Saturday, June 13, 2015

University of Alberta Cognition: Late – and Early!

Over the last couple of weeks I have visited the University of Alberta Archives to pore over their copies of past Calendars.  As part of a history project that I am presenting at the European Society for the History of the Human Sciences (ESHHS) next month I have compiled the course offering for Psychology from 1909 to 2015.  This list is composed of 5089 separate entries, which might explain why my eyes are tired and my typing fingers are aching.

The point of collecting this data is to illustrate it (and later analyze it) using Gantt charts; a previous project took this approach to illustrate the various faculty members who have belonged to the Department in its existence for more than a century.  The previous project was pretty laborious; this time around I have been able to automate a lot of it using Excel (and VBA) to organize the data to provide to R (and the Plotrix package) for plotting as a Gantt chart.

This approach can be used to provide some interesting insights into Departmental course offerings.  For instance, the figure below provides the Gantt chart of just those courses related to modern cognitivism:


 Examining the Gantt chart above indicates that cognitivism arrived at the University of Alberta in the late 1960s.  The first offering, “Topics in Cognition”, appeared in the Calendar for 1968-69.  The Department’s first hiring of an ‘official’ cognitive psychologist was in 1979 when they recruited Alinda Friedman, who has just retired after becoming the longest serving female faculty member in Department history.  Given that cognitivism arose in the mid to late 1950s, it seems that University of Alberta was a pretty late entrant into the cognitivist movement!

Interestingly, though, this story is incomplete.  One of the earlier courses offered by the Department was ‘Legal Psychology (Psychology 56)’, which appeared in the 1922-23 Calendar, and was last offered in 1939-40.  When it first appeared in the Calendar it was described as a course about “normal and abnormal mental processes in relation to problems of judicial procedure”, and explored topics like motivation of crime, the discovery of guilt, mental deficiency and insanity, and individualization of punishment.  This Calendar description was pretty much unchanged from the creation of this course through the 1930-31 Calendar.

However, the Calendar description of Legal Psychology changed markedly in the 1931-32 Calendar, as the image below demonstrates.  The description is split into two parts, with the second one being very similar to the older entries.  However, the new first part is explicitly cognitive in nature: it includes the phrase “cognitive processes”, and focuses on perception, memory, and problems arising in both of these subtopics.

 Two things interest me about this new description of Legal Psychology.  The first is that it demonstrates a very early arrival of cognitivism at the University of Alberta.  This course description is about a quarter of a century earlier than the cognitive revolution!  The second is that I cannot determine any reason for this particular change.  For instance, there were no new faculty members in the Department whose arrival would have led to such a change.

In short, modern cognitivism arose late at the University of Alberta, although the Gantt chart provided above indicates that it is still healthy.  It was preceded, however, by a course in Legal Psychology that was over a quarter of a century ahead of its time.


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