The Alchemy of Academic Inspiration

The smallest interactions with students can have profound effects.

Posted Apr 24, 2010

Several years ago in my introductory psychology class a student wrote this on the mid-term evaluation: "I don't understand how you can be so enthusiastic in class every day." I thought a lot about this comment and responded during the next class period: "I stay enthusiastic because somewhere, at some time during this semester, one of you will have your life changed because of this course. The problem is, I don't know when it will be or which student it is!"

These have become my words to live by as a professor—a way to cultivate ethical virtues including respectfulness, compassion, and integrity. And I assume that students' lives can be altered because of two things. First, participants in the teaching workshops I've been involved in have related stories of life-changing moments with professors—and few of those have been in the classroom! Such moments occur during office hours, in hallways, or on campus paths. Second, I've had my own life-changing moments interacting with professors.

Haverford Path

I've written about some of the "big" interactions elsewhere. Here I want to share with you the smallest interaction I remember having with a professor that produced a huge shift in my understanding of learning and teaching. The time was the mid-seventies; the place was Haverford College. Founders hallThe professor for my Social Psychology course was Sid Perloe. Sid came into the classroom for a review session. I had read the assignments, but didn't understand what I had read about a cognitive dissonance study that was carried out by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). When Perloe asked if there were any questions I said, "What is this stupid study about $1 and $20!!?" I was usually pretty shy and had never before asked a question so angrily, but the review session was in the evening, I was tired and scared, and I was sitting on the front row. My frustration was evident—although I realize now it was frustration with my own incompetence.Perloe

I could tell when Perloe raised his eyebrows that I had touched an intellectual nerve—he was intrigued that I didn't understand something that he really thought was important. He looked quizzically at me and responded, "That's a classic study in social psychology!" His voice went up about half an octave. However, he did not raise the volume in his voice, and I detected a slight smile which removed any hostility from his reaction. His smile was neither derisive nor dismissive; rather, it communicated his understanding—even when attacked—that some students may have some trouble appreciating counterintuitive research findings.

Dissonance DiagramSid did not dismiss my question. Rather, he patiently explained the study: Student volunteers were paid either $1 or $20 to perform a boring task and then tell another student that the task was exciting. After this the volunteers rated how fun the task was. Interestingly, the volunteers who were paid only $1 actually changed their views more than those paid $20 and reported having more fun with the task. This finding is consistent with cognitive dissonance theory, which posits that people feel bad (dissonant) when their actions are inconsistent with their beliefs and they will change their beliefs to reduce the dissonance. Volunteers who were paid $20 had a good reason to tell others that the task was fun; those paid $1 did not.

Perloe's reaction to me was instantaneous.  He didn't think, "How am I going to (or should I) save this poor child from a life of ignorance and anti-intellectualism." Rather, he responded automatically with genuineness, humanity, caring, and integrity. At that moment he taught me how to (a) respect students and their questions, (b) value intellectual and empirical pursuits, and (c) teach someone who is totally clueless in an effective way. What a small interaction to have such profound effects!

I've shared the story of my review session and Sid Perloe many times over the last 30 years when students have difficulty with cognitive dissonance and other counterintuitive findings. My students appreciate me letting them know that I spent much of my college career bewildered and inept. I also hope that my depiction of Sid's humanity and other virtues rubs off on me just a little bit. At least, I am reminded of how little time it takes to inspire.

Epilogue: I wound up taking other courses with Sid Perloe, and I chose to do my senior research thesis under his supervision. During that year-long project I learned lots more about research, about writing, and about dedication. (Sid was the first person I ever heard say, "I'm going to bury myself in the data this weekend.") But Sid's biggest influence on me didn't come during the senior project. The most important change I experienced came in an instant, and one that Sid could not have anticipated.

So I'm always happy when I'm dealing with students, because each moment may be the one that will be inspirational, life-altering. They may even write about that moment someday—even if it takes 30 years.


Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203 - 210.
Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).