A Reciprocal Affair

On A Deep Level

Faculty member David Anderegg on assignments and fashionable diagnoses, by Briee Della Rocca

“I give assignments to make sure that students are integrating on a deep level. It’s easy to learn concepts superficially, to get familiar with the terminology and to speak in terminology. When I assign something to the class, I’m looking to see if students are able to grasp a concept, if they understand its range and limits, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, and if they are able to apply the concept.

I think of class participation and assignments in tandem. It’s all part of the same thing, and I require both. Sometimes my students want to know why participation is required and that’s when I talk about Andrea Bocelli.

I like to sing. My wife gave me a CD of Andrea Bocelli singing operas. I’m riding up here and I listen to it in the morning and I sing along with him. When I’m singing along with him, I say to myself, I sound pretty good. I sing as well as Andrea Bocelli. I’m good at this. Then I turn off the CD and I sing without Andrea Bocelli, and that’s when I know I do not sing as well as Andrea Bocelli. There’s a big difference.

I tell them that story because it’s very much like class participation. They’re sitting in class and may be nodding along and think they know exactly what I’m talking about. Then they will ask a question or speak up—and in doing that they’re trying to clarify something for themselves and they usually begin to realize in that moment that they don’t know the material as well as they thought they did. Sometimes people think this is all for the professor, but participation and assignments are not for me; they’re for the student. It is in these exercises of interpreting and applying concepts in class or in assignment that they’re able to see and I’m able to see where there is traction and where there are gaps in understanding.”

Try the following assignment given to Anderegg's Normality and Abnormality, and share your work with us. We will update the page with examples of reader responses.


Certain psychopathological conditions have seen greatly increased prevalence rates in recent years. We have sometimes referred to these conditions in class as “fashionable diagnoses.” For this short paper, look at some websites put up by advocacy groups for sufferers of these diagnoses, or other websites containing information about prevalence. For each diagnosis, there will be some explanation of the rapid rate of new diagnoses. Collect one or several of these explanations, and discuss the following question: Are these explanations plausible? Are there alternative explanations? (Alternative explanations may be gathered from websites of diagnosis skeptics, or generated from your own head.) Example: attention deficit disorder (in the early and middle 1990s). What explanations do/did parent groups, medication manufacturers, school personnel, etc. give for the dramatic rise of new diagnoses of ADD in the last decade of the 20th century? Better case finding? Some biological or psychological pathogens causing new cases of the illness? Do these make sense to you? Are there other explanations that might also be plausible?


  • In the 21th century: (a) autistic-spectrum diagnoses, including and especially Asperger’s Syndrome; (b) childhood bipolar disorder
  • In the 1990s: (a) attention deficit disorder; (b) multiple personality disorder.


You may choose another if you can document a recent rise in prevalence rates.