Reflective statement about teaching

Jonathan Haidt, 12/02


I never knew teaching would be so rewarding.  I went to graduate school because I could not imagine a better deal than getting paid to study psychology, and  I assumed that teaching is  the way we pay the rent on our lab space. I was very fortunate to have been apprenticed to several outstanding teachers, so that by the time I taught my first solo course, I was almost ready to do so. But first I went to visit the best lecturer at Penn, a grand old man of the psychology department who loved to give advice. AJonathan@ he said to me, AThe most important thing I can tell you is this. Your students have to see how much you love your subject. If they don=t think you love it, why should they?@


Much of my research is on how we make up reasons, post-hoc, for the things we already believe intuitively, so it is quite possible that this encounter had no real effect on my later teaching. But looking back now, it is the perfect origin story for my current teaching philosophy. When I arrived at Virginia and taught my first large lecture class, I had just one strength: I loved my topic. Since then I have developed a larger set of goals and principles that help me make the most of my strengths and the least of my weaknesses.


1) Use psychology to teach psychology. I use what I know to help students get the most out of my classes. In Psyc 101 I explain how the brain=s architecture creates a Abottleneck@ that allows only a small amount of information to pass through into our almost unlimited long term memory. I then give concrete advice on how to work around this limitation when studying for my exams. I let students bring to exams a Amemory sheet@ (since we can=t have cheat sheets at UVA), a single piece of paper on which they can put anything they want. The creation of this memory sheet helps them see the need for organization and Arecall cues@ to later success at memory retrieval.


2) Elicit emotions in class. I try to elicit a range of emotions in class, both to demonstrate phenomena and to make lessons more memorable. In Psyc 101 I create embarrassment when I lecture on embarrassment, disgust when I lecture on disgust, and surprise or amazement as often as I can, since these emotions open the mind and prepare it for change. In my Cultural Psychology class I begin the course with a stunning ethnography about a culture in which homosexual activity is mandatory for all boys. In my Morality seminar I allow feelings of moral outrage to emerge, but then try to get everyone to step back and examine these very feelings as examples of what the course is about.


3) Look at the whole course from the student=s point of view. In my first years of teaching I thought only about psychology, and how best to get it across. But now I realize that Agetting it across@ requires constant attention to what=s going on on the other side. I make it clear to students that I=m aware of their needs B of their heavy and fluctuating workload (I keep the last week very light), of their needs to talk or flirt during class (permitted, but only during moments of general laughter), of the hassles of fulfilling their experimental requirement (I use the honor system to smooth out bureaucratic problems). I seek out opportunities to listen to students, for example, by having dinner with small groups of students, and by encouraging them to use the anonymous feedback system.


4) Use psychology to better students= lives. I have always tried to link course material to issues and concerns in students= lives, such as dating, dieting, studying, and resolving roommate conflicts. But in the last three years, as I have gotten more active in a field called APositive Psychology,@ I have begun to incorporate more experiential learning projects into my courses. In my Morality seminar and my Psyc 101 class I have begun conducting in-class studies in which students assess their strengths and weaknesses, and then engage in specific activities outside of class that employ their strengths, or that overcome their  weaknesses. These projects help me teach experimental design, as well as a more important lesson. Students learn not just that psychology is powerful, but that it is powerful in their own hands. College students are actively trying to figure out who they want to be, and psychology can show them how to get there. How could anyone not love psychology?