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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 50 Number 1 
Winter 2017

Education Connection

Edited by Carrie Fordan

Using Fiction in the Undergraduate Community Psychology Course

Written by David S. Glenwick (glenwick@fordham.edu), Fordham University; John N. Moritsugu (moritsjn@plu.edu), Pacific Lutheran University; Andrew E. Rasmussen (arasmussen@fordham.edu), Fordham University; and Philips T. Sicker (sicker@fordham.edu), Fordham University

A number of diverse types of audio and visual resources have been recommended and employed as adjunctive/supplemental instructional materials in undergraduate community psychology courses. For example, the instructor’s manuals for two of the leading texts in the field (Kloos et al., 2012; Moritsugu, Vera, Wong, & Duffy, 2013) suggest the following as possibilities: movies (e.g., Do the Right Thing, And the Band Played On), videos (e.g., An Ounce of Prevention; videos on women in various cultural contexts), television programs (e.g., Eyes on the Prize, episodes of Desperate Housewives and Friday Night Lights), websites (e.g., related to community services in various countries), newspaper articles (e.g., from the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times, local articles related to community issues), magazines, and songs.

The benefits of using literature (e.g., fiction and memoirs) in the teaching of psychology have frequently been explicated (e.g., Wheeler, 2009), especially with regard to personality (e.g., Stone & Stone, 1990), abnormal (e.g., Christler, 1999), and developmental (e.g., Boyatzis, 1992) psychology. However, to date there has been scant discussion about utilizing literature in community psychology courses. The present article is aimed at illustrating the use of fiction (in this case the novel Push) in the undergraduate community psychology classroom. This example hopefully can serve as encouragement for instructors to similarly and creatively introduce such works into the syllabus. 

The Assignment

Fordham University’s undergraduate community psychology course is a fairly standard one-semester survey of the field. The Push assignment is given by the instructor (the first author) at a point in the course at which approximately two thirds (i.e., Chapter 1-8 in the Kloos et al. [2012] text) of the material has been covered. The students are asked to read the book and then “write a one- to two-page paper in which [they] show, in detail, how the novel (incidents, themes, characters, etc.) illustrates constructs, terms, models, theories, etc. from community psychology.”

Push (Sapphire, 1997) has been the work chosen because it is short (140 pages), readable (easily read in 2 hours), and rich in examples of community psychology concepts — three important criteria in selecting literary works for this type of exercise. In raw and graphic language (a trigger warning is given by the instructor) and from the first-person perspective, it tells the story of Precious Jones, a 16-year-old African American girl living in Harlem, NYC, in 1987. Sexually abused by her father and physically and emotionally abused by her mother, extremely overweight, and illiterate, Precious is directed to an alternative school. There, in a small class and with a caring teacher, as well as in an HIV-positive adolescent support group, she develops a more positive sense of herself, her abilities, and her potential. The novel ends on a hopeful but cautiously realistic note, with Precious nurturing her young (second) child and advancing academically toward earning her GED. (Push was subsequently made into the feature-length film Precious [Daniels et al., 2009].)

The students have a week to complete the assignment. Their papers are graded on a 3-point scale (check+, check, and check-), based on both quantity (number of concepts accurately noted) and quality (richness of the illustrations of the concepts). Points earned are factored by the instructor into the final course grade (similar to what is frequently done with extra-credit assignments). In addition to the written papers, a class session is set aside for discussion of the book and of students’ reactions to it.

Findings

The assignment has, to date, been given to four cohorts of students (N = 45). Table 1 presents the frequencies of the examples offered by students in their papers. The 14 categories were selected by the instructor as ones reflecting important concepts from class lectures and the text. Each student example was coded by the instructor as belonging to one of the categories. A particular category could be scored only once for each student. Thus, for instance, illustrations of Kelly’s ecological principles and Moos’ social climate dimensions in the same paper would be scored once under “Ecological models/approaches.”

To obtain an interrater reliability estimate, eight of the papers were scored by a second doctoral-level community psychologist. Of the 28 examples detected and categorized by the first rater, 26 were similarly detected and categorized by the second rater, for an interrater agreement of 93%.

The 45 students generated a total of 151 examples (M = 3.4). As Table 1 indicates, the most frequently cited concept was social support (e.g. types or sources of support), mentioned by more than half of the students. For example, “Ms. Rain [the alternative school teacher] provided Precious with emotional, tangible, and informational support.” Sense of community (e.g., elements of the McMillan and Chavis model) was the next most frequent category, offered by almost half of the students. Illustratively, “there is a clear sense of membership and belonging between the girls at the alternative school, as they all have the shared goals of overcoming abuse and succeeding academically.” Instance of stressors (16 students) and coping (14 students) were also provided fairly often.

