Internationalizing the Teaching of Psychology: An Interview with Dr. Florence Denmark and Dr. Janet Sigal

05 Apr 2018 5:00 PM | Anonymous
By: Teresa Ober, PhD Candidate, The Graduate Center CUNY, and Minzhi Liu, MA Student, New York University

To learn how we might improve our teaching by including the perspectives of International Psychology, we interviewed two experts on the topic. We spoke with Dr. Florence Denmark and Dr. Janet Sigal. Dr. Denmark is a former President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and currently serves as the main representative of the International Council of Psychologists (ICP), a non-governmental organization (NGO) with official affiliative status with the United Nations (UN). Dr. Sigal is a current representative of ICP and has previously served as the main representative of the APA to the UN, and as President of APA Division 1, Society for General Psychology. Both have been very active as faculty whose expertise in Social Psychology, Women’s Studies, and International and Cross-cultural Psychology has left quite a legacy.

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Teresa Ober (TO): Thank you again for agreeing to take part in this interview. We are planning to ask questions about your experience in relation to International Psychology and teaching. We would like to know what conclusions your experience has led you to in relation to how instructors can better prepare their students to appreciate psychology from multicultural and multinational perspectives. To start, what factors drew you to study psychology?

Janet Sigal (Sigal): I have always been interested in how people think and their behaviors. In Introductory Psychology, I had Philip Zimbardo who inspired me to become a psychology major. Social Psychology appealed to me because it dealt with issues in the real world.

Florence Denmark (Denmark): I was a history major at the University of Pennsylvania when I took Introduction to Psychology. It was a two-semester course with a lab. We carried out 16 experiments over the year from reaction time to several Asch studies. It was exciting to either support or refute certain hypotheses. For example, looking at children’s pictures and rank ordering them in terms of IQ showed that you could not judge children’s intelligence by how they looked. For me it was really an important thing to learn. I became fascinated with Psychology and received honors in both History and Psychology. My interest in Psychology was to carry out research to find out what people did and why.

TO: Despite the fact that psychology, in some form, has been a topic of study and interest across international boundaries pretty much since its inception as a field of study, the area of International Psychology seems fairly new. Could you talk a little about the history of International Psychology?

Sigal: One of the significant things that happened was the development of Division 52 [International Psychology]. Before that there was not that much interest in International Psychology.

Denmark: Well, I think a lot that, other than certain basic things, psychology was really not international. More so it became with the inception of Division 52. Also, with other international organizations, for example, the International Council of Psychologists (ICP), which was formed in 1941, and others that had an interest in networking cross-nationally, there was increased interest in international collaborations. That, and along with the international Division 52, made psychology more international.

Sigal: It took some time before the international organizations became effective.

TO: How did you become interested in International Psychology?

Sigal: I had several international students in the doctoral program. Many of the students were interested in conducting some of the studies in their home country. By comparing results in the U.S. with those in the students’ countries we learned a great deal about International Psychology.

Denmark: I became interested in several different ways – through the APA and because of CIRP [Committee on International Relations in Psychology]. I was elected to that committee; I got to meet different people and when I was president of APA and president-elect, I started going to international meetings and meeting people from many international countries. As president-elect of APA, the first person I met was from Lima, Peru. As APA President and as an ICP member, I went to different countries—to Norway, West Germany, East Germany, China and Israel. The whole thing made me very interested in what was going in different countries. Through APA and ICP, I really got to meet people and collaborated in research with them.

TO: Do you believe that it is important to bring International Psychology into the undergraduate curriculum?

Sigal: I do believe that it is important, and especially felt that way when I was teaching. However, in my experience the teaching of International Psychology often is not a high priority in traditional psychology departments. I taught in a university that was very diverse and emphasized the importance of culture in all areas of psychology.

Denmark: I wonder what is going on in the U.S. in terms of the curriculum and including International Psychology. Maybe we have more of an interest in certain regions? I am not sure what is included, but I would like to know. One of the things that I find important is for instructors who are writing or even just reviewing and considering textbooks for undergraduates, especially in areas of general psychology, is the inclusion of an international context as well.

TO: What challenges do you foresee in making topics related to International Psychology a greater part of the foundational undergraduate psychology degree?

Sigal: I do not think that there needs to be a separate course on International Psychology, but an international perspective should be included in every psychology course.

Denmark: maybe a lot of this would be up to Division 2 [Society for the Teaching of Psychology] to produce sample syllabi of different courses that include international topics. These could point out the importance of it—the teaching of International Psychology.

Denmark: Finding out what’s going on in Division 2 would be a good place to start.

Sigal: One of the challenges is how the international research is viewed by U.S. researchers.  Often, there are no research participant pools, and random selection of participants is impossible in cross-cultural studies. However, I don’t think that it makes the research any less valuable.

Denmark: The other challenge is how to get people who have been teaching the same courses year after year with the same notes to make changes and include international work.

Sigal: The fact that we are at the UN makes it easier for us to consider international research important. New technologies might not exist in less developed countries. International organizations, such as ICP, and Division 52 have ways for people to forge international collaborations.

TO: What do you foresee as big topics related to instruction in International Psychology?

Sigal: I think that the work we do on women’s issues will be very important. The issues dealing with collectivistic or individualistic cultures remain significant. There will continue to be an emphasis on developing culturally sensitive measures of mental illness. There also may be an interest in the impact of social media.

