May 23, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 18

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    Quantrell Award: Eric Caplan

    Harper Instructor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division Eric Caplan begins his classes by trying to make students feel at ease, by creating an environment conducive to the sharing of ideas.

    "I don't want my classes to be a presentation of material to a group of anonymous individuals," said Caplan, Harper Instructor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division. "I want them to know me, I want to know them, and I want them to know each other."

    To encourage the development of rapport, Caplan distributes nameplates so students can learn their classmates' names. He encourages students to call him by his first name and to telephone him at home or send him e-mail when they have questions. All of this, he said, is to promote the expression of thoughts as an integral part of learning.

    "The students have to learn how to become comfortable expressing their own ideas -- not parroting mine," he said. "The essence of education, after all, is for them to come to terms with their own thoughts."

    An established rapport in class helps when Caplan finds his students have missed major points in assigned readings.

    "When I think that they have missed something and given a questionable answer, I challenge them directly," he said. "My hope, however, is that other students will join the conversation and steer it in the right direction.

    "When I confront them, I want them to realize that I'm not making a judgment on them personally. I want them to know that I can still think they're thoughtful, intelligent people, even if they give me responses and written assignments that I think need some help."

    Using e-mail helps facilitate his connection with students. Several times a day the students send him questions about topics brought up in class or propose introductions to essays they have been assigned to write.

    "I work really hard with them on their writing," Caplan said. "Even on the 'A' papers, I try to give respectable feedback, even though those students have done their work well. For the 'B' and 'C' papers, however, I write a substantial number of comments -- often several typewritten pages. I give students an opportunity to rewrite as well, because I want them to take control of their education."

    Caplan teaches the social-science core sequence, the yearlong course Self, Culture & Society, as well as a course he designed himself, Madness & Anxiety in America, a class that grew out of his research interest in the history of American psychiatry.

    In that course as well as others, he challenges students to take a fresh look at assumptions they may have about how society operates. Students gain a new understanding about the changing role of doctors, for instance, as they study how mental health has been viewed over time.

    Caplan said he has enjoyed the chance to teach a topic directly tied to his research. "This gives me an opportunity to think through the topic myself, to see students deal with some of the ideas I have dealt with."

    His research on mental health will be published next year by the University of California Press in the book Medicalizing the Mind: The Invention of American Psychotherapy, 1800-1920. Caplan is currently conducting research on his next project, a study of psychotropic medicine tentatively titled Chemical Imbalance: Sadness as Sickness in America.

    Caplan has been an Instructor at the University since winter quarter 1995. He received his B.A. in 1984 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and his Ph.D. in 1994 from Michigan.

    -- William Harms