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Bettina Spencer




Accept the occasional anecdote

Bettina Spencer, Professor of Psychology, Saint Mary’s College
2023 Action Teaching Award Recipient

Psychology students often reflect on how the material they are learning connects to their own lives. Most people who have taught psychology courses have experienced a student supporting or disputing a finding based on their own experience, at which point the instructor often reminds the class that personal anecdotes are not evidence. Which is true, except that historically, psychological “evidence” was based on the experiences of middle-class white Americans. Because of this, personal anecdotes of people who are not from that particular demographic can provide valuable insight in classroom activities and discussion.

Many of our courses do indeed ask students to reflect on their own positionality, but they often do so without necessarily reflecting on the field or instructor’s position. Finding the balance between discussing evidence and anecdotes requires us to consider who our students actually are, not who we assume they are while also reflecting on our own biases and norms. As a person who grew up in poverty, some of my worst college experiences came from well-intentioned faculty who used poverty simulation assignments such as creating a grocery list using food stamp restrictions. I had spent my whole life making that list, and I felt completely alone when faculty assumed that none of the students would have had that experience in real life. Rather than feeling like other students could now better understand what it was like to live in poverty because of assignments such as these, I instead just felt more isolated. It was clear that people with experiences similar to my own were not expected to be in a college classroom. I also felt like I could not share my actual experience of being on welfare because, well, it was an anecdote.

Instructors should work to ensure that discussions and assignments are mindful to not assume their students’ backgrounds; this does not mean taking a “culture-blind” perspective, but rather, to support students in connecting their unique experiences to the evidence. One way to do this is to create assignments that require both theoretical and practical knowledge to be successful. For example, in a Cultural Psychology course, students might work together in groups to pitch an idea on how they can address a community need in a culturally competent manner. The key to this assignment is to recognize that there may be students in the class who are facing the exact needs that the project is addressing. These students should feel comfortable sharing their experiences, and more importantly, their anecdotes should be viewed as valid, informed, and central to the project. Paired with theory and data, an anecdote can help form a fuller picture when trying to understand experiences and perspectives that have not been well represented in our field. Anecdotes are not evidence, but when the evidence has consistently been drawn from the same historic pool of participants, anecdotes can help us dive deeper in understanding, contradicting, or updating the evidence.

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