Teaching 𝑎𝑏𝑜𝑢𝑡 Psychoanalysis and Teaching 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ Psychoanalysis; or, Contemporary Undergraduate Psychoanalytic Education and the Future of Transferential Pedagogy

by Max Cavitch

Launched three years ago, the “Psyche on Campus” blog has continued to be extremely fortunate in its contributors—including academics, clinicians, and students from many colleges and universities in the U.S. and the U.K.—and extremely fortunate in its readers. In fact, the blog now has well over 10,000 readers in dozens of different countries. And in 2022, for the second year in a row, “Psyche on Campus” has been selected by FeedSpot as one of the “15 Best Psychoanalysis Blogs and Websites.” Posts continue to be published every 6-10 weeks, and readers can anticipate forthcoming posts by Jane Abrams, Gila Ashtor, Rachel Conrad, Brian Connolly, Marcia Dobson, and Nicholas Ray, among others. (If you have an idea for a post of your own, please let me know!) And our “Syllabus Archive” continues to grow. (Again, relevant syllabi from your own courses are very welcome!)

Meanwhile, the blog’s third anniversary seems like a good occasion to take stock of what’s been said and what remains to be discovered about psychoanalysis and undergraduate education. It’s a topic that still gets relatively little attention, but one that many of us believe has important ramifications, both for the intellectual life of colleges and universities and for the field of psychoanalysis itself.

Those of us who teach in one of the handful of formal, undergraduate psychoanalytic studies programs (including, in the U.S., at Colorado College, Emerson College, Hampshire College, NYU/Gallatin, and the University of Pennsylvania, and, in the U.K., at Birbeck, University of London and the University of Essex) have seen some of our students go on to pursue post-baccalaureate education and training in the field. This is especially heartening because, as the statistics show, the profession continues to age and therefore needs more bright young minds to rejuvenate and perpetuate the whole range of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies practiced around the world.

Of course, most of our students don’t go on to become psychoanalysts. But all of them carry forward an enhanced understanding of the human condition and a stronger capacity for empathizing with themselves and with those who are different from themselves. Intellectually, they carry forward knowledge of what continues to be the most comprehensive and nuanced account of human subjectivity—an account always being freshly energized and augmented on many fronts (not least, in the exciting new field of neuropsychoanalysis).

When it comes to assessing the current place of psychoanalysis in undergraduate education generally, hard data are difficult to assemble. But the available evidence strongly suggests that undergraduates—especially in the U.S.—are unlikely to learn much about psychoanalysis in departments of psychology (see Redmond and Shulman 2008, 398). Indeed, in their “Epilogue” to a 2019 special-issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry on “The Future of Psychoanalysis in Undergraduate Education,” Marcia D.-S. Dobson and John H. Riker emphasize the extent to which psychoanalysis “has been attacked and dismissed…by psychology departments in American universities and colleges” (Dobson and Riker 2019, 469). Similar concerns are expressed by the authors of a recent article about the “Psychoanalytic and Psychodynamic Teachers’ Academy” sponsored by the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA): “Psychology textbooks are often peppered with caricatures of, and outright misinformation about, psychodynamic theories and treatments” (Tasso et al. 2021, 28).

Undergraduate courses with significant psychoanalytic content are far more likely to be found in a range of other social-science and, especially, humanities departments, including departments of anthropology, English and comparative literature, film and media studies, gender and sexuality studies, history, philosophy, and sociology (see Riker et al. 2018).

But what, exactly, are students learning about psychoanalysis in these largely humanities-oriented courses? To what concepts are they being introduced? Which analytic writers are they being asked to read? To what extent do the history and theory of clinical practice (in addition to metapsychological theory) get incorporated into such courses? And, perhaps most importantly, how could (or should) psychoanalytic ideas and techniques inform the practice of pedagogy itself?

