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Hannah Baumgarter

History of Biopsychology: Uncovering our Biases
A Conversation with Hannah Baumgartner

Dr. Hannah Baumgartner is a recent graduate of the Biopsychology doctoral program in the Psychology department. She is broadly interested in understanding how both incentive and aversive motivation can be modulated by stress and brain CRF systems.


Interviewed by Christopher Turner

CT: Hi, Hannah! Do you want to give us a little background about who you are and how that relates to the department?

HB: I just defended my dissertation and graduated from the University of Michigan's Biopsychology area. And I am currently moving on to a federal research position with the FAA, where I am working now. 

CT: Making government money, haha. Well, jumping right in then, how did you become interested in teaching about DEI/DEI-related topics? 

HB: When I was in college, I took a history of psychology class that shared more of the ugly parts of psychs history than I had been exposed to before. We read "Even the Rat Was White" by Robert Guthrie. And there is this historian of psychology, Laurel Furomoto, who posed ideas of a new history of psychology that goes beyond the great men with great ideas. This set me in motion thinking about this for our field. 

CT: So, what ways did that manifest as you were like learning more about it [the history of psychology]. What are some things that you did with that information or tried to do? 

HB: Throughout all our psych class, history comes up one way or another, even if it's just like a minor reference. And to be honest, what really got me frustrated was Paul Broca. We talk about him in phrenology very frequently in our Intro to Biopsychology course. [Phrenology the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities] Initially, you think, "ha-ha, phrenology” that was dumb, right? But Paul Broca and phrenology were building the foundation for white supremacy and eugenicist ideas. Or if we talk about the history of the Nazis and how the Nazis got Eugenics from the US. They got it from US psychologists. It's not necessarily that I wanted to open all the dirty closets of psychology's history. But I wanted the students to appreciate the nuances and context of what we're often taught. 

CT: So that led you to form a course, right? Can you tell me more about that? 

HB: Absolutely. It was seminar that encouraged exploring and understanding the historical context of the field of biopsychology. We discussed underrepresented voices in biopsychology history, with a special focus on race, gender, and disability.

And you know, it was also around the time the pandemic was happening. Black Lives Matter was coming to the forefront. Psychology has such a marked history with race; it was on my mind to bring some of that to the classroom. It was interesting to me, especially because white people in the US are not as comfortable talking about racist. They are not as comfortable talking about these things because they do not grow up where it's necessary [to do so], right? So, my main focus when first conceptualizing class was trying to figure out how to make it a space that we could all talk about things like this. Setting up the framework for how that should go—despite it not being a pure DEI class, like those taught by other departments.

I'd say the hardest thing to try and keep in mind, and my student's minds, is this: Although we're talking about atrocities in our past, we can still keep things we learn from them, right. We don't have to throw it all out, and as we're going through all this stuff, we don't want to glorify the trauma, right? So, it's not about just unearthing these things. It's about appreciating how these things affected our field. 

CT: Oh, great, segue into my next question, which is, were there transformative moments that you can think of as you taught the course that you experienced as an instructor? Whether that be a really good conversation or hearing from a student after [the course ended]. Anything like that? 

HB: Yeah, especially in COVID times, you're instructing to a screen of blank faces too, right? And so, of course, it gets hard sometimes, but I remember this one class where we went over a lot of stuff. I quote from the book Disability History of the United States, which is a really good book. And then, after class, I had a student email me out of the blue. You never know who is actually engaged, but they wrote about how important it is to learn about these things and that she's never heard about this in a psych class or how much it changed her impression." And yeah, I don't know; stuff like that was so sweet to hear. We also had a big focus on uplifting voices that have been silenced in the past, right? So we were finding old researchers and their contributions. And so, yeah, just getting to hear students say like, "I have never once been shown a psych researcher from the past that looks like me. But here I found one" You know? And so like, it's really cool. 

CT: Aww…I mean, I expected you to be able to think of a few, but still hearing about it is nice.

HB: I know, right? It's like, oh good, that's what I hoped. But I'm glad. 

CT: All right, so after having structured this course, researched for it, taught it, what advice would you have for another graduate student who's interested in doing something similar? Whether incorporating it into a course already being taught or making a brand-new course as you did thoughtfully. So not just "Oh, here's a fact. We're not going to talk about it much; just know it."

HB: Yes, yes. Because it's an important point that you must be prepared if you're going to have a course on really personal and potentially sensitive topics, some things could go wrong in the conversation. I felt an obligation to study the resources they had available to me, like DEI in the classroom stuff from CLT. Those are great. And highlighting that it's not always the best to say, "these are differing opinions." Because sometimes, one of those opinions is inherently striking at another person's identity. I suggest reading to help you prepare for those hot moments; again, the CLT resources are great stuff. And then my other advice would be it does not have to be your area of expertise. But, you know, just if you are interested in it, there's probably a group of 20 something undergrads that would be down to investigate it a little bit more. And it is a learning process with them together, right? Find these topics, you work on them, and they'll give you feedback. They will help guide you with what they're interested in. So yeah. I guess this is a just-do-it situation. 

CT: "Just do it," gotcha. Well, we will put Nike in here, so they don't sue us for copyright infringement. Any last takeaways? What did you want to leave as your legacy, and what do you hope for the future? 

HB: Yes. You know it kind of all ties together for me. Clearly, I've always been like a history nerd but reminding everyone in the courses we teach and in the legacy of our research, no written story has to be that the only story. We decide what is important. We decide through what we share about the past and the history of our fields. And so, just because you were taught something one way doesn't mean that you can't completely change that dynamic. And that we're the ones that get to decide to portray an inclusive history. 

CT: Are there any books or articles from you’re course that you'd recommend?

HB: I've mentioned A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Neilsen. It's an excellent, more recent one; it is a lens of how we did or didn't view disability throughout the history of the US.

Nielsen, Kim E. (2012). A disability history of the United States. Revisioning American history. Boston: Beacon Press.

"Even the Rat Was White" by Robert Hare. Chronicled the complicated history of race within psychology in the US. At the same time, he did amazing work writing the story of the Black psychologists as they came up whom we haven't been able to hear about. The forefathers of Black psychologists in the United States.

Guthrie, Robert V. (2004). Even the rat was white : a historical view of psychology. Boston, MA : Allyn and Bacon.

And then, Decolonizing psychology in South Africa, an article talking about psychology in South Africa right now. It is an interesting parallel to the US because they are dealing with the after-effects of apartheid, which was also driven by psychology. Exactly like in the US, psychology, and eugenics intertwine, having lasting effects. But it is so much more recent for them. So, they can't just try to ignore it in the same way. It's a fascinating analysis of what's happening there and what may still be happening in the US.

Clay, R. A. (2017, November). Decolonizing psychology in South Africa. Monitor on Psychology48(10).