Denmark: As someone who teaches the History of Psychology, it should be interesting to look at different countries in different parts of the world. In Africa, Asia, the Arab world, there are a lot of things going on that we are not aware of that should be included in history.

TO: Minzhi Liu, a current APA intern also has some questions to ask. I am going to turn things over to her now.

Minzhi Liu (ML): Thank you Teresa. It is my pleasure to interview Dr. Denmark and Dr. Sigal and I’m grateful for this opportunity. My questions are of interest to the cultural perspective and how we could further apply the knowledge of International Psychology in our careers and research. Is there a disparity between western countries in viewing psychology and the rest of the world? If so, what are the problems and how can we solve them?

Sigal: There definitely is a disparity between western and non-western countries. The only way to resolve these problems is to work with someone from that culture. It is important to ensure that the research is acceptable and understandable within the context of that culture. In terms of clinical research, for example, a clinical psychologist from Kuwait spoke during one of Dr. Denmark’s classes. He discussed the difficulty of doing therapy in this culture because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

Denmark: Many countries don’t even have or use the word “psychology.” There are many other words used instead of psychology, depending on what you’re talking about, whether it is mental health, well-being, etc. This is one of the problems. I think that there is a certain disparity, but not in all places, and people are eager to learn. That is something that we can do. If you’re working with someone and speaking about the problems that they have, don’t come in as if you know it all, and say this is what you should do to solve your problems. It is important that you work with a person or a group and help them become the facilitator.

Sigal: When we did our study on sexual harassment, there was no such word in the language in some countries. Even with a good translation, some of the concepts used in the U.S. research project may not apply to participants in other cultures.

ML: What types of professions/occupations are available to individuals who study International Psychology?

Denmark: We have the term International Psychology, but it is not at the same level of cohesiveness as something like Social or Clinical Psychology. However, there are academic careers where people can teach in other countries. It is often advertised for teaching in other places. Even in the United States, there are courses being taught more and more in International Psychology or in Global Psychology, such as at Pace University where there is a Master’s program with a global track. Of course, faculty have to be available to teach these courses, which means there is a demand for careers in this field. There are also work and internships at the UN where people can get positions as a psychologist. Knowing different languages helps.

Sigal: I also think that even in I/O [Industrial-Organizational Psychology], there are jobs for graduate students where having the degree in International Psychology would be very helpful. I think it will be a growing field.

Denmark: And one can be a consultant in different countries.

ML: How can International Psychology establish human (i.e., personal and professional) connections throughout the world?

Sigal: One thing I have found in my experience with ICP is that when you meet people at international conferences, personal connections will form quite easily. For example, often the President of ICP is from a different country such as Japan and you can connect with this psychologist.  Our interns often are from other countries and that is another method of making personal and professional connections internationally.

Denmark: When you say “human connection”—I think that it’s important to go to international meetings and belong to different groups to make personal and professional friendships. I have a lot of friends around the world. We communicate with each other about research ideas and it is really a friendship. It is really great to see these people from all parts of the world.

Sigal: It is possible even for graduate students at different places to make those connections early on. At the UN, most psychology NGOs have intern programs. Once the interns have returned to their home countries, we often hear from them. We have a very different view of their countries once we have listened to their experiences.  

ML: I think it is very amazing to network through the same interests within International Psychology, but I also wonder, in terms of a global context, how International Psychology could build up human connections from different countries?

Sigal: Some psychologists often travel to international conferences or conduct research in other countries. However, it is difficult for us to have any impact on national policies.

Denmark: The only way that we can help is by way of the UN. If the statements that we write for different commissions have an impact, then it could influence policy. However, to have a major impact at the governmental level is more difficult.

Sigal: We do have Psychology Day at the UN, where we meet with Ambassadors and they get to know about Psychology.

Denmark: We have in some ways influenced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially the inclusion of well-being as part of SDG 3. The Commission on Ageing was also influential in including [well-being] when referring to women.

Sigal: These changes happen on a person-by-person level. Our interns often do presentations in NGO committees. That makes an impact on the NGO level and the society-level. If I were still teaching, the impact would come from my class and I would talk about the things I learn from the interns and from UN conferences.

Denmark: Maintaining personal connection in an international context is very important.

Sigal: The world is smaller now because of social media. That can lead to false impressions. We don’t have much control over what type of information is transmitted and what people can see. I still believe in the personal connection.

ML: In what ways does international psychology contribute to the UN or other UN based NGOs?

Sigal: I think we bring a different kind of perspective to the UN; we try to understand what people’s attitudes are and how they think. We don’t automatically assume that they are like Americans. We also learn to be diplomatic and are respectful of another person’s culture. We learn and observe before we form impressions of other people.

Denmark: You learn to value people as they are and where they come from. It is important not to just recognize differences and similarities but also appreciate them. I also learn a lot from the interns. The interns are generally terrific.

Sigal: One of the best parts of being a representative at the UN is working with interns. Organizing UN events also involves contact with UN staff and Mission staff which is exciting.

TO: Thank you so much for your time and thoughts during this interview. A final question: if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Sigal: I would love to Italy again and Greece for the first time.

Denmark: I’ve been to 115 countries and now I would just like to go anywhere!

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