Keeping History in Mind

Professor, student pair up to preserve Randolph’s collection of psychology tests and instruments

Professor of Psychology Rick Barnes and Sarah Ballard-Abbott '17 look through historic tests and equipment used in psychological tests.

Professor of Psychology Rick Barnes and Sarah Ballard-Abbott ’17 look through historic tests and equipment used in psychological tests.

Now considered a pioneer in the field of psychology, when Celestia Parrish first arrived in 1893 at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, she brought with her a fierce desire to share the wonders of this new academic area with her students.

During a time when just educating women was still a novel idea, Parrish was instrumental in creating a psychology laboratory at the College, the first of its kind in the South and one of only 20 nationwide at the time. In order to establish the lab, Parrish petitioned the president of the College, William Waugh Smith, for $25 to buy the first pieces of laboratory equipment.

Trained under famed psychologist Edward B. Titchener, Parrish had her students study human sensation and perception with empirical, hands-on research and experimentation. Over the years, the program grew, and her influence remains today.

Rick Barnes, a Randolph College psychology professor, opens an original printing of a set of Rorschach inkblots from the 1920's.

Rick Barnes, a Randolph College psychology professor, opens an original printing of a set of Rorschach inkblots from the 1920’s.

In an effort to honor that history, Sarah Ballard-Abbott ’17 and Rick Barnes, a psychology and environmental studies professor and the Mary Sabel Girard Chair in Psychology, recently set out to better preserve the College’s significant collection of psychological tests and lab instruments.

In the summer of 2015, as part of a Summer Research project, the pair worked to safeguard the actual instruments and to digitally archive the sizeable number of intelligence and personality tests acquired by the College. Some of the more than 100 items they have logged so far include Wechsler intelligence tests, Healy Pictorial Completion tests, Rorschach test cards, and Army Alpha intelligence tests from both World Wars.

“Our main goal was to preserve the College’s collection, which goes back to the beginnings of psychology,” Barnes said. “We really were in danger of losing it because of the way these tests and other items were stored. This is a project that needs to be carried on in the future.”

The College’s students and professors have long been recognized for their work in the field. Early faculty in the department were interested in researching intelligence and the use of perceptual illusions in the creation of military camouflage during World War II. Recent faculty have studied the effectiveness of honor systems at colleges, and social influences on physiology, perception, and cognition, among other topics. Other faculty over the years have been interested in application of psychology in education, environmental issues, mental health, and the influence of evolution on human behavior.

An early intelligence test from Randolph College's collection of historic psychological tests and laboratory instruments.

An early intelligence test from Randolph College’s collection of historic psychological tests and laboratory instruments.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the project for Barnes and Ballard-Abbott was researching the origins of the tests and putting into context how they were used during different periods of time. They also examined how the tests themselves evolved over the years.

“This project taught me about the value we place on history and what you can learn from looking at the history of psychology or any field,” Ballard-Abbott said. “Being around the time of the College’s 125th anniversary, it’s especially cool because I’m getting to see how the College has changed, how the study of psychology has changed, how important our lab was, and how important the College still is with the many unique opportunities we have available here.”

Thanks to grant funding from Randolph’s Summer Research and RISE programs, the pair was able to share the psychology department’s history with other scholars from around the world at a conference in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this year. Ballard-Abbott presented a poster and answered questions at Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences in July.

Laboratory research, as well as small class sizes, continue to be hallmarks of Randolph’s psychology program today. “The focus on empirical data and showing psychology as a science has certainly been helpful,” Ballard-Abbott said. “Even in the intro classes, there are only about 30 students, and when you get into higher levels it’s like eight people in a class with the professor. I don’t think I would’ve gotten that at any other college. It’s a very welcoming environment, and everyone is very eager to learn. You get to really bond with your professors.”

After earning her psychology degree at Randolph, Ballard-Abbott plans to work in a psychology lab in North Carolina before going on to graduate school and earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She believes her research experiences at Randolph have prepared her well for those next steps.

“Most of my friends who are also in their undergraduate careers don’t get to do research like this,” Ballard-Abbott said. “It’s a really great opportunity in general, and I feel kind of special being able to be involved in it.”

For Barnes, being able to preserve the work of a predecessor is important.

“Celestia would be proud that the tradition of empirical research she started when the College was founded is still central to the psychology program at Randolph,” he said. “Our collection of equipment and tests from the early years of psychology is a powerful and tangible reminder of the College’s role in the history of psychology. The collection of equipment and tests is rare, so it is important to preserve the collection for scholars of the history of psychology.”

Randolph is fortunate, he added, to be able to offer this historic perspective to students. “Other than the collection at the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron, Ohio, I know of very few colleges with similar collections,” Barnes said. “I often use pieces of equipment and tests from the collection in demonstrations in my psychology courses. My students say they feel a connection with Celestia’s students when they can touch and use the same equipment that was used in our psychology lab more than 100 years ago.”