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Psych department struggles to meet demand

April 27, 2018

During Round 1 of course selection for the fall 2018 semester, there were 62 requests for 35 spots in Abnormal Psychology, reflecting a strong student interest in clinical psychology and an under-resourced department, according to Samuel Putnam, professor of psychology and chair of the department. The class was also overenrolled last year.

“It’s a crisis that I think we need to start talking to administration about,” Putnam said. “I fear that we’re going to be turning students away from careers that would be very rewarding.”

Abnormal Psychology is a course that focuses on the treatment of mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders. The course can only be taught by a clinical psychologist, or someone who studies mental illnesses and ways to treat them, which puts a strain on Bowdoin’s small psychology department and hinders students who want to take the course.

None of the other 2000-level non-laboratory psychology classes filled to capacity during Round 1.

Kelly Parker-Guilbert, a visiting assistant professor of psychology, will be teaching Abnormal Psychology in the fall semester. She is filling in for Hannah Reese, an assistant professor of psychology who is on leave for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Parker-Guilbert explained that the course begins with an examination of mental disorders and an exploration of how “abnormality” is defined. She supplements textbook readings with materials written by individuals with different mental disorders to give students an idea of the daily challenges and experiences that go with having certain mental illnesses.

“It’s of interest to a lot of people,” Parker-Guilbert said. “Mental disorders and mental illnesses are quite prevalent—you know, almost one in two people will experience a psychological disorder in their lifetime. So I think people have personal experience, either themselves or friends or family, and they want to learn more about it.”

Due to the specialized nature of psychology, the department contains faculty members with different specializations who are therefore qualified to teach different courses. Putnam explained that many of Bowdoin’s peer institutions have larger psychology departments that allow them to over-represent clinical psychologists in their faculty and thus respond to the large demand for clinical psychology courses.

“If you think about people who are going on into careers, a fairly small portion of them go into academia and some of them go into research, whereas a pretty healthy slice of them go into counseling psychology or clinical psychology,” Putnam said.

Reese is currently the only clinical psychologist occupying a permanent faculty position at Bowdoin. Putnam noted that that there will be a semester overlap between Reese and Parker-Guilbert next spring, so that the department can offer two sections of Abnormal Psychology, which may act as a temporary “relief valve,” but he does not feel that it constitutes a permanent solution to the high demand for courses taught by clinical psychologists.

James Higginbotham, associate dean for academic affairs, drew attention to the difference in composition between the group of 35 students who got into Abnormal Psychology and the group of 27 students who did not. Polaris gave the highest priority to junior and senior psychology majors, all of whom got into the class.

“Since you can’t accommodate everyone all the time, you can’t just make the classes bigger and bigger. You try to make sure that those people who get into the class are the ones who actually need it,” Higginbotham said. “So departments and the Registrar’s Office work to make sure the courses have logical preferences…that help [those who need it] to get into the class.”

In an email to the Orient, Higginbotham disclosed that there were 17 sophomores who did not get into the course and may be intending to major in psychology. He explained that those students will have the highest priority among the students in their year, should they try to register for the course again in the future.

Higginbotham added that many departments would like to add staffing, and that funding limitations present a restriction. Departments can make requests for additional staff members by writing a proposal to be reviewed by the Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee (CEP), composed of staff, faculty and students. The CEP reviews proposals in conjunction with data about course registration, considering each request in an institutional context that balances college-wide priorities before making a recommendation to the President about a position.

Higginbotham does acknowledge that the data available does not account for cases in which students see a plethora of requests for certain classes and choose not to attempt to register.

Lauren McLaughlin ’19, a psychology major, said she never tried to take the class.

She noted that that many students who are not majoring in psychology try to take the class, given that the only prerequisite is the popular Psychology 1101.

“Not only do you have psych majors trying to take it but also people who have just taken psych 1101 and think it’s an interesting class,” McLaughlin said. “So I think this happens every year. I never tried to take abnormal… I always knew that it was going to be hard to get into just for that reason.”



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  1. Class of 2009 says:

    When I was in college, Prof. Barbara Held, the only Psych Professor at that time to teach abnormal psychology, deters many interested students given her “unique” pedagogical style. It haunts me till this day. I wish we had more options back then.

    • Class of 2008 says:

      Barbara Held is the reason I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That unique style was demanding, yes, but she knew how to teach you to think.

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