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Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Teaching Psychology

Encouraging reading beyond textbooks and empirical articles

A recent article in The New York Times discusses some of the changes wrought by the Common Core at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. One change is the addition of more non-fiction reading to the English curriculum in lieu of primary focus on purely literary works. As the article by Kate Taylor attests, not all parents, teachers, or the students themselves are thrilled with the idea. We already know there are challenges to getting some students to enjoy literature—replacing some classics or even more contemporary literature with non-fiction may come at a cost. Arguments in support of non-fiction include the fact that many male students prefer it to fiction, that pairing fiction with non-fiction can encourage students to think deeply about ideas, and that non-fiction is more relevant to students’ future employment. Maybe.

As a psychology professor, I encourage students to read both fiction and non-fiction for pleasure, which is a hard sell during the academic year (maybe all year). When students feel pressed by course work and a part time job, leisure activities that seem like work—reading novels or non-fiction works—are quickly dropped. I am also fairly sure our digital age has reduced people’s attention for sitting quietly and reading for relaxation when Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are there for quick perusal.

I am going to sound like a fossil when I write this (sigh—so be it—and not for the last time), but when I was in elementary school, several of my teachers read stories and books aloud to us before recess, sometimes in place of recess, and other times at the end of the day before dismissal (and no, I didn’t attend a little red, one room school house). But I do think that those experiences encouraged me to read fiction and to love books. Which I do.

Now that I teach college students, I try to assign fictional works when I can do so as readings to supplement textbooks or empirical articles and monographs. I’ve used Hamlet to discuss Freudian theory and Mendel’s Dwarf to consider genetics and evolutionary psychology. I routinely teach B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two when I teach history and systems (it’s not a great novel by any stretch, but it applies Skinner’s theories to a utopian community which made an impression back in the 1960s—there is a real life commune call Twin Oaks in central Virginia that was founded, in part, by some Walden Two enthusiasts).

I also add non-fiction books written by psychologists to some of my courses. Doing so is much easier than picking good pieces of fiction because so many researchers are now writing trade books that summarize their own or mainstream psychological theories and research. Last spring, I used the book Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn (no relation) and Michael Norton in a seminar on materialism, money, and well-being.

Nonetheless, educators have their work cut out for them, as many students find reading fiction or non-fiction to be a challenge. The reason is that they just aren’t used to reading for pleasure or they treat it as work (I’ll come clean about my own bias here—I used to routinely sign up for English classes during college because I found reading and discussing great works to be a pleasure and respite from course work in my major, which was psychology). For those of you who are teachers of psychology, allow me to issue a modest challenge: As the fall semester draws near and you draft a syllabus, see if you can add a work of fiction to the reading assignment that can bring narrative life to whatever the course topic happens to be. If fiction seems to be a bridge too far, then select a work of non-fiction to supplement the other course readings. Now, it’s not enough just to discuss the work—you have to be enthusiastic and honest with your class about why such readings can inform us about other ways to think about human behavior beyond the familiar style of psychology textbooks. Of course it’s a little more work, but your effort is to enhance the greater good where student learning is concerned. Please share your book choices and offer a rationale for them!