Because of the commonality of much of the subject matter typically covered in the introductory community psychology course, one might expect some agreement across sites in the distributions obtained by this type of assignment. It is important to note, though, that the particular distribution obtained is likely also heavily contextually driven. That is, it probably would vary due to (a) differential emphasis of materials across instructors and texts, (b) the point in the syllabus at which the assignment is made, and (c) the specific literary work chosen. Because of these factors, there likely would be limited generalizability of distributions.

Table 1

Frequency of Examples of Community Psychology Concepts.

Category

Number

Social support

27

Sense of community

21

Stressors

16

Coping

14

Ecological models/approaches

12

Protective/risk factors

12

Ecological levels

11

Diversity/oppression

9

Alternative settings

7

Blaming the victim/fundamental attribution error

6

Core values

5

Empowerment/competence development

5

Helper therapy principle

4

Attending to unheard voices

2

Note. N = 45.

Discussion

Bringing fiction into community psychology courses has benefits for both students and instructors. For students, it makes abstract concepts more concrete and real. As one student wrote, “Push brought to life what we have learned in class.” In the words of another student: “Nothing was sugarcoated by Precious, so why should it be for the rest of us? The very reason why I was initially hesitant about this book is the same reason why so many people ignored Precious for so long, because what you don’t know won’t bother or hurt you.”

For instructors, the assignment provides an additional mechanism for assessing students’ grasp of community psychology concepts. Both true positives (i.e., accurate application of terms to aspects of the book) and false positives (i.e., inaccurate illustrations) are revealed. With respect to the latter (i.e., misidentifications), for instance, one student erroneously cited Precious’s gradually broadened perspectives on different beliefs and sexual preferences as an illustration of multidimensionality in social support networks. Finally, a low frequency in a particular category (i.e., the absence of identification of a concept) might suggest that perhaps that concept has been insufficiently or ineffectively presented. For example, although Push contains many instances of Precious being viewed by others as the cause of her problems, only 6 of the 45 students provided an example of blaming the victim.

Although this article has focused on one particular work, a number of short novels, novellas, and short stories could be profitably read, written about, and discussed in community psychology courses. Table 2 presents examples of these, organized thematically. The wide range of possible pertinent works can underscore for students that, although the specific expression of community psychology concepts depends on time and setting, the concepts themselves are applicable across centuries and cultures.  

Fiction provides a means of acquiring insights into and reflecting upon the human experience that complements the quantitative and qualitative research of community service.  Though very different from one another, each is a valid way of knowing. Integrating the two in the undergraduate community psychology course, we can productively enrich our students’ understanding and appreciation of both.

Table 2

Possible Works of Fiction for Community Psychology Courses         

1. Interrelationships between the individual and the community

Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson

short story collection

Dubliners

James Joyce

short story collection

“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”

Mark Twain

short story

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

novel

2. Social support

Positive community       support

Support deprivation

 

 

 

“Babette’s Feast”

Isak Dinesen

short story

My Antonia

Willa Cather

novel

Daisy Miller

Henry James

novella

Tonio Kröger

Thomas Mann

novella

“Bartleby the Scrivener”

Herman Melville

short story

3. Diversity/oppression

Gender

Race

Culture

Physical disability

 

The Awakening

 

Kate Chopin

 

novel

“Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin

short story

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

novel

The Monster

Stephen Crane

novella

4. Empowerment/competence development

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

novel

“Barn Burning”

William Faulkner

short story


References

Boyatzis, C. J. (1992). Let the caged bird sing: Using literature to teach developmental psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 19, 221-222.

Christler, J. C. (1999). Novels as case-study materials for psychology students. In M. E. Ware & D. E. Johnson (Eds.), Handbook of demonstrations and activities in the teaching of psychology: (Vol III. Personality, abnormal, clinical-counseling, and social (2nd ed., pp. 69-70). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Daniels, L. (Producer/Director), Magness, G. (Producer), Siegel-Magness, S. (Producer), Winfrey, O. (Producer), Heller, T. (Producer), Perry, T. (Producer), & Cortes, L. (Producer). (2009). Precious [Motion picture]. United States: Lee Daniels Entertainment.

Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Elias, M. J., & Dalton, J. H. (Eds.). (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage.

Moritsugu, J., Vera, E., Wong, F. T., & Duffy, K. G. (2013). Community psychology (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Sapphire. (1997). Push. New York, NY: Vintage Books

Stone, S. S., & Stone, A. A. (Eds.). (1990). The abnormal personality through literature. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wheeler, R. W. (2009). Effectively using literature circles in the psychology classroom. In D. S. Dunn, J. S. Halonen, & R. A. Smith (Eds.), Teaching critical thinking in psychology: A handbook of best practices (pp. 251-256). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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