With regard to teaching metapsychological content, psychoanalysis is often presented as a model of the mind with more historical significance than contemporary relevance. Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan appear most frequently on course syllabi that include psychoanalytic content—quite often to the exclusion of other and more recent contributors to the field. Psychoanalysis is commonly presented to students as if it were a static field more than adequately represented by the work of these two great thinkers, rather than as a dynamic field that continues to grow and change by building on, but also radically rethinking, Freud and Lacan’s contributions. Thus, one of the crucial roles played by undergraduate psychoanalytic studies programs is the more comprehensive presentation of psychoanalytic history, theory, and practice through the expansion and diversification of the curriculum and through recognition of the field’s continuous self-examination and revitalization. Syllabi for such courses include works not only by Freud and Lacan but also by Sándor Ferenczi, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Hanna Segal, D. W. Winnicott, Heinz Hartmann, Harry Guntrip, Margaret Mahler, Masud Kahn, Erik Erikson, Hans Loewald, Karen Horney, Otto Kernberg, Margaret Mahler, Jean Laplanche, Juliette Mitchell, Julia Kristeva, Stephen Mitchell, Jeanne Spurlock, Philip Bromberg, Donnel Stern, Néstor Braunstein, Nancy Chodorow, Christopher Bollas, Farhad Dalal, Jessica Benjamin, Shinhee Han, Mark Solms, and many other major analysts and analytic thinkers from the full range of analytic schools of thought and practice. And these works are read not as settled wisdom but as contributions to an ongoing exchange and revision of ideas.

With regard to teaching about clinical practice, many stereotypes and misconceptions first need to be overcome. The caricature of the superannuated, taciturn, “classical” psychoanalyst who authoritatively “interprets” the patient’s opaque and chaotic discourse needs first to give way to an appreciation of the field’s numerous and increasingly interpersonal clinical styles. The best way to achieve this is by bringing psychoanalysts themselves into the classroom—whether as academics who are also clinicians, or as co-instructors with their academic counterparts, or as visitors and guest-lecturers. Here at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, most of the courses we offer in our undergraduate psychoanalytic studies program are team-taught by a standing faculty member from the School of Arts and Sciences and a practicing psychoanalyst from Penn’s psychiatry department and/or the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia (Philadelphia’s oldest analytic training institute). Not only do students read about different schools of thought and practice, but they also get to know at least one contemporary clinician—not as some limited and often idealized figure in a published case history, but as a unique, embodied personality, with their own clinical style and methodological orientation.

Yet it may be with regard to teaching as such—whether it’s done by a single academic faculty member or clinician or by an academic-clinician teaching-team—that psychoanalysis has the most to offer undergraduate education, including the teaching of courses both with and without psychoanalytic content. In his 1918 essay “On the Teaching of Psycho-Analysis in Universities,” Freud himself draws an important distinction between learning “something about psycho-analysis” and learning “something from it” (1956, 15). Among other things, psychoanalysis is a revolutionary theory of epistemology—of how we know what we know. Indeed, the very possibility of knowing, in the positivist sense, is a central question in all schools of analytic thought. Awareness of the unconscious dimensions of human experience throws knowledge—knowledge of the self, in particular—into an especially problematic, but also fortuitous, light.

Before Freud, the “self” most often seemed to be a problem of knowledge. But, after Freud, knowledge itself became the problem, and the ancient dictum “Know thyself!”—which had so often been questioned before—finally gave way, as Adam Phillips puts it, to “a radical and formative insufficiency, something that cannot be solved by knowledge. With the post-Freudian description of the unconscious, the idea of human completeness disappears. We are not in search of wholeness…we are in search of good ways of bearing our incompleteness” (1996, 7).

In other words, instead of holding fast to the notion of a “subject supposed to know,” psychoanalysis makes locating, defining, and representing this “subject of uncertainty” its interminable epistemological project. This project depends, not chiefly on a discourse of rationality, but on the exploration of a sustained transferential dynamic between self and other. Thus, the pedagogical value of psychoanalysis—like its therapeutic value—inheres in a sustained willingness, on the part of both teachers and students, to patiently persevere in the search for “good ways of bearing our incompleteness.”

That sort of sustained willingness is tough to achieve—not least, because it calls for everyone’s tolerance of a very different temporality than the linear, cumulative temporality of traditional pedagogical practice. “Proceeding not through linear progression, but,” as Shoshana Felman puts it,

through breakthroughs, leaps, discontinuities, regressions, and deferred action, the [transferential] learning-process puts indeed into question the traditional pedagogical belief in intellectual perfectibility, the progressistic view of learning as a simple one-way road from ignorance to knowledge. (1982, 27)

And this very different temporality can’t be achieved through conscious effort alone. It is, predominantly, the temporality of unconscious experience.

