Orienting the Incoming Class: How I Introduce Myself

Show trainees which way is up by displaying clinical values.

Posted Sep 11, 2017

Every year, graduate students in clinical, forensic, international disaster, and sport and performance psychology start their programs’ orientations by listening to faculty members introduce themselves. I thought I’d post my comments from the last two years (as near as I can recall them).

But first, I would like to define the concept of orientation. Orientation comes from the word, orient, meaning east, originally meaning rise. Old maps put east at the top and north on the left, so orienting yourself meant figuring out which way was up. Well, it might have meant using the sunrise to orient yourself, but when choosing between two good stories, I prefer the one that makes a point: All maps are arbitrary, reflecting the cartographer's agenda, and the maps provided in orientation say a great deal about the values of the people providing them, not just about what to expect in the coming year. For years, I gave a lecture during orientation about the psychology of starting our programs (which shows you how tolerant and indulgent my colleagues are) because I wanted to make it clear that this is an educational experience. When orientation focuses on administrivia, it inadvertently communicates that the program is about checklists and requirements. So here are my last two spiels, among nearly 40 faculty and staff members introducing themselves to the incoming cohorts.

2017. I’m Michael Karson. I’m a forty-fourth-year student, teaching in the forensic and clinical programs. There’s an old joke about two people camping in the wild when an angry bear charges at them. As they flee, one of the campers yells, “We can’t run faster than the bear.” The other one yells, “I’m not trying to run faster than the bear. I’m trying to run faster than you.”

Sometimes, faculty will look to you like angry bears. This will be true, especially, if you think your life is at stake when you get corrected in class or when you receive a mediocre grade, because your feeling will dictate your perception of the situation. Your temptation at that moment may be to save yourself by throwing other students into the bear’s path. How? Well, you can roll your eyes when they speak in class. You can text your buddies about how arrogant a classmate is for daring to know something you don’t know, or you can post on Facebook how pathetic a classmate is for not knowing something that you do know. You can refrain from speaking to avoid any chance of drawing the bear’s attention.

These are not bad strategies for managing bruises to your ego, except that they make it impossible to get an education. Instead, you might want to ask yourself, Is the teacher an angry bear? Is my life at stake? Or have I simply invested too much energy in looking like I already know what I’m doing and not enough in finding out? Typically, the only bear in the room—and this way of thinking is what some of us mean by psychology—the only bear in the room is you, your own voracious and insatiable all-too-human appetite for looking perfect. Calm that beast and this whole deal can be kind of fun.

2016. I’m Michael Karson. I’m a forty-third-year student teaching in the forensic and clinical programs. I’d like to use my 123 seconds to address the tendency of any system to eliminate diversity by drifting to peer-enforced conformity. At GSPP, the conformity among your peers that you are most likely to encounter might be called the tyranny of nice, the tendency to avoid the risk-taking, mind-blowing, excellence-striving, realistic self-appraising, and flat-out mistake-making that are part of getting a great education. It’s not hard to see where it comes from: We’re all here to study how to do something difficult, so there will be a lot of stumbling, and you can accept stumbling as part of the process or you can tyrannize your peers into comforting you over your “owies.”

How many of you have played competitive sports? Playing baseball as a kid is how I learned how to lose (get in line, shake hands, and say, “Good game”) and how I learned how to win (get in line, shake hands, and say, “Good game”), how I learned how to behave when I snagged a bad hop (enjoy it, don’t gloat) and how to behave when a slow roller went right through my legs (look mildly chagrined, don’t make excuses). At many points in the next few years, you will be sitting in class or with a client and you will take a swing at a curve ball and miss. If classmates rush to console you, you will learn only that it must be painful and humiliating to strike out, rather than a learning process. If they tell you that the professor or the client is mean for throwing curves, then you will never learn to hit a curveball, and you will turn the faculty and the clients into bullies instead of people here to play with you. It’s humiliating to swing and miss only if you think you’re supposed to be perfect. So take your cuts and cheer each other on for trying, and we will, too, and we’ll find that GSPP then becomes a great learning environment.

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