Building an Undergraduate Psychoanalytic Studies Program

An Interview with Professor Marcia D-S. Dobson of Colorado College

In this interview, Professor Marcia D-S. Dobson discusses with the editor of Psyche on Campus some illuminating personal and professional details related to the creation of an undergraduate Minor in Psychoanalysis: Theories of the Unconscious at Colorado College in 2003.

PoC: Marcia, could you first tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to create a program in Psychoanalytic Studies at Colorado College?

MD: Absolutely. It was after I’d received my second PhD in 1998—my thesis was called “Varieties of Transitional Experience in Psychoanalysis and Ancient Greek Thought”—that I started to feel a strong desire to initiate a psychoanalysis program at Colorado College. For one thing, I wanted to give to our students a taste of what I’d received as trainee at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. I was accepted into this program as a scholar in Classics (the field of my first PhD) working in ancient Greek drama, religion, philosophy and, of course, the ancient Greek language itself.

PoC: That’s very Freudian, isn’t it? We know Freud himself was an avid student of antiquity and a compulsive collector of artifacts from the ancient world—not only from ancient Greece and Rome but also Etruria, Egypt, China, and India as well. But what prompted you to earn a second doctorate?

MD: Part of my decision to get a second PhD, specifically in the clinical field, was undoubtedly due to my mother’s career as a psychosomatician. My mother was Helen Flanders Dunbar, PhD, MD, BD (the list goes on!). She was a formative thinker, practitioner, and writer in the field of Psychosomatic Medicine, for which she became famous in the 1930s. She started the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine at Columbia University. I was born around the time of her greatest recognition, in the 1940s, and was brought up hearing, speaking, and thinking her ideas. In effect, I was brought up speaking “the language of psychoanalysis.”

Much later, I discovered that she herself had come to the field after first receiving a PhD from Columbia with a dissertation that was later published as Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in the Divine Comedy (Yale 1929). It seems to me now that we took pretty similar paths. Both of us were deeply interested in learning about how humans become human and also how the human psyche is reflected, symbolically, in art and literature. We also shared a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of mind, body, and psyche.

PoC: It’s one thing to design and teach courses in new disciplines, but it’s quite another to create a brand-new academic program—especially in a field like psychoanalysis, now that it no longer holds such a dominant position in the study of psychology in the U.S. What was that like, initially?

MD: Actually, the idea for the Minor emerged one day when I happened to be speaking with my husband, Professor John Riker, who had just been given a paper on “Disorders and Treatment of the Self” by a visiting colleague, Stephen Toulmin. Stephen had been given the paper by Ernest Wolf, who was a good friend of Heinz Kohut. My husband handed the paper to me in the hallway one day and said, “Read this!” Of course I did, and my life was changed. Both my husband and I became so enamored of Kohut’s and Wolf’s ideas that we envisioned not just one course, but a whole range of courses on different aspects of psychoanalysis—and even an official Minor that students could add to their diplomas.

As it happened, John was asked in 2003 to hold the Heinz Kohut professorship in self psychology at the University of Chicago, which he did during the fall term, while on sabbatical from Colorado College. In Chicago, we had the chance to meet many psychoanalysts at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute (CPI), including some who had known Kohut intimately and were carrying on his work. A number of CPI’s members, including its director at the time, David Terman, heard John give a paper on “The Life of the Soul” at the University of Chicago, and they invited him to present it at the Institute. The paper was so inspiring that both John and I were embraced by the institute’s self psychologists and became close and lasting friends with many of them. We, in turn, were so impressed with their profound humanity and clinical skill that we wanted them all to come to Colorado College to speak to our students.  Of course, that would have been prohibitively expensive. So John came up with the brilliant idea of taking our students to Chicago for a “block course” during the school year, which we’ve done every year since 2007.

PoC: OK, what’s a “block course”?

MD: Colorado College works on a block plan. Students take one three-and-a-half-week course at a time, throughout the year. So that John and I could take his students to Chicago for that “block,” without interrupting other courses.

I myself had begun to teach a humanities course called “Discovering the Unconscious,” which was wildly popular from the start, and that cohort of students “seeded” the Chicago Course at the Institute. Thanks to the contributions of people like Drs. Arnold Goldberg, Allen Siegel, David Terman, Marian Tolpin, and Ernest Wolf, as well as Jonathan Lear and Frank Summers, among many others, students proclaimed almost unanimously that it was the best course they’d had at Colorado College.

PoC: I bet the deans liked that!

MD: Right! Also, the program we developed proved so successful over the years that, at one point, the journal Psychoanalytic Inquiry asked us to edit a special-issue dedicated to the Colorado program. In what we wrote for that issue, we encouraged other schools to use our program as a model for programs of their own—including, if possible, some sort of partnership with a psychoanalytic training institute, where undergraduates could study, at least for a brief interval.

We’ve also been fortunate in the support of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), which non-clinician scholars can join as “Academic Members.” APsaA always helped us to bring our students to their meetings whenever they were held in Chicago. They also instituted a yearly, national Undergraduate Essay Prize competition, which several of our students have won.

PoC: What are the requirements of the Minor, exactly?

MD: The Psychoanalytic Studies Minor at Colorado College draws on the many different disciplines that have a connection to psychoanalysis, including Anthropology, History, Literature, Philosophy, and Sociology. The interdisciplinarity of our courses means that students can become psychoanalytically minded no matter what their Major might be. They discover that the history, theory, and practice of psychoanalysis intersect in all sorts of ways with disciplines in the arts, the social sciences, and the physical sciences. Students complete five courses plus a “capstone” paper of 10-15 pages on a subject of their choice. There are five tiers, or components, to the Minor:

1. Two basic courses: “Discovering the Unconscious” and/or “Philosophy and Psychoanalysis,” both of which cover foundational theorists and ideas in psychoanalysis in sufficiently different ways that one or both may be taken, depending on the focus most attractive to the student. The first, which I teach, has a more clinical slant, the second, taught by John Riker, is more philosophically focused.

2. One (or more) of our seminars: We offer four different author-focused seminars (though not necessarily every year), each focusing on a single major figure: 1) Freud, 2) Jung, 3) Lacan, and 4) Kohut.

3. The “block course” in Chicago, in which students may focus on a variety of topics, including: self psychology, intersubjectivity, LGBTQ+ studies, couples therapy, and so on.

4. Two related courses in other fields—usually in the student’s Major or some other related field.

5. The “capstone” paper.

PoC: That seems manageable. How many students end up earning a Minor in Psychoanalytic Studies?

MD: Two or three students complete the Minor in any given year. And we’ve had a number of Minors who’ve gone on to pursue careers in counseling and psychotherapy.

PoC: What’s your vision for the program, going forward?

MD: I hope we can continue to find ways not to enclose ourselves in the increasingly specialized corners of our institutional disciplines, while still feeling safe and respected. I’d love to see a return to the embrace of an openness to ideas of all sorts, with wide-ranging approaches to education that would enhance empathy and mutual understanding. Psychoanalysis is well-suited to such goals, and I hope that other liberal arts colleges and universities will find ways to integrate psychoanalysis into the general curriculum—perhaps by creating Psychoanalytic Studies programs of their own!

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