Social Media and PsychotherapyPosted by admin on 10/28/11 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2011
Serving as a supervisor of child and family services at Benchmark School—a small, private school for children ages 6 to 14, many with learning disorders—is just one of many roles Hurster fills in a typical week. He’s worked for Benchmark since the early ’80s, maintains a private psychotherapy practice with a mix of children, adults, teenagers, and therapy groups, and serves as an adjunct professor of social work at Bryn Mawr, where he completed a master’s degree in social work in 1980.
Beloit’s religious studies program drew Hurster to the college from his childhood home in Missouri. “I was on my spiritual quest, and thought I might wind up a man of the cloth and work with people that way,” he says.
As he delved into religious texts, however, he found himself losing his faith. “On the other hand, I also developed an ability for analytic thinking, really questioning and looking deeper,” he says. At Beloit, he wound up pursuing a “bridge major” of religious studies and social sciences. A product of the Beloit Plan, he can still recall in exquisite detail a summer course he took on existential phenomenological thinking taught by a professor named Andy Goldman. “That was 1972, and I can still go day by day through that course. So that was really profound in making me realize that I have a love of knowledge, and I shifted my interest away from religious studies.”
As part of his research during that course, he worked at a group home for children and developed an interest in learning disorders that would carry through the rest of his career, especially in his work at Benchmark School. It wasn’t just psychology courses that had such a strong effect on Hurster as a student. “Seminal” is how he describes a summer course on Shakespeare, taught by Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride amid the unfolding Watergate scandal. McBride found his student equally memorable. The two remain friends to this day.
“Tom was unforgettable as a student,” McBride says. “Few students were so possessed of intellectual curiosity and acumen, along with simply marvelous social skills: great listener, terrific sense of humor, endearing personality. He’s a marvelous conversationalist: never bored and never boring.”
One of his favorite conversational topics? Beloit College.
“I believe his own love of teaching and concern for his students are modeled after his experience at Beloit,” explains his wife, Jackie Salmon, also a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. “Tom is very intelligent, but he has always credited his education at Beloit with giving him the discipline for rigorous thinking.”
In part, that’s because the relationships he developed in college were so enduring, but also because Beloit made him embrace his intellectual side.
“I went to Beloit being just a dilettante, a floundering high school kid who thought he wanted to be a preacher or a rock’n’roll musician, and came out realizing I had the capacity to be an intellectual, that I wanted to pursue a career,” he says. “That’s because Beloit made me believe in myself as a thinker, as a writer, that I had something to offer.”
Much has changed since Hurster’s first job out of college, when he took 50 youth from the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital camping as part of his role as activities therapist.
“When I lecture on working with youth, one of the things I use is the Beloit College Mindset List, partly because I think it really makes the case that the clientele you work with, in many cases, live in very different worlds than you,” he says. He watches cartoons, visits websites, reads youth-oriented magazines, all in an effort to stay current. Staying on top of the nuances of youth culture and its mores, especially when it comes to electronic communication, can sometimes be akin to an immigrant picking up the language of a new country, he explains.
But digital media is ever-present in his clients’ lives, and, therefore, in his. He’s fascinated by both the positive (isolated young people finding a sense of community online) and negative (the disinhibition that sometimes comes with creating online personas) ramifications of technology on his profession and those it seeks to help. Several journals and professional groups like the American Group Psychotherapy Association, of which he is a fellow, have expressed interest in publishing or presenting his work on the subject.
However, he has a saturation point. The Beloit student at last spring’s lecture who was so impressed with his grasp of the digital landscape might be surprised to hear that Hurster doesn’t have a Facebook account.
“I know a great deal about it, because I’ve had kids show me, and I’ve read a lot about it, but I’m not a participant myself,” Hurster says. “And the people who are most annoyed with me are the people in my Beloit class who keep telling me I should get one. Mostly because they want to send me pictures.”
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