Teaching Freud To Both Undergraduates and Analytic Candidates*

. by Lawrence D. Blum

Teaching Freud, for me, is always part of a larger project of teaching psychoanalysis. My inclination, perhaps informed by students’ impressions of Freud as a mere historical footnote, and psychoanalysis as a famous cadaver, has been to emphasize how fully alive Freud’s ideas are now, in our culture and in contemporary psychoanalysis. I offer an approach that honors Freud’s ideas by showing students not only how those ideas continue to influence us but also how other, more recent thinkers have helped transmit and transform them.

After many years of teaching psychoanalytic candidates, psychotherapy students, and trainees in the mental health disciplines—at both the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania—I have recently begun to teach undergraduates as well, as co-director of Penn’s undergraduate program in Psychoanalytic Studies. I was curious to learn what the experience would be like and what adjustments would be necessary. Overall, I’ve found the experience of teaching undergraduates surprisingly similar to teaching their elders. When teaching either mental health professionals or undergraduates, one is likely to have classes that are heterogeneous with regard to personal background, psychoanalytic knowledge, and, especially, aptitude for psychoanalytic learning. As an instructor, one faces the same tasks of trying to assess what “levels” the students are at, including how open or defensive they might be, and of trying to teach to multiple levels at once.

On the other hand, there are some matters that are more necessary to address with college students than with, say, analytic candidates. One of these is that, when learning psychoanalytic ideas, unlike many other subjects, the most serious obstacles are typically our own emotional reactions. Candidates are usually at least partly familiar with this difficulty, but for college students it needs to be discussed explicitly. For some students, what’s troubling might be aspects of sexual material; for others, murderous wishes; and, for yet others, the notion of cannibalistic fantasies. In these days of “trigger warnings” about supposedly offensive or harmful ideas in American college classrooms, I let the class know that we’ll be talking about aspects of human nature and human psychology that will provide ample opportunity for emotional and intellectual discomfort, as well as the opportunity to learn from that discomfort. At the same time, I let the class know that we’ll discuss these matters in a manner both as respectful and as direct as possible.

For some college students, the frank discussion of the usual domains of psychoanalysis (love, hate, sex, aggression, envy, intimacy, fantasy) is a new experience that may bring either anxiety or relief—and often both at once. In conducting an undergraduate seminar, my co-teachers and I do not want the class to veer toward group therapy or an encounter session, and we never oblige students to speak about things they’re uncomfortable with or that feel too personal. We are, however, pleased when students allow themselves to be introspective—more open to their own emotional experiences. In addition to being respectful of the differences in their personal feelings and cultural backgrounds, we also hope to learn from them. To foster an atmosphere of candor in which relatively open conversation is possible, we have found it useful to have everyone introduce themselves and to share something about their backgrounds and their interest in psychoanalysis. To break the ice, the instructors speak first. It’s important for psychoanalysts to recognize the differences between running a classroom and conducting therapy. Some principles are the same (e.g., not being inappropriately familiar or seductive), but, among other differences, the classroom calls for a greater degree of relaxation about self-disclosure and more involvement in guiding the discussion.

Crucially, various obstacles to psychoanalytic learning can themselves provide useful insights into psychoanalytic ideas. From early on, Freud was able to turn to advantage his awareness of resistances—in both himself and his patients. Interpreting his own “Irma” dream, Freud offered to his readers compelling but also carefully limited insights—a technique he would soon extend to clinical work with patients. The “surface” is also a good place to start with students, giving them opportunities to begin cautiously and then to extend and deepen their reflections as discussions unfold.

Freud’s analysis of dreams was central to his own analysis as well as to his development of psychoanalysis as both a science and a therapy. Dreams are not only a tried and true path to psychoanalysis (what Freud called the “royal road to the unconscious”), but also often a subject of great interest to undergraduates as they seek to understand their own minds. Thus, the Irma dream, the introductory dream in the book that introduces psychoanalysis, is for students a logical point of entry into the world of psychoanalytic thought.

