Psychedelic university courses on the rise
If you attended a university or college and didn’t have the option to take a course on psychedelics – that was because they were nonexistent until very recently. Up to the beginning of this century, someone seeking to be educated on psychedelics was likely forced to research on their own, learn from elders, attend conferences, read available journal articles and books or maybe join secret psychedelic societies (in person or on the internet).
But with international psychedelic research currently at full throttle and now accepted as a genuine, revived field of science, university courses on psychedelics are also on the rise.
The novelty of this educational endeavour spiked our interest: What are the types of courses offered? How are they organised and taught? What type of students are taking them? And what are the biggest challenges in teaching about psychedelics? We’ve interviewed three professors of current psychedelic courses at prominent research universities, who can rightfully call themselves psychedelic professors: Kim Kuypers (Maastricht, NL), Gianni Glick (Stanford University CA,USA) and Brian Pace (Ohio State University, OH).
Kim Kuypers, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Dr Kuypers focuses on “Me We Biology”, trying to understand the biology of mental well-being. She researches psychedelics and their effects on cognition, creativity, hormones and the mechanisms underlying these effects. Dr Kuypers will be a speaker at this year’s ICPR conference.
Giancarlo “Gianni” Glick, M.D. is a 3rd year psychiatry resident at Stanford whose psychiatric focus is on the interdependence of emotional and physical well-being for his patients. He is also the organiser of the Stanford Psychedelic Science Group.
Brian Pace, Ph.D. is a trained evolutionary ecologist, with wide ranging interests from agroecology, climate change, ethnobotany and more. He helped co-found the psychedelic watchdog group Psymposia where he works currently as Psymposia’s politics and ecology editor. He is also organising Psychedemia in August of 2022 at Ohio State.
Here is what they teach, how they teach it, and why it is important they do it.
Q: Which courses on psychedelics do you teach?
A: Kuypers (Maastricht) “Psychedelic Medicine” is an 8-week long elective course for third year bachelor’s students which is housed in Maastricht’s department of psychology. I also teach a first-year elective course in the same department, called “Drugs in the Brain”. This is for first year students and is only 4 weeks long. This helps to serve as good preparation for those who will take the psychedelics class.
A: Glick (Stanford): “Introduction to Psychedelic Medicine” is a 10-week course, housed in the department of psychiatry at Stanford Medical School. This semester we have 200 students enrolled. It is an elective course and the make-up is 70% undergraduates and the rest are graduates of all kinds. We have many auditors ranging from neuroscience postdocs to attending psychiatrists. This makes for a huge range of expertise and familiarity with psychiatry.
A: Pace(Ohio State) “Psychedelic Studies: Neurobiology, Plants, Fungi, and Society” is a 14-week/one semester course and it is through the department of Plant Pathology. The course is for undergraduate bachelors students, without any prerequisites. The majority are third and fourth year students. There is a new course being taught now called “Psychedelic Bioethics” taught by my colleague Nese Devenot.
Q: What are the key learning outcomes for your students?
A: Kuypers (Maastricht) I want the students to know about the rich history of psychedelics and to be educated on both the positive and negative aspects of these substances. I place a major focus on how to properly read a scientific article: reviewing the research methodology, analyse the results, and to have a critical mind about it. I see this course as really the first way of getting the students acquainted with psychedelics and from here they should be able to navigate the future research that comes out with a better eye, and maybe also be inclined to get into the research and/or work in psychedelic-assisted therapies themselves.
A: Glick (Stanford): This question keeps me up at night, but not in some type of tragic way but more so a healthy way, intended to make sure I am doing the best job possible. Ultimately, I want to train students to critically interact with everything they hear in the media and in scientific literature. This course creates the foundational principles, history and context for these students to then ask more questions and hopefully contribute to the field of psychedelics, themselves.I think one of the first questions we try to ask is: What does it even mean to call psychedelics a medicine? And in doing so let’s be aware that we are applying a frame to it. While it’s nicer pedagogically to stay focused on psychedelics as a medicine, we also tell them that psychedelics are many other things: sacraments, recreation, and so on. But for this course we focus on them as medicines.
A: Pace (Ohio State) As the professor of a course on psychedelics it is my job to prepare students to engage intellectually, become better communicators and to have better conversations around a controversial topic that is rapidly taking centre stage. There are a lot of grifters in the psychedelic space, and people who are attempting to own the space, and so part of my responsibility is to provide students with the ability to be critical of the job market they may enter and any investment opportunities that they may be presented with. To hopefully have these students make informed choices.
