The fall semester of 2020 commenced during a tumultuous time in the world, not just in here in the US. After a spending a summer at home socially distancing, eyes glued to the media following the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, I knew that I needed to do things differently. I gathered resources and started reading, listening, and thinking. As I was listening to Ibram Kendi narrate his book “How to be an Antiracist“, I was struck by a simple statement. A key theme of his book is that racist ideas get into our heads whether we want them there are not. As his words: “How did that get in my head?” reverberated in my inner ear, I thought to myself, “I know how this happens! Why aren’t I teaching this, in my Cognitive classes?” In this moment I understood how I needed to reframe my upcoming semester courses.
I have always taught course content with an eye towards application, but I have also always followed the status-quo when it comes to covering topics like racism, discrimination, and prejudice. And that convention has been that such topics are for “social” classes in the Psychology curriculum, not “cognitive” ones. As I sat down to reconfigure course content, I found that it wasn’t near the stretch I’d imagined to re-align content, flow, and projects to help us all find a sense of social-justice-purpose in our work. I included in the course syllabus this statement:
We are coming together as a class at a moment in socio-historical time where lives are in upheaval. Internationally, the Corona Virus Pandemic has changed life in irrevocable ways. At the national level the deep injustice of systemic racism is at the fore of political unrest. Families are struggling with economics, child care, health care, and schooling. How do we understand and respond to all this? Though the central topic of our course is cognition, thinking doesn’t happen in a socio-cultural vacuum. The cognitive processes that enable fast and efficient thinking and prediction (what we need for survival) also open the door for the growth of bias that can turn into socially unjust “isms” (e.g., sexism, racism, ableism, agism). With that as backdrop, this semester topics covered are selected to help us understand how bias is part and parcel of how our brains and minds work. When we understand the process we can take steps towards mitigating it, though. To this end, as a class, we will create a trade-book that explains the how “isms” get into our heads and will include steps we can take to become more “anti” in our thoughts and actions.
As is typical for undergraduate college courses, I divvied up the semester content into three units. Each unit was framed with a question:
- How did that get into my head?
- What is it, that’s in my head?
- How do I control what’s in my head?
Students were intrigued with the plan and eager to start learning with purpose in this way. Early on the semester when the #Scholar Strike call came out, I decided to dedicate my class periods to the moment and discuss anti-racism from my own perspective as both a person and as a cognitive psychology scholar. This was an effective serendipity, and I believe the time spent in class focusing on this issue really made the class adjustments work. As students continued to learn the basic content of Cognitive Psychology (in this class, the emphasis was on memory processes), they wrote essays on how to use the material to inform either an anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-ableist perspective. They wrote drafts, formed collaborative teams, and revised their writings. The end result of their hard work is this e-book, containing explanation and advice on how to improve your personal practice of anti-racism, sexism, and ableism.
Not only did enrolled students learn the basics of memory processes and conceptual understanding, but they more importantly came away from the course with a clear understanding about how to put this knowledge to good use. We are all eager to share our work with you. It is our hope that the sense of purpose we took away from the semester is transferred to you, our readers. The advice students offer here is empirically based and sound. Within each topical section you will note some overlap in content (all students learned from the same sources, after all), however each collaborative writing team took their work in a unique direction. You are sure to learn something new from each entry.
Happy reading. As I write this introduction at the end of the calendar year, I am filled with a sense of hope for the imminent New Year. With knowledge comes power, and we all have the power to make our world a better place.
Dr. Erica Kleinknecht
December 29th, 2020