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MEMORIES OF PSYCHOLOGY, THE OU & OUPS

 

MEMORIES OF PSYCHOLOGY, THE OU & OUPS FROM


DR RICHARD STEVENS

Interview by Lorna Rouse


What led to your interest in psychology?
At school I specialized in English literature. I enjoyed reading novels, poems and plays. My first career was as a theatre director. But I also found literature too subjective. I was fascinated by the human condition - what it is to be a person, but I wanted more systematic knowledge. So I took an honours degree in philosophy and psychology to seek greater understanding in this area. I still find psychology a deeply intriguing though often a problematic discipline.


When did you become involved with the OU and what was your role?
I also studied music and directed plays when I was an undergraduate. Several of the plays I did were at the Edinburgh Festival- for example, one of the first productions of Tennessee Williams Orpheus Descending.


On graduation, I went to BBC TV in London where I became probably the youngest TV drama director in the UK and perhaps the world. However, eventually I missed the ideas and academic stimulation of philosophy and psychology and when an opportunity arose I moved to Trinity College, Dublin where I became Lecturer and subsequently Acting Head of Psychology. When the Open University began, it was a natural move to go there. I was excited by the concept of open education and it enabled me to combine my experience
and interests in both television and academic psychology. My particular role at the OU was to set up the course in Social Psychology.


Can you tell me about the production of the BBC programmes?
The TV programmes for OU psychology courses were a challenge because psychology is more a conceptual rather than visual discipline. But this pushed us to be creative. I remember one set of programmes for the social psychology course where we used actors improvising in a party setting. We edited one of the interaction sequences between a young man and an older woman. I then showed this to seven psychologists coming from very different perspectives (e.g. Michael Argyle analyzing non-verbal behavior, Len Zegans doing a psychoanalytic interpretation, Basil Bernstein looking at language structure). I asked them how would they approach understanding the interaction sequence and then to give us an account of what they saw as going on. We could use video techniques (e.g. slowing up facial expressions) to illustrate their points. It was a great way to help students understand how different perspectives can provide very different accounts of the same behaviour.


Radio is great for academic material because you can use it to comment on the course material and engage academics in debate and discussion. But there is a buzz to a television studio which I love, especially if the programme is going out live. If you work with the right production team, filming can be very creative as well as being fun. I really enjoyed, for example, working on the Making Slough Happy series where we had to try to put into actual practice techniques for increasing wellbeing. It pushed us to think up new strategies beyond the more established ones.


Did you ever encounter negative reactions towards the OU and distance learning?
Only at the very beginning. In the early seventies when the OU was just beginning, there was some snootiness, particularly from members of the older universities about what was not seen as a proper university at all. But this was just ignorance, entrenched conservatism and lack of imagination to think about new forms of university education. They soon changed their tune when they saw the impact that the OU was having and the quality of our courses. In a recent survey of teaching quality for example, the OU came fourth out of all university level institutions in the UK, just above Oxford.


What were the challenges and advantages of putting together a distance learning course?
Putting together a distance learning course (at least in the OU) is very different from preparing a course in a normal university - much more exciting and challenging! First of all you have time. Typically a full credit course will be at least 2 years in the making. Secondly, you work in a team. This includes fellow academics who comment on each aspect of the course as well as contributing to the written, broadcast and project materials. The team also included designers and editors from publishing and BBC producers who add their own skills and ideas to the mix. There is usually a substantial budget which allows the team to commission external contributors and assessors. These are often eminent figures in psychology. For example, on the Social Psychology Course D307 we had Jerome Bruner (arguably the most respected psychologist in the world) as External assessor for the course.  Best of all, working in this way allows you the luxury to rethink what psychology is about and discuss this with very talented colleagues. This meant that when we created the first Social Psychology course for the OU – we came up with a very different approach from the orthodox one of the time.


How did psychology courses change during your time there?
Early on in my time at the OU, I encouraged Judith Greene to join us. With her help, we managed to negotiate with the British Psychology Society so that the OU courses in psychology were recognised as an honours degree. My particular contribution was to create D305 - the first full credit social psychology course. This was highly innovative. It followed my belief in a multi-perspective approach in psychology. Most psychology courses tend to focus on one perspective only. However, I see human behaviour and experience as a complex topic. Biology, meanings, social context all play a role. So the course drew on a whole range of psychological perspectives to try to give rich understanding of why we experience and behave as we do. These included evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, existential psychology, social constructionism, and cognitive behaviourism. Of course, these operate with very different conceptual ideas and underlying assumptions and they are often seen as in opposition rather than as complementary. So one important feature of the course was the ‘Metablock’. This compared the different perspectives and discussed epistemological issues. How far and in what ways are they different? On what kinds of methodology and assumptions do each of the perspectives depend? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And what do they tell us about fundamental aspects of being human - are we determined or do we have autonomy? So not only did the course provide a rich set of understandings about being human, but it also provided a ‘map’ of how different psychological perspectives inter-relate and the philosophical issues this gives rise to.


