(Personal) The Semester That Was: Fall 2016

Reading 150Earlier this year — with some encouragement from My Husband, The Dragon — I decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in Psychology. I’ve gotten to a very good place with my mental health, but there are so many people who grew up the way I did without access to mental health services or education, who suffer in silence and ignorance about their issues. The goal with my degree is to do something to address these gaps in coverage and tailor treatments that speak to the particular manifestations of mental illness in communities of color. No one exists in a vacuum, after all — depression, anxiety, and social issues intersect to present unique challenges to people of color.

This first semester back in school was definitely an adjustment. I’m working a full-time job in the tech sector, which means that I’m generally putting in a few more than forty hours a week not including the commute, which adds roughly eight hours. Making time to read assignments, write essays and/or participate in online forum discussions was a process that I had to learn. Time management is more important than ever, and over the course of the semester I learned that it wasn’t so much the quantity of time I put in, but the quality.

Anyway, the plan is to go to Mission College for three more semesters with additional classes during the Winter and Summer sessions until Fall 2018, where I should complete my Associate’s Degree and be eligible for transfer to any California state university. Obviously, my target is San Jose State; they have a pretty good Psychology department and I should be able to get very good rates on my tuition. I’ll need 60 credits to complete the program, and with the credits from this semester and all other classes from my previous transcript I should have about 30 or so.

This semester I took two classes, Clear Thinking in Writing and Social Psychology. I would absolutely love to have one English or Psychology class a semester, but I don’t think it’ll work out that way, alas! Both of these classes were ones that I enjoyed quite a bit, even with the work. Clear Thinking in Writing really helped me to refine and organize my thoughts for my Social Psychology class, and I was able to use concepts from my Social Psychology class to strengthen arguments I wrote in Clear Thinking. I loved the synergy I lucked into this semester!

For Clear Thinking in Writing, we learned the basic elements of argumentation for three different debate models — Aristotilean, Rogerian, and Toulmin. Aristotle relied on three kinds of support — logos, or logical reasoning; pathos, or emotional appeals; and ethos, or reputation and expertise — to bolster his arguments. Rogers works well when you’re trying to find a common ground and some compromise between two opposing viewpoints; the benefit of using this model is learning how to understand an argument objectively and writing it out succinctly, without bias. Toulmin is the main model we used to understand the framework of a persuasive essay; the claim is essentially your thesis, or whatever it is you’re trying to prove, and you make your claim by providing support for it. All of your support, of course, is held up by underlying warrants that are understood and agreed upon by the writer and their audience. For example, if I claim that black lives matter, the warrant beneath that is that there is some disparity in the general perception of how black lives are treated when weighed against, say, white lives.

This class was a TON of reading and writing, which is to be expected for an English class I suppose. Our professor was relatively new, and she focused heavily on making sure we stuck to a basic, repeatable structure for our essays. I chafed just a little under the restriction, but it was quite useful to learn how arguments are templated and write to that style. My typical writing style is “exploratory”, to be charitable. I often don’t find the topic sentence of my paragraph until I’ve written it — so my my paragraphs tend to end with a sentence that crystallizes what’s come before it into a coherent thought, that I then use to springboard into the next paragraph.

However, that’s not a great way to write a coherent, well-structured argument. By opening your paragraph with your topic sentence, you make sure that you’ve signalled to your reader what your paragraph will cover and anchor it towards the service of your thesis. Every sentence after it must build support for the topic sentence, which in turn supports your claim. Organizing your writing from the top down gives every sentence a job to do and encourages your essays to be leaner and more efficient. And in this day and age, making sure your writing is crisp and lean is an invaluable skill to have!

In Social Psychology, I learned how the presence of other people affect the way we think, which in turn affects how we perceive and interact with the world around us. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to discover how much our environment and relationship with others affects our individual psychology, but I was! The class illuminated influences I never even considered and introduced implications that I had never connected. We underestimate how much we are influenced by our social situations, and simply knowing that has changed the way I think about my actions. We have far more power to change our environment than we believed, but the nature of that change is more complicated than we would expect.

Social Psych was my first online class, which was another adjustment. Sessions were usually reading a chapter or two of the textbook, watching a documentary video about the subject of the week, and then participating in a forum discussion about it. We also had three major tests over the course of the semester and signed up for various experiments in the Stanford Research Program. Stanford has a legendary experimental psychology program, and it was really interesting to participate in various lab experiments in some small way.

The knowledge I’ve gained in Social Psychology, while not all-encompassing, has definitely illuminated previously puzzling behavior for me and allows me to react more compassionately to actions I might have found unacceptable just six months ago. For example, we really don’t do well with uncertainty, so in situations that may or may not be an emergency we will tend to look to others for cues on how to respond without even realizing it. Because other people are just as in the dark as we are, they freeze as well, hoping for someone to respond in a way they can emulate. And when no one responds, we end up thinking that a potentially serious situation might not be that serious after all. People have been observed to sit in a room with smoke billowing out of a vent for these reasons, or take much longer to help someone in distress. Our ability to filter out our environment develops as a defensive mechanism against sensory overload, but it can also cause us to miss someone in dire need of help. So, if someone is having a health crisis or being attacked in a city and no one helps, it isn’t necessarily because people are bastards. Well, not necessarily. It’s because most of us are just trying not to be overwhelmed by everything around us, we are uncertain what’s happening in an emergency situation, and the people around us are as well — so no one does anything.

In both of these courses, knowledge becomes power to direct my actions more efficiently and with greater understanding. It’s exciting to know the basics about how people tend to think in groups, and how to make a case for influencing people within those groups. By being aware of societal pressures, how they affect our mental and emotional processes, and the best ways to tweak those processes, it’s possible to write to the undiscovered root of a problem. That’s almost like magic to me!

Now that my classes are over for the semester, it’s time to look to a little bit of rest and relaxation before a four-week Winter session. In January, I will be learning about the history of rock and roll music, which should be tremendously rad. My education continues, and I’m one semester closer towards an Associate’s Degree.

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