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Psychobiology of Women

Psychology and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies 357

Winter 2015

Psych/GWSS 487 - Advanced Psychobiology of Women, 5 cr, NW
M and W 12:30-2:20

This course builds on the basic knowledge that the students acquire in GWSS/Psychology 357. Its goal is to expand knowledge of psychobiology of women while providing an opportunity for each student to develop specific expertise in a self-selected area of study. Any teacher can tell you that the ultimate way to learn a topic is to teach it to others. In order to effectively communicate information to another person, you must understand it in a way that no test can possibly assess. While it may be possible to memorize a fact for future testing, a much more solid understanding of the concept is required to teach that fact to others. After all, the person(s) being taught might ask the question you were afraid to ask - "What does that mean?"

This course is limited to no more than 14 students at a time in order to allow each student to teach a topic of their choice. Skills related to library research, oral presentation and written communication are used to learn and teach about your topic. Each student begins by conducting in-depth library research on the topic of her/his choosing. After reading the research uncovered in the library search, the student selects that information she/he feels is critical to understanding the topic and organizes it into a detailed written outline and an extended (2-hour) lecture/discussion. A single article on the topic is selected for the remaining students to read prior to the presentation. Then, in an exercise designed to point out the differences in effective oral vs. written communication, the student prepares a formal 10 page review paper on their topic.

Finally, since all students read at least one article and take part in extended lecture-discussions on each topic, all students are exposed to all topics (except their own) in the same way they would be in a traditional class setting.

Learning Goals:

1. to develop a deep understanding, at the level necessary to teach the topic, of an issue relevant to female anatomy, physiology, endocrinology and/or psychology. (assessed through your presentation and outline)

2. to hone your library research skills (assessed through your presentation, outline and paper)

3. to develop/improve your oral presentation skills. (assessed through your extended class presentation)

4. to develop/improve your written presentation skills and your awareness of the similarities and differences of the skills required for communication of information in a classroom presentation vs. a formal review paper (assessed by a review paper)

5. to gain knowledge of other aspects of women's lives through readings on various topics covered by other students in the seminar and through classroom and electronic discussion (assessed by discussion participation)

Prerequisites: All participants must have completed GWSS or Psych 357 (or its equivalent) with a grade of 2.0 or higher and have permission of the instructor. Admission by entry code only. Contact Prof. Kenney by e-mail at nkenney@uw.edu.

 

Overview of GWSS/ Psychology 357

The medical and biological sciences have made phenomenal progress in their understanding of the human body. Scientists now know more about how our bodies function than at any time in history. This knowledge has increased the ability to cure and to avoid disease. It has also created many ethical questions about the right to life, the economics of curing the sick versus maintaining the healthy, and the relationship between quality and length of life.

Some of the greatest advances of medical science have had a direct impact on the lives of women. Options for contraception have increased in number and accessibility, allowing more women the opportunity to plan their childbearing. Our understanding of genetically-transmitted diseases and our ability to diagnose such conditions prenatally have given women opportunity to determine which problems they can best cope with in their children. Modern reproductive technology has made it possible for women to have healthier babies later in life and for some infertile women to bear children. Numerous other examples could be described.

While medical options and biological understanding of women's bodies have increased dramatically, for the general population, knowledge about women’s bodies and of the options made available by medicine and science has lagged far behind. Traditionally, women have not been expected to understand the biological underpinnings of the major life events they commonly experience. Women today experience the monthly menstrual cycle, practice contraception, get pregnant or undergo infertility treatment, have children, experience menopause, and/or counsel their children in these events having little more information than did women one, two and even three generations ago.

Psychobiology of women is the study of the way in which physiology and behavior interact in women's lives. This course concentrates on those aspects of physiology which delineate female from male (mostly reproductive endocrinology) and which play a major role in women's lives. It deals not only with the ways in which physiology affects behavior but also with the often less thought about ways in which behavior affects physiology.

The first section of this course is designed to establish a basic foundation of understanding of female anatomy and physiology. Heavy emphasis is placed on the role of hormones in women’s lives. The course assumes that the students have limited or no background in biology at the outset but progresses in its discussion to include complex interactions between various hormonal systems important to female functioning.

The second section of this course is an exploration of the physiological and behavioral changes associated with major events or experiences in women's lives. Some of these events are ones which most women experience like puberty (Why does it happen? When does it happen? How do girls react to the changes in their bodies?), the monthly cycle and its relationship to behavior (We live it, we have a love-hate relationship with it, it's blamed for all women's problems, why?), and menopause (which has an even worse image than the monthly cycle because it combines being a woman with getting older - two strikes). Other events discussed are optional, i. e., they may or may not be experienced by a given woman. These include pregnancy (a major secretive cult of womanhood), contraceptive use (How do those things work? What's available? What do they do to a woman's body and behavior?), abortion (what are the physical and psychological aftereffects?). Additional issues are ones experienced by some individuals but should be understood by all people. These include intersexuality (a topic totally overlooked in most courses on reproductive biology), infertility (a growing problem), and PMS (lots of press but what is it really and do most women really have it).

In each of these cases, the course concentrates on the physiological causes or effects of the event and examines, as much as possible, the behavioral implications of the event. Interestingly, in some cases, the biology will be well understood but the behavioral effects not well understood. In other cases, the behavior will be better understood than the physiology and in some really amazing cases, neither the behavior nor the physiology will be well understood.

My goals in teaching this course are threefold: 1. To provide a strong understanding of the wondrous workings of the female body. 2. To provide a foundation from which students can evaluate future findings in biology, psychobiology and medicine. and 3. To convince students who might be leery of the study of science that science is great fun and readily understandable.

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Contact the instructor at: nkenney@u.washington.edu