Of course, as a social psychology course, we also included the standard topics as well like the study of attitudes, person perception, interpersonal attraction and group behaviour. In particular, we tried to make it relevant to each student’s life.


It was an enormously challenging and exciting project. One of the great features about working at the Open University is the opportunity not only to interact with highly able colleagues in a course team and also to draw on its wonderful facilities like publishing and broadcasting, but also to commission work from some of the best psychologists in the world. In the original course, we had several outside contributors from the UK and USA including, among many others, Michael Argyle, Rom Harre, Laurie Taylor and Alan Elms.


This multiperspective approach set the scene for subsequent social psychology courses (except from the current course). Because of our large number of tutors (about 80 each year) teaching the course, many of whom were lecturers in other universities, I think it is fair to say it also impacted on the teaching and thinking about social psychology in the UK more generally. This has become
much more open to areas like consciousness and experience and evolutionary psychology as a result.


Can you tell me more about the residential schools?
I don’t know what they are like now but in years past they were wonderful - quite extraordinary experiences. Tutors and students would come together for 6 days of intensive teaching and also fun. They could be amazingly stimulating. There was great value in having the summer school integrated within a course because then there was material and ideas which students had worked on and had familiarity with. That made discussion and lectures so much more valuable. Teaching and practical project work would go on all day. Then in the evening there would be specialist lectures to allow students to broaden their knowledge by hearing tutors talk about what interested them. Then, many students would go on to party and either argue and discuss or dance (or both) into the night. In the early days we could also invite a guest lecturer. I can remember guests at my summer schools including Richard Gregory, Michael Argyle, Windy Dryden and many other well known names in psychology. Distinguished people were flattered to be asked. Our students had a reputation for being a stimulating audience. I have known no other experience quite like summer schools, except possibly on a smaller scale the weekend courses now run by OUPS.


Can you tell me about your role within OUPS? When did you first become involved?
I became involved right at the beginning of my time at the OU, probably around 1973. Several students were interested in setting up a Psychology Society and asked me to help with this. We held day schools in London, Oxford and other places. The new Society also established an annual residential school. We used Abergavenny - a lovely place in Wales for the first of these. We also offered alternative activities like encounter groups. Speakers at the day and weekend schools included the most interesting and eminent psychologists in the UK - Donald Broadbent, Richard Gregory, Hans Eysenck, Margaret Boden, Richard Benthall, Alan Baddely, Simon Baron-Cohen and many others.


Do you think the role of OUPS has changed over time?
OUPS has become a more professional and efficient organisation. One of the most important changes came with the involvement of Dr Lilli Hvingtoft –Foster as President. Lilli’s particular skill was to bring to speak at OUPS the most eminent of world psychologists. So our list of guest speakers now included figures like B.F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky and Philip Zimbardo. OUPS now is run by an excellent and established committee who manage events very well indeed.


OUPS also expanded into Europe with branches and events in Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, France and Northern Italy.
In addition to Dr Lilli Hvingtoft-Foster, were others important in founding and continuing the work of OUPS?
OUPS started in the early seventies, almost as soon as the first OU Psychology courses were presented. It was due to the initiative and enterprise of several students including Ann Humphries, John Clapham and Len Brown, along with Mary Shepherd, Mary Winning and many others. One of their main efforts, that later proved successful with the help of Judith Greene, was to get the OU psychology courses recognized by the British Psychological Society. The London region was started by Elizabeth Cowne and John Platts with Margaret Green. I can remember day schools in London with some excellent guest lecturers as well as tutors. When the social psychology course (D305) came on stream, to our disappointment it was not allocated a summer school, so OUPS set up excellent weekend residential schools in Abergavenny to fill the gap. At that time humanistic psychology was quite prominent. OUPS began to hold encounter groups at a place I seem to remember was called Lower Shaw Farm. I did some of the early ones and then they were taken up by the late Vivian Milroy and subsequently by Pam Murphy. A Newsletter was started and edited over the years by Vivian, David Joyce, Lou-Lou Brown and Martin Dyer-Smith.


