Some Reflections on the
Secrets to New Directions’ Success
We’ve all had a long, stimulating day. For those of you who are still here, I feel only decent thing to do would be to end the day fifteen minutes early. But then some of you would suspect it wasn’t so much an act of generosity as an attempt to conceal the fact that I hadn’t prepared anything to say. So in case any of you were still hanging around at this point, I did prepare some comments.
Actually, the wish-fulfilling function of a dream I had four nights ago absolved me of the need to prepare anything to say, because in my dream, despite the fact that virtually everyone who was invited to this retreat registered for it, in my dream I was the only person who showed up today.
I felt enthusiastic about the New Directions program when Bob first described it to me, a year before it got underway. I was pleased to be included in it, and my enthusiasm for it has only increased. It has struck me that it offers us some unique opportunities to think about many questions related to the objectives of the program and what facilitates or impedes working toward those objectives.
Many of us have been involved both in New Directions and in the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. The similarities as well as the differences between those two programs are fascinating. Those of you who have been involved in educational programs other than a psychoanalytic institute no doubt notice such contrasts as well. I suppose a brand-new program, that has no exact precedent, allows for innovation in a way that Bob and Sharon have clearly made superb use of. I wonder how much this reflects the inertia of tradition in longstanding programs like the an alytic Institute. Much as we might try to do otherwise, I imagine that we often end up doing things as our own teachers had done in past generations, whether it’s the optimal way to go about teaching or not.
Perhaps residual idealizations of our own teachers get activated by becoming teachers ourselves. I know there might be other motivations also. Such as identifying with the aggressor, and making our students suffer just as much as we had to suffer.
But I think something different happens when we have a fresh start, as we have in New Directions. The practice of analysis itself has evolved in significant ways since I became a candidate almost thirty years ago. But, probably because of the greater inertia of something as massive as a psychoanalytic institute the Institute functions in a way that retains much of the stuffiness and formality of the practice of analysis in bygone days, more like some sort of Old Directions in Psychoanalysis program. One of the things that many of us cherish about New Directions is the lively, friendly, informal spontaneity of it. I’m sure we’ve all noticed that the same guest speaker who was addressed by last name during the more stuffy Friday evening dinner meeting of the Society, for example, is called by first name the next day at the New Directions large and small-group discussions. Probably many of you remember, for example, the contrast between Harold Blum’s Friday evening paper (not counting his joke about the difference between the Titanic and the President of the United States) and his interaction with us the next day, when he told those fascinating stories about his real reasons for writing some of his early papers.
You could argue, I suppose, that I’m just contrasting having been a candidate with being a faculty member now. It’s certainly true that one thing that makes it easier for me to reconcile myself to the prospective sale of our Institute’s building is that I still get anxious when I walk into it, which must be a conditioned response from all those years of being a candidate. But when I walk into a New Directions event, I feel relaxed, looking forward to another lively and exciting experience.
I believe another key to the success of the program is its freestanding nature. One reason the Institute lacks many of the best qualities of New Directions is that the Institute is necessarily saddled with many other layers of responsibility and accountability. The Institute is responsible for training its candidates for a new profession, and the Institute has to answer to the American Psychoanalytic Association and to the IPA. The Institute has to submit to periodic site visits from the American. Many of our graduates apply for certification, which becomes one more implicit, judgmental presence hovering over our educational activities. I believe much of this has to do with our externalizing our own superego functions onto such outside groups. I doubt there are many supervisors who haven’t said to a candidate, for example, “You can take this patient into analysisif you want, but I don’t think the Certification Committee will approve of this case.” So part of the secret of New Directions’ success, and part of the pleasure of being involved in it, probably involves a manic triumph over archaic superego forces.
This brings me to another issue about our writing groups. I believe optimal educational experiences are grounded in group interactions that primarily involve more advanced ego activity, but that regressive dynamics in both group leaders and group members may sometimes lure us into resorting to superego and more primitive ego channels of communication and influence. For example, exploiting our role as authorities, and our students’ fears of being adversely judged. Unfortunately, this was often the way we were taught ourselves. I believe the structure of our program lessens these tendencies, for the reasons
I’ve mentioned. Although many of us confine our clinical work to dyadic relationships with one patient at a time, we’re aware of the powerful forces of group dynamics, and it’s impossible to teach without dealing with the group dynamics of each class. There are a lot of interventions that we make intuitively to try to aim for an optimal learning environment. Although the memoirs of a middle school teacher were instructively titled Don’t Smile Before Christmas, I find that with most adult students, it helps to start off on a note of friendliness and sup-portiveness, so that any subsequent criticisms can be better tolerated. And I hope that the students will be able to tolerate my criticisms of them better, too.
Another of my goals is to occasionally put aside my own competitive streak, and aim for what Erikson calls the task of generativity, getting satisfaction out of mystudents’ ambitions and accomplishments.
I want to mention one book that seems apropos of our task. The Boston analyst Robert Gardner, who wrote a book on self-analysis titled Self-Inquiry1, has a later book titled On Trying to Teach2, With respect to lesson planning, he says, “Some teachers prefer to begin each day with a nicely defined plan for carrying out their teaching. I do not” (p.82). This is one of the many things Gardner writes that endears him to me. He cites President Lowell once saying in a commencement address at Harvard, ”When we find a spark of creativity in a student, we water it” (p.33). Gardner has some sobering things to say about trying to avoid watering our students’ sparks of creativity – “A teacher of psychoanalysis is particularly peculiar; not content to practice one impossible profession, he or she practices two” (p. vii). And, to help us take this entire day with a grain of salt, Gardner observes of his own book on teaching, “Those who know teachers will know that teachers know remarkably little about learning and teaching; which remarkable ignorance makes it extremely hard for a teacher to write anything about teaching without telling others how to teach.” (p. viii). How to give constructive feedback is a perennial issue we all struggle with.
We know that power corrupts, and being in the role of critiquing someone else’s work brings with it a certain potentially corrupting power. One possible tactic is to use ourselves as negative examples, to soften the blow of potentially hurtful feedback. At The Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation’s annual awards dinner, speakers often cite memorable lessons they’ve learned from our honorees. I had such an experience in the first few days of my psychiatric residency at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, when I told my supervisor, Clarence Schulz, that my newly assigned inpatient refused to speak with me. I felt my possible unsuitability for the psychiatric profession was on display, until Clarence smiled and said that reminded him of one of his inpatients, who always managed to be taking a shower when Clarence came by for their sessions. I don’t know of anything Clarence could have said that would have reassured me quite as effectively as telling me this about himself. My own assumption is that anxiety in the student is often a major obstacle to optimal learning, so that putting our students at ease is always one of our goals as group leaders.
I know the opposite danger, which I tend to fall into myself, is to shy away from giving students the sort of critical feedback that will allow them to improve. I suppose we all have a tendency to project onto our students what has and hasn’t worked in our own training experiences. I recognize, at least intellectually, that few students are quite as thin-skinned and unable to take criticism as I am myself, so I undoubtedly deprive my students of the sort of feedback I once received from a colleague at Chestnut Lodge. I’d told him I’d just gotten a paper rejected from a journal – the fifth time this paper had been rejected.
Vastly overestimating my tolerance for criticism, he asked, “Rick, has it occurred to you that your paper might not be worth publishing?” I’m still hoping to try out this sort of feedback on some of our students, but I suppose I haven’t yet gotten comfortable enough with my sadism.