Q: What is the greatest challenge in teaching your course on psychedelics?
A: Kuypers (Maastricht) I haven’t had too many difficulties in teaching this material. I did have an incident where I was teaching about animal research that was done with MDMA to investigate neuronal death, and in doing these studies I discussed the methodology which included decapitation of animals tos study their brains. As a result of saying so I had a student who left the room because they could not bear to hear this type of work. Though not directly related to in-class learning itself, I have had emails sent to me from parents of children who have abused drugs who question whether I am being too positive about these compounds, even going so far as calling me the devil. But in the 4 years of teaching this course, I have not faced many challenges from students.
A: Glick (Stanford) Holding myself to a high standard. Being sure I structure the course in a manner that starts at the right place and has a logical, organised progression to best represent what is a tremendously huge field of knowledge.
A: Pace (Ohio State) I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a social theorist. I’m not a political scientist. Yet there are times when these topics are necessary to talk about even though they are out of my scope of expertise. This can be challenging at times, but manageable. However, I will say that issues like addiction and sexual abuse are discussed in my course and the reality that some of the mental health crisis faced globally and by some of the students in the course has to do with social relations and injustice, that never gets easier to talk about with students. Especially those that are impacted by these things.
Q: What pedagogical tools do you use in your course?
A: Kuypers (Maastricht) For both the “Psychedelic Medicine” 8-week course and the 4-week “Drugs of the Mind” course I use Problem Based Learning (PBL). This pedagogy works by bringing real-world problems to the class which function as vehicles for students to have to look up things they don’t know, synthesise an answer based on their research and these problems are generally guided, often providing one part of a problem at a time. An example of the last PBL assignment was a problem evaluating the positive and negative of the field of psychedelic medicine. In terms of course materials, I developed a course manual and we also use recent research articles for the “Psychedelic Medicine” course. In the 1st year course “Drugs of the Mind” course we use David Nutt’s “Drugs without the Hot Air”. I do most of the lectures but some of my colleagues help as well. We have a limited amount of time in these courses so we provide additional resources online for students to read and watch on their own.
A: Glick (Stanford) The course is basically a lecture series, 8-10 different speakers. We have had a lot of the speakers who are local: Robin Carhart Harris, Jennifer Mitchell, Alicia Danforth, Charlie Grob, Will Barone, Boris Heyfetz and Raquel Bennett just to name a few. When we were virtual, we would start with lectures and then break out into smaller groups to engage in small group discussions. Students can take this course as either a 1-credit or 2-credit course. The difference is the 2-credit course requires a course project which students presented in class at the end of the semester.
A: Pace(Ohio State) This is a lecture-based course accompanied by reading articles and watching videos. From day one I am walking students through difficult yet respectful conversations; you can’t understand psychedelics without discussing difficult topics like religion and politics. The university has a standard of behaviour that allows these discussions to be had safely. Since it is a course goal is to get students to have better evidence-based conversations around psychedelics, students write weekly reflections showing that they are absorbing the material and reflecting on how they feel and how these things connect to their life. Students also do presentations which are evaluated by peer review.
Q: What do you believe is the ROLE of university courses in the psychedelic renaissance?
A: Kuypers (Maastricht) It is incredibly important to have these available. I get requests from therapists and psychiatrists who did not get these types of courses in the curriculum of their educational training. Some of them also tell me of the cost for psychedelic –assisted therapy training from private institutions that can cost upwards of 20,000-25,000 Euros, which is crazy. Instead this type of education should be embedded within all levels of university education from bachelors, graduate and medical education. We definitely need psychedelic-assisted training for therapists in the universities (instead of the private organisations).
A: Glick (Stanford) Similarly to how Johns Hopkins, NYU and UCLA have stewarded the research through this kind of rigorous academic environment, there is this similar way that universities may offer a credible education, with a peer review process, with a set of checks and balances where you can’t just teach anything. Secondly, doctors should know about this. For medical students and psychiatry residents to be experts, this should be part of the curriculum.
A: Pace (Ohio State) Psychedelics were abandoned by institutions following the Controlled Substances act in 1970. The new-agey, cultish stuff we see around psychedelics now, with tuning your chakras and merging souls or whatever, that is our fault. That’s an abdication of the responsibility to investigate interesting questions and to chase down data. So where we are now is a very timid and late re-entry to the subject. Psychedelic research didn’t end when the universities and governments abandoned it. It continued in the underground. The role of the university courses on psychedelics, well, we have a lot of catching up to do and I think that should be done with humility.