directly applied to interpersonal theory, and in Dan McAdams approach to organizing themes of life stories. They are also present in Rollo May’s, Man’s Search for Himself, as he describes how defining self solely by how others view you (e.g. reflected appraisals) leads to a hollow and empty existence, and how instead true communion is only reached by being able to maintain a unique and independent sense of self (agency). A & C are also useful constructs that can approximate other constructs including Freud’s fundamental drives to destroy/control (A, thanatos) and to connect/love (C, eros), Winnicott’s emphasis on differentiating the self (A), Trait theory’s dimensions of extraversion (A+, C+) and agreeableness (A-, C+), Temperament literature’s emphasis on the traits of surgency (A) and child rthymicity with their parents (C), Maslow’s needs of esteem (A) and belongingness (C), and Erikson’s definition of identity which stresses individuality (A) and social solidarity (C). Research using A & C longitudinally also informs theories of attachment (Sadikaj et al., 2011) and even provides a unique context on how Carl Rogers conducts therapy (Thomas et al., in press). In short, if students leave understanding the concepts of agency and communion, they leave the classroom knowing a lot.
Can they understand the circumplex? Sometimes. My second mistake as an instructor was presenting the circular model too quickly, without giving time to digest it. Now when I introduce the interpersonal circle I have them guess where certain adjectives (e.g. extraverted) would fall along the two dimensions, and I spend more time articulating the conceptual benefit of having a circular arrangement of two dimensions. I’ve also stopped calling it a circumplex because that seems to lose them. Before beginning the interpersonal lectures I also have students complete 3 interpersonal circle measures, which I score and return to them before the start of class. These scores help make interpersonal theory more personally relevant to them as they, for example, follow along to see what their interpersonal distress score means. It also seems to help them digest concepts like elevation, displacement, and amplitude more readily. One of the most difficult parts of teaching interpersonal theory to undergraduate students is deciding what parts of the theory to include, and how much time to spend on it. I have been dedicating 3 hours of lecture time to interpersonal theory, yet still find that it is not enough time to really present all that I would like on the topic.
Interpersonal theory and personal growth. I believe that one of the fundamental goals we have as educators is to help our students apply what they learn to understand themselves more deeply. In my course I accomplish this by having students complete personality assessments for each of the theories we discuss. At the end of the course, they integrate their personality assessment scores with a life history paper to form an integrative personality assessment paper describing their self-image, relationships, mood, cognition, and coping style, along with how they expect their personality to change or impact future life decisions. I had expected this to be one of my larger mistakes (assigning a 10-15 page paper in an introductory course), but to my surprise, this one I seemed to get right. Although reading these assignments is arduous, it is also really rewarding to see young scholars pick up the task of personality assessment so well. In this assignment I can really see agency and communion come to life in the stories they tell, their integration of assessment scores, the summary of their life thus far, and in their agentic and communal life ambitions.
Teaching interpersonal theory is a privilege, one that I truly enjoy. But as graduate students, our job of communicating interpersonal theory does not end in the classroom. We do it as we begin to publish and present scientific research on interpersonal theory, and to give our research assistants purpose for why they are spending so many long hours in the lab. We do it to help our clients see the interpersonal consequences of their behaviors. We do it when we are discussing research ideas with colleagues in our program, and we do it as simply as possible when trying to explain our research to our friends and family. We may even do it when casually sitting on an airplane, as my fellow graduate student Kate Thomas did with her fellow passenger Simran Sethi, just before Simran gave a TED talk on Youtube. ”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk2nNhbocII&feature=plcp”
As graduate students we have a unique opportunity to share interpersonal theory with a variety of different people. I hope it has been helpful to read a little about my journey through that process.
As I announced this past SITAR conference, I will be stepping down from the Graduate Student Representative position at the end of the summer. It has been a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get more deeply involved in this organization. Thank you to everyone on the Executive Committee for helping me fit right into the process. If you would like to serve as our next GSR, please contact Lindsay Ayearst at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past SITAR conference in Park City, Utah saw several excellent student presentations. The SITAR executive board continues to support its students by providing us a chance to present talks. This year alone, the SITAR board contributed $1400 for student travel awards, to go with the $1000 provided by other SITAR members. On behalf of all the SITAR graduate students, I would like to thank SITAR and its members for continuing to support our professional development.