Lilli actually came onto the scene in around 1979. Her first role was as events secretary. Her drive and preparedness to ask big names to come and lecture helped to make the Society what it is today. One of the most extraordinary aspects of OUPS is that it has hosted most of the celebrated names in world psychology as guest lecturers. These include B.F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, Michael Argyle, Donald Broadbent, Liam Hudson, Richard Gregory, John Bowlby and Jonathan Miller. No student psychology society in any other university can even compare with this record. Lilli was also very effective at getting OUPS finances into a healthy state.  OUPS was started and has been run ever since by a remarkable collection of dedicated Committee members. They have given and still give enormous energy, enthusiasm and skill to make it so successful. All of us who have participated in OUPS events have much to thank them for.


How do you think the OUPS benefits OU psychology students?
Without doubt, belonging to OUPS is a wonderful accompaniment to an OU course in psychology (or come to that any other subject). OUPS offers so much. First of all, from the perspective of doing well on your courses, it runs superb support and revision events. These are staffed by some of the best teachers in the country including Neil Frude, Graham Mitchell and Peter Banister. (Peter is current President of the British Psychological Society. Interestingly, OU psychology course tutors have included at least four past Presidents of the BPS). Tutors at OUPS revision schools also include the best of Open University course team members like Fred Toates.


Secondly, as the list of speakers indicated above shows, it offers the opportunity, as no other psychology society in the world does, to hear and talk with the most eminent psychologists in the UK and in the world. It also opens students up to innovative ideas and controversial topics in psychology. There was a great series run by South East Region of OUPS organised by David Goddard, which had Hans Eysenck, Rom Harre, Margaret Boden and others giving their very personal views on where psychology should go in the future and why.
Thirdly and by no means least, OUPS offers the opportunity to mix and talk with like-minded students and tutors – to discuss problems, ideas, get support and also to have fun! Participants at weekend schools not only work but usually have a great time!


What do you get out of your involvement with OUPS?
I find it one of the most exciting aspects of the OU. For me, the OU has not only given me the opportunity to rethink psychology through working on our courses, but also to come into contact with students who are actually interested in and excited about the subject matter they are studying rather than in just getting a degree. There is also such a range of OU students, with very different backgrounds and who are often graduates in other subjects. All the students bring the perspective of their own life experience and that can be refreshing and stimulating.


Have you had a favourite conference speaker?
I have heard too many superb speakers at OUPS events to be able to choose between them. If I had to pick, I might mention Hans Eysenck – who I like for his openness and preparedness to be controversial, or Professor Colin Blakemore from Oxford for his penetrating insights. However, the speaker I have probably most enjoyed - not only for his ability to come up with original and unusual takes on psychology but for his belly-rattling humour, is Professor Neil Frude.


What directions would you like to see OUPS take in future?
For me, one of the most important events that OUPS puts on is not the great revision school but the Summer Conference. It is here that OUPS not only provides teaching but actually contributes to moving psychology on. We have had some great conferences in the past - on evolutionary psychology, on consciousness, on sexuality. One, in particular stays in my mind, with speakers like David Halpern from the Prime Minister’s Office, was on well-being and how far and in what ways public policy might help to make us all happier. There is what promises to be a great one coming up in July on neuroscience.


So what I would like OUPS to place emphasis on in the future is events such as these; not just teaching psychology, but moving psychology forward and, in particular, creating new ways of using psychology for human and planetary well-being.


Do you think that OUPS has inspired the subsequent work of students?
It is hard to separate the role of OUPS from the OU experience more generally. There is no doubt that doing OU psychology has been very inspirational to so many students. I have met them all over the world. As OU and OUPS tutors, teaching psychology at other UK universities or practicing as clinical psychologists; also running departments in Hong Kong, working in the Houses of Parliament and as fellows of Cambridge colleges.

The OU and OUPS has certainly inspired my own thinking. Without the opportunity to develop OU courses, my ideas on psychology (for example my trimodal theory) would probably not have emerged as they did. The enthusiasm and interest in the material that OU students have, particularly those who come to OUPS events, has made it feel all so worthwhile!


Dr Richard Stevens, who is currently a Vice President of OUPS, was one of the first members of the Open University Psychology Department. He has been active with OUPS since it was initiated in the early 1970s. Richard was Chair of the first Social Psychology course at the OU (D305), contributed to all but the most recent of the Introductory courses in Psychology and the Social Sciences Foundation courses. He has been an active tutor for many years at OUPS events and has organized and chaired several of the national conferences including those on Consciousness, Key thinkers in Psychology (‘Mindshapers’) and the Psychology of Well-being.
In a prior career he was a theatre director and also directed drama for BBC TV. Richard often presents and contributes on psychology matters to both radio and TV programmes and led the team for the four part BBC2 Series Making Slough Happy. He is the author of several books on psychology and Editor of the Mindshapers Series for Palgrave Macmillan.

This interview originally appeared in the 40th anniversary edition of News & Views June 2014.

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