Stanford, California — January 4, 2005

As if to emphasize how out of place I am, my knee stopped working late last night. I can’t bend it forward or back all the way. Absurd physical comedy ensues as I try to get out of bed (I’m on the top bunk) and down the hall to the bathroom.

My roommate’s girlfriend, who is staying over this week, suggests I have a tendon cramp and shows me where to massage. I refuse to take drugs and instead walk off with a completely absurd limp.

My first class is full and I cannot attend. I cannot find my second. (I’ve forgotten my watch so I end up spending half an hour wandering around looking desperately for a clock to see if I’ve got the time wrong.)

I woke up at 7. It’s noon and I haven’t gotten anything done. At least I still know how to eat lunch.

Pictures of heroin addicts and pornographic magazines and popped up all over the dorm. They’re ads for the psych class “Exploring Human Nature” — another invention of the great Dr. Zimbardo. Zimbardo has a decidedly nonacademic flair for self-promotion but its his nonacademic style that makes him so much fun. The class is billed as a “life-changing experience”. Who could resist?

Apparently, not many. The classroom is loud and packed. Zimbardo plays “Something’s Coming” at an entirely-too-loud volume over the speakers and runs the iTunes visualizer on the screen. I put my fingers in my ears for protection.

Zooko once explained to me that the dark lights and loud music common in bars and nightclubs and such are not aesthetic, but functional. They force people to get close to see and hear each other. I can’t help but wonder if the famed psychologist might not be after something similar with his dark lights and loud music. I see him pull a girl’s head close so he can shout in her ear. Later he wraps his arm around a guys shoulder and leans into his ear. I miss Zooko.

Finally, class begins. “We’re going to do some outrageous things here,” he says to excited laughter. “It doesn’t matter — they can’t fire me, I’m retired.” He started this class, he explains, as a substitute for teaching Intro to Psychology (he wanted to give the other professors a chance). In it, he’s collected all his favorite lectures from all the classes he’s taught and thrown in some more fun stuff. Everything is geared towards fun. They looked at the feedback they got from last year to improve it; they threw away all the boring readings and so on.

First question: Why do people watch reality TV? Because we’re fascinated by human behavior. What’s the problem with reality TV? No analysis.

The discussion isn’t academic; he made his own reality TV show in Britain two years ago. It was called The Human Zoo; he plays a clip for us. It looks really good, surprisingly. Half of it is the standard reality TV thing of putting a bunch of strangers in a videotaped house, except that the house is run by psychologists who want to try experiments. The other half is a bunch of real-world experiments: pretty and ugly people carry heavy bags up stairs, who gets helped first? The clips we watch are about first impressions.

(DVDs for the show cost $350, it seems. It apparently aired once in the US on the Discovery Channel. Zimbardo gives a brief overview.)

Having hooked us, he moves to course details. It’s going to be a fun course. We’ll have sex, self improvement, live music, massage, illegal films (a documentary on frat hazing that they couldn’t get consent forms for), porn stars, and more. How could you pass it up?

posted February 13, 2005 10:49 PM (Education) (4 comments) #


Home Again
Home: Life and Love
Home: Gloom and Loneliness
New York City: Winter Vacation
Stanford: Back to School
Stanford: I Miss Zooko
Stanford: Fuzzier Heads Prevail
Stanford: Artists and Aliens
Stanford: Meeting the Man in Shadow
Stanford: You May Have Already Won
Stanford: Mind Control in Theory and Practice


I always liked Phil Zimbardo’s idea of playing music before class, to set the tone, and tried to do it in classes I’ve taught since I first learned about it. I heard him speak about teaching tips at the American Psychological Association conference many years ago, where he explained why he does it. I seem to recall he said it creates a relaxed atmosphere, and it also is a clear signal when the class is beginning. The music stops and everyone immediately knows to pay attention. He doesn’t have to waste any time waiting for the class to get settled. Neat trick. But then of course, he is the master of manipulation & mind control, is he not?

posted by JZ at February 14, 2005 03:04 PM #

“It doesn’t matter — they can’t fire me, I’m retired.”

From your accounts of Stanford, it seems that many of the academics have this extreme level of hubris and arrogance. Is this common amongst American universities, or more specific to Stanford? Furthermore, in other examples you speak of, academics take personal pot-shots at one another - even if in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

I can’t imagine why any lecturer would need to say such things. I haven’t seen such behaviour in the non-US academics and lecturers that I have experienced.

What’s it all about?

posted by person at February 15, 2005 12:20 AM #

JZ: Interesting. I later noticed that the professors who teach Psychology 1 do this as well; I guess they got his teaching tips.

person: How does that comment show hubris and arrogance? I thought academic freedom meant professors should get to say whatever they want. The only problem with it I can see is that it might be a little unfairly paranoid about the administration (isn’t tenure almost as strong?), but I’m in a far worse position than Zimbardo to judge.

I think the personal pot-shots thing is equally common across America; there’s a lot of dishonesty in the social sciences and professors here are unafraid to bluntly call it out.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 15, 2005 12:35 AM #

A bit sad, perhaps, that education (whatever one might think of it), has always to be ‘fun’?

A bit like museums re-inventing themselves as ‘experience zones’.

posted by Robert Brook at February 15, 2005 07:40 AM #

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