Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Teacher's Pet

Canines can help us be more relaxed in our teaching careers and our lives

Junior faculty members often ask me about my work habits and the choices I make in my daily routine that allow me to be productive. By productivity, I am referring to everything from course preparation and juggling meetings with colleagues and students to scholarly writing and conference talks. As should be clear by now, whether they teach in universities, four-year colleges, or two-year community colleges, professors are not “one-trick ponies”—they can’t be—they have to be flexible and reasonably organized to advance their teaching, scholarship, and service efforts.

When asked, I give my usual advice: Sleep 7 hours or so, write everyday, read widely, treat your time (both work-related and private) as a precious commodity, schedule meetings for times of day when you would not want to teach or write (I don’t like teaching or writing in the afternoon—I’m a morning person—so that’s when I like to hold meets), keep a to-do list, answer email quickly and briefly, return calls promptly, eat reasonably healthily, and get a dog.

I am sure that last one is a surprise. A dog? Yes, a dog—or maybe two. (My family and I currently have 3 dogs, but that’s another story). Why a dog? Well, for several reasons. First, dogs need to be walked. So do you. That is, you need exercise, too. You may already head to the gym with great frequency, which is great (I applaud you). But walking a dog creates a routine where you get outside in all kinds of weather for regular intervals come what may. Our dogs are walked 5, sometimes 6 times a day. In the summer months, when life is less hectic, they get longer, more leisurely walks—we get to enjoy nature with them. When the weather is colder, they get briefer walks—but they and we still benefit from a spin around a block.

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Regular walking is healthy. You know this—so does Spot, who is motivated for other reasons but is happy to be with you. And that is the second point. Dogs are great sources of unconditional positive regard (a humanistic psychology concept I always viewed as suspect until I had a dog)—Fido likes you, no, loves you, always—no matter how awful or dull or frustrating your department meeting, no matter how unmotivated your students, no matter how lousy your lecture. And when a psychology journal rejects you—well, rejects your work, your manuscript, your magnum opus, but it still feels like you are being rejected—Luke or Otis won’t. He (they) will be just as happy to see you and won’t judge the quality of your theories with a red pen or a sharply worded letter questioning your reasoning, your research methodology—whatever. FiFi is just as glad and tickled to see you as she was this morning when you both woke up and had that first walk.

There is something to be said for constancy and loyalty, two wonderful traits virtually all dogs possess (alas, we can’t say the same for all the people we know and love). The rhythm of a life devoted to teaching really never ends—there is always more you can do. I’ve noticed that people attracted to this life (and is it most always a good one) sometimes feel worn down by the workload—papers are assigned and they must be read and then graded; quizzes breed tests; new classes need to be developed so teaching stays fresh, old classes must be retooled so that your yellowed notes (and faded jokes) are recycled so new ones can be written. Sometimes this never ending cycle leads to professional doldrums, a state of being that non-professors just don’t understand—they assume teaching two, three, heck, even four classes a semester is a breeze—and what about those summers off? (Show me a professor who takes the summer off from all professional obligations and I’ll show you a mediocre—at best—mind). When scholarly or pedagogical ennui hits, however, your dog—a teacher’s best friend—is there. He’s there to listen, to wag his tail at the very sight of you or the sound of your voice—and he knows nothing of your troubles (only what you tell him, anyway—and whatever you do say, that tail will still be going). He just wants you and to be near you. Such loyalty is comforting—it can also be relaxing—and isn’t it nice to be appreciated and needed?

There’s one more service that dogs provide teachers: They allow us to project ourselves—our hopes, dreams, wishes, vanities, stories, and jokes—onto them. We can’t do that with our friends or families, students or colleagues (unless, of course, you believe in a psychoanalytic worldview, in which case virtually everything is projection—but let’s not go there just now). But we can project on our dogs and project we do. As a close friend of mine, a comparative psychologist, never tires of reminding me, dogs were designed (evolved and bred) to be just what humans wanted in terms of ideal companions for other services besides hunting, protecting, warning, and keeping us warm (although these are all nice side benefits). Think of how many people you know who create elaborate stories about the intentions, motivations, likes and dislikes, of their dogs—what they are really doing is representing themselves through their pets. No one else would stand for it, but my dogs—Harper, Rosie, and Baloo, sure do—they welcome it. All day, everyday.

Freud supposedly defined mental health as being as the ability “to love and to work”—which is arguably one of the best definitions ever. I’d add “and to care for a pet, preferably a dog.” So, if you want to be a good teacher, consider getting a pet dog. If you live alone, doing so will enhance your life greatly. If you have a family, you will teach your children to care for and be compassionate about other organisms. And if you really want to make a splash in the world of kind acts, adopt a rescue dog—and soon. Better teaching and a calmer life are just around the corner (5 or 6 times a day if you’re lucky!).

 

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

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