Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

A New Year's Memory, the Need for Authenticity, and Teaching

A childhood memory encourages me towards authenticity in my teaching.

The hoopla welcoming 2013 is largely over. Two cheers for the New Year!

I always have an odd feeling on New Year’s Day. It has an emotional resonance for me, one more about endings than beginnings. My maternal grandfather, Foster E. Kennedy, died suddenly and unexpectedly on New Year’s Day 1970. Pops (as I called him) was 77 and I was 10, a betwixt and between age. He lived with us and more or less raised me and I loved him fiercely.

I remember adult attempts to be kind in the face of my family’s loss, what I thought of as my loss. A friend was having a birthday party that or the next day. My parents thought it would be a good distraction for me. This was an earnest time in suburbia—the post-60s--and then parents were more likely to organize “do it yourself” birthday parties with educational themes as opposed to the blow-out theme-park-ish (but fun!) extravaganzas many families throw now. My friend’s parents decided to do a “science” theme and all the kids had to go to different stations in their basement to identify rocks and minerals, answer questions about things in jars of odd liquid, and make educated guesses about I no longer remember what—but we were active for 20 minutes or so. As you might imagine, I wasn’t interested and answered my questions in a desultory fashion. After all, Pops was dead and there was no changing that.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

And then I won the contest. My first thought was surprise—I knew I missed a lot of the questions because I really and truly didn’t know the answers (nor at that moment did I care). How could I have won? My second was a creeping realization: They let me win--wanted me to win—and did so out of pity. That was not a feeling I liked at all, and I didn’t like the pretense because it was clear (if to me then also to others) that I couldn’t and shouldn’t have won.

But applause ensued, congratulations and “well dones” were extended, and a prize was produced (a book, as I recall). I said thanks but indicated that I knew I hadn’t won, didn’t need to win, and couldn’t accept the prize. This was not gracious—I learned that later—but it was real and how I felt in that moment. My hosts looked awkward; so did the other kids. False assurances that my answers were right came quickly and the book (“you won fair and square!”) was pushed back into my hands. There was cake and a day or two later we buried Pops.

Whatever does this odd recollection have to do with teaching? Well, at the time of the New Year’s party, I didn’t have a serious grasp of the need to be authentic with others and myself—but I like to think I do now. As illustrated by the well-intentioned party incident, it is difficult to be authentic in the face of everyday challenges, particularly death (now there's a dissertation topic). What about being authentic when it comes to teaching?

I try to be authentic in my teaching—at least to myself (and note that the New Year dovetails with the new semester). How so? Here are a few ways:

- Have I chosen challenging, current readings, not ones I already know (too well)?

- Am I leading my students in critically discussing the readings or am I falling back (too much, too often) on lecturing?

- Do I require a meaningful amount of writing, both self-reflective exploratory writing and more research-based writing teaching students to understand how the discipline of psychology works?

- Am I preparing my students for non-psychology careers—through critical thinking and writing—as most will not pursue jobs in the discipline?

- Have I made myself accessible enough to my students (always a tough one given the academic drive to be busy)?

- Am I treating my students with kindness, decency, and respect (that is, have I been authentic)? At the same time, am I challenging them to think and to be authentic to themselves and others?

- Do I find joy in my teaching and the work that emanates from it (if not, whatever am I doing all this for, including these blog posts)?

I’ve never forgotten the odd feelings associated with that New Year—in fact I always feel a little melancholy when the calendar changes (no, it’s not aging—I’m quite interested in what’s to come). I don’t make resolutions on January 1st (except, perhaps, not to be dishonest with would-be teens) –why isolate them to one time of year? But after the balloon drops, I recall the need to be honest to myself and, by extension, what I am doing in my classroom and in my profession.

 

 

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

more...

Subscribe to Head of the Class

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?