My “Last Lecture”
Looking back on four decades of research mentoring at a state university
Posted Mar 09, 2016
When I started teaching at California State University, Dominguez Hills in 1976 it was actually only a “college” not a university. I was 26 years old and only one year out of my Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Diego. Having done my BA (in mathematics) at UCLA I was far more in tune with how things got done at the University of California system than the California State University system that I was entering.
I was in for a shock. Actually several of them. First, everyone at UCSD had a lab and even grad students had complete use of their professor’s lab and had their own offices. At my tiny state college I barely had an office, let alone a lab. Second, I think that I recall being given $1000 to buy equipment, which in current dollars is about $4000 and change. I vaguely recall buying an eye-tracking device (a far downgrade from the one I used at UCSD in my research), which never quite worked right.
Third, and most important, what I did discover is that the state university was rich in one area: students who wanted to get involved in research. From Day 1 I started getting requests to “join my lab” which, of course, was a joke since my “lab” was just dragging another chair into my tiny office.
In August 2015, after 40 years of teaching, I “half retired” by taking advantage of our Faculty Early Retirement System to teach half time while starting retirement. Early indeed! How can I be retired when the image in the mirror looks too young to retire? Well, I guess that 65 is considered early in our system and retire I did. For the next five years I get to teach one semester a year and be “retired” the other semester (Those who know me are most assuredly chuckling now as I am not very good at doing nothing). The rest of the year I get to do my research and write my blog posts and finish my last book, activities that I still enjoy.
Now, as a “elder statesman” I will be giving what the Western Psychological Association calls its “Last Lecture” at their conference in April. According to WPA the Last Lecture involves three invited talks where “journeyperson professors reflect about their experiences, strengths, and hope in teaching psychology at the University level.”
And so I reflect. The title for my talk is A 30+ YEAR ODYSSEY STUDYING THE “PSYCHOLOGY OF TECHNOLOGY” - MENTORING AND PUBLISHING AT A STATE UNIVERSITY. When push comes to shove while I do so love teaching, my real joy comes from working with our students on research projects. For the first 10 years at CSUDH I worked with just a student or two at a time. Then I got a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a “computerphobia reduction program” (sounds funny that anyone would be computerphobic nowadays) and to do so I recruited students. That started my true mentoring odyssey. Until about 6 or 7 years ago my students and I met once a week in an echo-laden room where we planned and executed research projects on computerphobia, online dating and how various groups of people (teachers, teenagers and college students in 23 countries) were taking to technology. At the peak I believe that I had 10 students, a mix of undergrads and master’s students (we have no Ph.D. program).
Then two colleagues—Dr. Mark Carrier and Dr. Nancy Cheever—and I meshed our efforts into a single lab called the George Marsh Applied Cognition Lab named after one of our dear colleagues who had passed away shortly after retiring from a long, successful teaching career. We cleaned out a storage room including dismantling an anechoic chamber and deep sixing some computers that were so old they barely booted up. We pooled some money (actually very little money) we got from a variety of on-campus funds and programs and outfitted the lab with a conference table, chairs, four computer stations and, of course, a coffee pot (to feed my addiction). In the blink of an eye we had 8-12 students a year with the stipulation that they had to want to do research and aspire to enter a Ph.D. program. Our lab matched the makeup of our multicultural university and many of the students entered with clear mental strengths but gaps in their classroom and testing skills. Many were the first in their family to even attend college let alone aspire to an advanced degree.
We created a Tier 1 lab modeled after our graduate school labs with twice a week meetings. Tuesdays are reserved for someone in the lab to present a research proposal, project results or even practice for a conference presentation. Thursdays are for skill building. We run GRE practice sessions, review CVs, help develop personal statements, do statistics reviews (with an end-of-year stat competition), enhance research design skills, present higher order multivariate stats and keep increasing the skill building aimed at making each student graduate school ready. And we have fun. Birthdays are celebrated with homemade eats and a cake with candles. Graduations feature a reception in the lab for the students and their parents. Bocce games, Frisbee matches and the like are often ways to get the students out of the lab and into the sun. We believe in helping them to be well rounded and grounded but aspire to greatness. I threw myself two milestone birthday parties and the students came in mass (and stayed and chugged beer and tequila with me until the wee hours of the morning). They met my family and friends who, to a person, told me the next day how impressed they were with each and every one.
I believe that we have been wildly successful in our mentoring, far better than any of us expected. For several years we had at least one and sometimes two students accepted to Ph.D. programs and the others either went off to work in the field or entered a master’s program. Those numbers kept creeping up and last year five of our students were accepted to top-notch Ph.D. programs. At this accounting we now have 15 students in or entering Ph.D. programs, plus an additional 7 who attained master’s degrees and are working in the field. Several of our students now are adjunct professors, teaching courses in our department and at local community colleges and universities. Recently, our first Ph.D. was awarded to a student who now has a tenure track position at a small college on the east coast and is setting up her own lab. Several more are going to be on the job market soon.
Quite honestly, the numbers are meaningless but the stories are not. Several Ph.D. students struggled with the GRE due to a background lacking in those basic skills. One student’s future mentor asked me to promise that those scores did not reflect her potential and I did. Success! Another student’s parents speak little or no English and run a food truck with specialties from their native province in Mexico. Another had no idea he was interested in research and now runs our brain-imaging lab. The stories are all different and yet mostly the same. These are students who for the most part did not even dream of getting a college degree and are now on the way to their Ph.D. It makes me smile with pride!
The bottom line is that in all likelihood few of their careers would have been possible without our mentoring and little of our research would have been completed without their able assistance. It is truly a symbiotic relationship and in the long run we all win. As each Ph.D. is minted I will feel as proud as I did when I was awarded my own Ph.D.
I am looking forward to my “Last Lecture” not because it is my real last one but because it has given me a reason to wax nostalgic about my career and the role that I have gotten to play in the lives of my students. Year 42 is in progress and I look forward to my live Tuesday meetings with our students. Since I am off from teaching this semester, I Skype in for Thursday meetings. There has to be some benefit to being old and retired.