But the classroom, like the consulting room, is first and foremost a space of human relationship and therefore strongly characterized—whether we like it or not—by various forms of resistance, defense, idealization, projection, aggression, desire, identification…in short, by lots and lots of unconscious as well as conscious communication. This is why teaching and learning make us nervous: the classroom’s transferential dynamics are always pulling us toward that very different temporality of “breakthroughs, leaps, discontinuities, regressions, and deferred action,” toward that very different experience of learning in which, for example, all sorts of narcissistic investments are challenged and might be undone.

Indeed, any form of education that seeks to do more than induce intellectual compliance or to go beyond the rote delivery and assimilation of “information” is likely to threaten our libidinal attachments to cherished people, ideas, and beliefs—whether we are teachers struggling with anxieties about authority, competence, and the love of our students, or students struggling with anxieties about autonomy, worthiness, and the love of their teachers.

Deborah P. Britzman, who has written several books about psychoanalysis and education, rightly observes that, with the recognition of the transferential dynamics of pedagogy, what we’re used to calling “education” endures a salutary delay: “Learning is delayed because we feel before we know and learn before we understand, akin to Freud’s notion of ‘remembering, repeating, and working through’” (Britzman 2015, 44). The immediate—often hollow and transient—satisfactions of knowledge-acquisition are deferred, and, in that space of deferral, frustrations arise.

Teaching students, primarily through our own example, how to tolerate such frustration, while at the same time helping them to cope with affective disturbances and runaway meanings—“accommodating not-understanding, the limits of knowledge, and feelings of uncertainty” (Britzman 2021, xii)—is perhaps the greatest potential gain of introducing psychoanalysis into the undergraduate classroom, whatever the content of a particular course might be. In courses on anthropology, economics, law, literature, medicine, neuroscience, philosophy, political science, psychology, or whatever, teachers and students who attend to the classroom’s transferential dynamics are more likely to recognize their implication in both the content of the course and in the way that content is presented and handled: “To implicate oneself in one’s own narratives of learning and teaching means turning habituated knowledge back upon itself and examining its most unflattering, indeed, for many, its most devastating features. It also means exploring how even this most unflattering moment may offer insight into making significance” (Britzman 2021, 26).

Still, even the canniest teachers and students will always be tempted to inhibit or ignore the intrusions of what Christopher Bollas calls “the unthought known” (1987). Unconscious thoughts, feelings, memories, and fantasies are always ready and waiting to make learning unruly. They have the potential to disrupt accustomed patterns of gratification-seeking; to “spoil” cherished identifications; and to unmask our carefully constructed alibis for resistance, indulgence, sympathy, discipline, and denial. They unleash desires that seem “out of place”—but only because the place of desire at the heart of epistemology is so damnably inconvenient for traditional pedagogy.

Teaching with, as well as about, psychoanalysis can open up possibilities for education that make this inconvenience not just tolerable but (so to speak) desirable. Teaching with psychoanalysis can help illuminate and, ultimately, transform the “objects of knowledge” that all of our academic disciplines are “supposed to know.”


Works cited

Augustine. 1961. Confessions. Tr. R. S. Pine-Coffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bollas, Christopher. 1987. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. New York: Columbia University Press.

Britzman, Deborah P. 2015. A Psychoanalyst in the Classroom: On the Human Condition in Education. Buffalo: SUNY Press.

—. 2021. Anticipating Education: Concepts for Imagining Pedagogy with Psychoanalysis. Gorham: Myers Education Press.

Felman, Shoshana. 1982. “Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable.” Yale French Studies 63: 21-44.

Freud, Sigmund. 1956. “On the Teaching of Psycho-Analysis in Universities.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 37: 14-15.

Phillips, Adam. 1996. Terrors and Experts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Redmond, Jonathan and Michael Shulman. 2008. “Access to Psychoanalytic Ideas in American Undergraduate Institutions.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 56.2: 391-408.

Riker, John, Marcia Dobson, and Alexandra Wong-Appel. 2018. “Psychoanalysis and Undergraduate Education.” The American Psychoanalyst 52.3, https://apsa.org/apsaa-publications/vol52no3-TOC/index.xhtml, accessed 11 January 2022.

Tasso, Anthony F., Kevin Barrett, and Bindu Methikalam. 2022. “Who Will Teach Psychodynamics in the Future? A 10-Year Follow-Up.” The American Psychoanalyst 56.1, 28-29.

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