Freud’s Irma dream follows a friend and colleague’s partly critical comments about the state of his patient Irma’s health, and, as Freud’s associations to his dream proceed, students quickly pick up on Freud’s accumulating self-accusations and self-exculpations. They easily recognize his competition with his fellow physicians. In my experience, most students find Freud’s inference that his dream represents a wish not to be blamed but to blame others relatively compelling. Questioning our students regarding Freud’s comment about the “navel” beyond which lies the unknown—and about his remark that, “Frankly, I had no desire to penetrate more deeply at this point” (113), about the elements he refrains from discussing further, about competition between the men, about the positions of the women, syringes, etc.—help them recognize the Oedipal and sexual aspects of the dream that Freud has left just beyond explicit commentary. This line of discussion then illuminates layers of defense, from what is more emotionally acceptable to what is less so. Simultaneously, it moves from material for which we have the most data to areas requiring a slightly greater degree of inference. In other words, the principles of moving from surface to depth, and also of moving from the observation of what is more certain to inquiry about what is less certain, are illustrated in the discussion. The Irma dream thus serves as a rich starting point for the discussion of many fundamental matters, including dreams, dream interpretation, psychoanalytic principles of conflict and compromise, clinical technique, and Freud’s early model of the mind.

I also like to pair Freud’s Irma chapter with Erik Erikson’s neglected classic, “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis” (1954). This long article, which many students (at all levels) find challenging, brilliantly extends the interpretation of the Irma dream begun by Freud. For students of the history of psychoanalysis, the pairing of Freud’s chapter and Erikson’s article brings into focus the first half-century of the development of psychoanalytic ideas, from the beginnings of the topographic model and id psychology through the structural model and the new powers of ego psychology. For students of clinical technique and dream interpretation, it provides a model of step-wise interpretation, from the surface—that which is most conscious and for which we have the most observable evidence—through “layers” that require greater degrees of inference and for which we have less manifest evidence. Erikson enriches the interpretation of the Irma dream by connecting it to roots in Freud’s childhood, including conflicts with his father and identifications with his mother, and by situating it in relation to Freud’s social position and the culture in which he lived. It also serves as a demonstration of the further development and application of Freud’s ideas through the mid-twentieth century.

Professor Greg Urban and I begin our undergraduate seminar on “Psychoanalysis and Anthropology” at the University of Pennsylvania with a kind of psychoanalytic exercise; rather than telling students about psychoanalytic ideas, we invite them to try to think psychoanalytically. We read aloud together the first few pages of Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice (1993). Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who traveled through the Amazon River basin learning about medicinal plants from indigenous experts, the shamans. The book opens with an anxiety dream of the author’s—“a terrifying dream,” in his words—that occurred shortly after his explorations began: “An enormous jaguar strode into my hut and stared deeply into my eyes, as if trying to divine my thoughts. Powerful muscles tensed in its back as it arched its body to spring. So vivid was the apparition that I awoke with a scream” (1). He asks his translator to tell the dream to the shaman, who had recently told him he would no longer teach him. The shaman breaks into a big smile and responds with a de facto transference interpretation: “That was me!” In the text that follows, Plotkin discusses, in sensually rich terms, the college lecture that introduced him to Amazonia, developmental conflicts in his adolescence, and the “sleepy swamps” surrounding his childhood home in New Orleans. The text reads like a set of associations to the dream, gradually moving from the present further and further back in time. In class, additional aspects of the dream, together with the students’ own associations, especially to the jungle, usually lead to the Garden of Eden, the search for hidden and forbidden knowledge, and typical conflicts about knowledge and sexuality. Students get a sense of both the method of psychoanalytic thinking and how it addresses personal history and ways of adapting to emotional challenges.

Beginning our course with the Plotkin exercise and the Irma dream quickly leads our students to new ways of understanding people, both as individuals and in groups. It gives them a set of ideas that cross disciplinary lines and resonate throughout the humanities and social sciences and even some of the natural sciences. Some students even become drawn toward careers in mental health fields. Whatever students’ career directions may be, our experience so far suggests that to varying degrees many students find in psychoanalytic ideas ways to truly expand their minds. They view themselves and others with more curiosity, complexity, and understanding, and—like learning to read or ride a bicycle—the accomplishment is enduring.


Works cited

Erikson, Eric. 1954. “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 2: 5-56.

Freud, Sigmund. 1958. “The Method of Interpreting Dreams: An Analysis of a Specimen Dream.” The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth. 96-121.

Plotkin, Mark. 1993. Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. New York: Viking.

* This post has been adapted from: Blum, Lawrence. 2018. “Teaching Freud, Teaching Psychoanalysis: From College Students to Professionals.” American Imago 75.2: 307-317. (Additional articles about teaching Freud can be found in this issue.)


One Reply to “Teaching Freud To Both Undergraduates and Analytic Candidates*”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *