Ethics, sustainable passion, and having reasons in the classroom: An interview with Mitch Handelsman, Ph.D.

24 Sep 2018 11:05 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Hallie Jordan, Ph.D. Student, The University of Southern Mississippi, and Charles Raffaele, Ph.D. Student, The Graduate Center CUNY

So that we can all learn more about incorporating ethics into the classroom, the importance of having and sharing reasons for what we do in teaching, and sustaining passion in one’s work, GSTA co-editors Hallie Jordan and Charles Raffaele interviewed Dr. Mitch Handelsman.

Dr. Handelsman earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, and remains a licensed psychologist in the state of Colorado. He is currently Professor of Psychology and President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, and author of a Psychology Today blog titled “The Ethical Professor.” Dr. Handelsman has written numerous book chapters and articles, many of which focus on ethics and/or teaching of psychology. Last, but certainly not least, he is the author of several books, including texts on ethics as well as a book with Charlie Burrell, who broke the color barrier in classical music. He is even a jazz musician - a trumpeter - which we got to talk about later in the interview!

The  piece below is a summarized version of some of the questions and answers over the course of GSTA’s interview with Dr. Handelsman. To listen to the interview in full, click HERE.

Question (HJ): We read that you were inspired by your undergraduate psychology professors to pursue teaching. What was it about these past experiences that inspired you to pursue teaching as a career?

Answer (MH): The psychology professors where I went to school at Haverford College were wonderful, thoughtful people. They were welcoming. Part of education is that students get engaged in a lot of different ways - with material, pedagogy, technology, instructors, among others - and I think I was one of those students who was engaged with the faculty process as much as the content.

Question (CR): Instructors often find it difficult to encourage students to attend office hours. Have you found methods that work to get students involved with faculty on this level?

Answer (MH): A lot of teaching is getting students involved in some way. In terms of coming to see me, one of the principles I operate under is college is not a stepping stone to anything. Rather, it’s your first professional position. So, I try to make the experience students have relevant to the kinds of experiences and skills they’re going to need in the professional world.

For example, in my first-year seminar, I require students to come see me twice in office hours. They get 80% of the points from coming to see me, and 20% of the points for bringing an agenda. I’ve had 100% attendance so far this year! I tell them, “Look, if I were the CEO of a company, or your boss, I might say you get 20 minutes to come on in and present something to me.” I’m not that harsh! But, I do explain to them that, in the real world, when you go see your boss, you need to express what you want to talk about with a clear agenda. I also encourage them to go see every professor they have – even if they won’t earn points for it. I try and communicate that visiting professors’ office hours can go very far in helping the professor ultimately write a strong recommendation letter down the road.

In my teaching, I try to have reasons for what I’m doing. Often, the reason is that they’re going to need these skills elsewhere. From the first semester, my goal is to help create a set of professional skills for the future that are applicable outside the field of psychology. That’s why I do a lot of papers rather than tests every three weeks, because nowhere is a boss going to ask someone to read something and then be tested weeks down the road. In the real world, bosses will ask people to read something, think about it, and bring a report about it the next day to guide a discussion.

Question (CR): Could you describe how you became involved in the ethics of teaching and the ethics of psychology as a particular focus in your career?

Answer (MH): It’s a good question, and I wonder that myself sometimes! I actually never had an ethics course in college or graduate school. My first exploration of formal ethics in psychology leads me back to discussions with fellow graduate students about boundary issues inherent in seeing clients.

Going back to my childhood, when my family got a new game, I was the little kid who made everyone wait to play until we read all of the rules first. That same attitude has apparently lasted a long time, because it related to a dozen years of research on informed consent in psychotherapy. I got into this research because I was not ever going to start psychotherapy without everyone knowing what the rules of psychotherapy were.

Question (HJ): Do you feel like the way psychology as a field has approached ethics has shifted over the past decade or so?

Answer (MH): I think so. I think we’re getting more realistic and more on top of how to teach and approach ethics. My colleagues Sam Knapp and Michael Gottlieb talk about positive ethics, which is striving for ethical ideals rather than just following the rules. Being ethical is more than just following the rules. We didn’t go into our fields (e.g., psychotherapy, educational psychology, research, teaching) to avoid complaints. We went because we had high aspirations and high ideals. One of the trends in ethics is to ask, “What can we do to add on to the quality of our professional lives through striving for ethical ideals?”

Question (CR): When you’re teaching these kinds of ethical concepts to students, how do you structure the classroom to get at the deeper aspects of ethics?

Answer (MH): One way is to have them read some of the stuff I’ve written (which I’m not sure is compassionate - you’ll have to ask them that!). We need to create an environment in the classroom that’s safe for them to express themselves. Sometimes I’ll take a case and ask students what their options are for responding. They seem to try to come up with the most professional response, but I ask them to think about all the possibilities of human responses. I do this to help students come to grips with our own, natural, human reactions. We must first understand what all the options are, and then we can explore where these reactions are coming from, what purpose they serve, and what action(s) might be most ethical.

Question (HJ): A lot of learning how to make ethical decisions is figuring out what to do in the grey areas. What do you find to be difficult in teaching about the grey area of ethics, and what do you find to be helpful in teaching about this grey area?

Answer (MH): Part of it is helping students learn to work on continua rather than dichotomously (e.g., with “all or none” thinking). People seem to take extreme approaches on either end – either everything is relative, or everything is very rule-based. Different people have different ideas about how to operate in grey areas, based on past experiences such as their own family of origin. Part of the deal is opening this up to discussion to help facilitate an awareness that what we often see as dichotomies are continua. We have to teach students to use their judgment, because the ethics code doesn’t tell people what to do in every situation. Instead, it tells people what to think about.

Question (CR): How do you go about assessing students’ learning of ethics?

Answer (MH): Part of it is assessing their choice-making processes. How are my students going to make their choices now that they’ve had the course? My final exam is often a couple of questions, with about one hour to answer each. One question might be a case study. A case study I’ve used before is asking the student to imagine they work at a mental health center, and a news outlet wants to film the inner workings of the center to increase awareness. Your boss wants this to happen to increase publicity for the clinic, and your job is to write a report on how you can do this ethically. It’s a big, unsolvable problem, but students can break off what they want to demonstrate how they understand ethics. Another question might be asking the students to create a policy for their future practice that deals with an ethical dilemma – for example, what is your policy regarding accepting gifts? They can’t get away with saying they simply won’t accept gifts!

The thread that comes through is this is real life, and we need to make connections so students can generalize what they learn in the classroom to work they do outside the classroom. So having problems and discussions based on complex, real-life situations is important. Memorizing the ethics code is NOT part of what I do. I’ve never been to a physician and refused to let them look at reference materials to diagnose me! Memorization is ridiculous because we have easy access to finding information. Instead of memorizing, what we need to do is develop skills, and so that is what we should assess.

All my finals everywhere are open book, open phone, open brain, because it’s an artificial situation to say you have to have stuff memorized. I think there's stuff we should know, of course, but I think we can come to know that stuff through working with the material rather than memorizing.

Question (HJ): What have you noticed about students’ reactions to these assessments and activities compared to what they’re used to in the past?

Answer (MH): For example, I have students write POT papers. This stands for “Proof of Thinking” (not to be mistaken with the Colorado assumption!). In these papers, students apply their thinking to a short reading prior to class, and then we use the POT papers in class. The assessments become learning materials. Students’ reactions run the gamut – some are really happy because they can see the relevance, some are not very happy.

I’ve learned over the years to be much more transparent about what I’m doing. Once I make it clear that what I’m doing in the classroom is with the goal of helping them prepare for any job in the future, most students do come along.

Our students now demand reasons for what we do. The days of people listening just because we are professors with “profound wisdom” are gone – which is wonderful because now I have to prove I have something of value for them – and if I can prove that, then they will become involved. I want to have reasons for everything I do. Convenience is a reason, but I want to have ethical, pedagogical reasons for what I do. So, for example, I do a lot of group work rather than lecturing because it encompasses more beneficence, it’s more helpful, and more respectful.

Question (CR): Your example of a democratic approach to creating content, creating teaching methods, is definitely very inspiring to beginning instructors, and all instructors! As you’ve developed this large corpus of teaching methods and research, how did you come to a point to start the ethical professor blog?

Answer (MH): That was an outgrowth of the book I wrote with Sharon Anderson. Psychology Today approached us, and given Sharon’s interest in psychotherapy she started a blog called “The Ethical Therapist,” and I started a blog called “The Ethical Professor.” The blog is a great place to write, be creative, and share ideas without having to go through the usual publication process. It’s also been an opportunity to use a different form of writing. I’ve had some people use the blog in class, which makes it feel especially useful.

To learn more about Dr. Handelsman’s approach to getting writing done and the use of quizzes, listen to the interview in full! You can also reference the “Resources” section at the end of the interview for an abridged explanation of these topics.

Question (CR): As you mentioned, you’re a jazz musician. It’s interesting how you co-authored the book The Life of Charlie Burrell: Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music with Charlie Burrell, which sits alongside your ethics in psychology books. How did this work relate to your work in ethics in psychology?

Answer (MH): The answer is, it didn’t! And that’s why I did it. I balance my life with my involvement in music. I got a little money from the university to help with the project, but I didn’t come at it from a psychologist’s perspective. Every word in the book, aside from a few I added for continuity, were Charlie’s. I went to Charlie’s house every Tuesday with my little tape recorder, recorded his stories, transcribed at home, and then edited them – so it’s really his book, his autobiography. I’ll take credit for helping him with it, but not for any psychological investment. I got to play (trumpet) with Charlie too!

Question (CR): Do you think it’s helpful as a psychologist to have these large meaningful projects alongside your work in psychology?

Answer (MH): You know, you have to have something. We talk a lot in psychology about self-care, and whether its big meaningful projects or small meaningless ones, I don’t think it makes much difference. People can do all kinds of things. For me, being involved in things like [playing trumpet, helping Charlie write his book] help me live my life.

Question (HJ): What are the parallels in self-care between practicing psychotherapy and teaching?

Answer (MH): Part of it is to become more mindful of what we’re doing – I knew we couldn’t get through an interview without talking about mindfulness somewhere! The nice thing about an academic career is it has built-in balance. There are research meetings, committee meetings, meetings with students, etc. However, there are times I need to leave the university, go across town, and play my horn a little bit too – for 3 hours, forget what I do for a living and create more balance in my life. We need to practice stress management techniques as intentionally as we can. I’m going to argue that the days after I play gigs, I might be better in the classroom!

Working on preventing burnout is really important. Part of that is also an acculturation process. The university tells us what we need to do, and that’s one circle in the venn diagram. Then, we have what we really want to do – that’s the other circle in the venn diagram. I try to make those circles overlap as much as possible, to incorporate what I'm really interested in with my job requirements. This may mean I say no to a few committee things, and say yes to a few student-oriented things, because working with students is what I am really excited about. It is important to take advantage of choices to fit with what I want to do. Another part of preventing burnout is to leave a little space (psychological, schedule) to be surprised.

Question (HJ): When thinking about the future and the rapidly shifting nature of higher education, what do you think is changing in academia? What do you envision being developing ethical concerns?

Answer (MH): Teaching is going to change more in the next 20 years probably than it has in the last 100. When I learned how to teach, I didn’t learn about online teaching, but now it’s not clear how much time we are going to spend working (e.g., teaching, research, psychotherapy) online.

One of the advantages of an accelerated rate of change is that we may have more opportunities than previous generations to create positions rather than fill positions--in other words, to create what being a professor means. I consider myself to have a relatively non-traditional academic career given the amount of theoretical or practical writing I’ve engaged in compared to less grantsmanship. In the future, it’s possible there might be more unlimited freedom in academia.

Another change is the increase in diversity. There are more and more students entering college because, as a society, we see the advantages of an education, and we need to respond to make education relevant for people who don’t necessarily come from all the same backgrounds, or the backgrounds we come from. The ethical concerns here are using respect, not doing harm, and ensuring we practice justice.


On writing: Dr. Handelsman reflected on his writing process, sharing that he typically does not have a set writing time. Rather, he always has something to take notes with (e.g., recording voice memos on his iPhone) so that when an idea for a blog post or other writing piece strikes him, he can make note in the moment. Then, he will use these notes as inspiration to produce a written product.

On quizzes: To encourage students to engage with readings prior to class, Dr. Handelsman sometimes incorporates quizzes into his classrooms. When he does so, he asks students at the start of class what questions they had about the reading to initiate a discussion. Upon answering any student questions, the quiz (typically multiple choice) is administered. Dr. Handelsman noted he tries to promote a democratic quizzing process, in that students are asked how they want to be quizzed (e.g., multiple choice, short answer) and can contribute questions.

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