Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Alan Swinkels: I am a member of STP and This is How I Teach

15 Jun 2019 12:36 PM | Anonymous

School name: St. Edward’s University

Type of college/university (e.g., R1, community college, small liberal arts school, high school): a Masters-granting liberal arts institution. St. Edward’s has a total enrollment of about 5,000 students, with about 3,800 undergraduates. The Department of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience is the largest on campus, enrolling 320 Psychology majors and another 125 Behavioral Neuroscience majors, or about 450 students total. We currently have 13 full-time tenure-track faculty and several visiting, one-year, or adjunct positions

School locale (e.g., small town, rural area, city, country/region): Austin, TX 

Classes you teach: 
My duties as department chair have limited the amount and variety of courses I teach, but I routinely teach Statistics to sections of about 20-25 students, and Industrial/Organizational Psychology to similarly sized classes. At various points I’ve taught Social Psychology (my area of specialization), Research Methods, Introductory Psychology, History and Systems, Cognitive Psychology, Advanced Research Methods, Psychometrics, and a few one-shot courses here and there.

Average class size: 20-25 students

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received? 
I’ve been fortunate to have associated with really great mentors over my career, and their guidance, from many different perspectives, has strangely shown a great deal of consistency. For example, my undergraduate mentor, the late Maureen O’Sullivan, advised me explicitly through our research collaborations and implicitly through her style and approach to teaching. Similarly, I was fortunate to be a teaching assistant for the late Dev Singh during my graduate school career. I was fascinated by the way he strolled into a classroom carrying nothing whatsoever – no notes, no chalk, no gimmicks – yet held the attention of everyone in the room as he wove compelling stories of science. The secret of his success was that he invited his students to join him on a journey of intellectual exploration, investing them with a stake in the learning process as he guided their discoveries.  Finally, my dissertation advisor, Dan Gilbert, and my former brother-in-law, the late Dan Wegner, showed me that great researchers also can be great teachers, and vice versa. Both Dans are renowned for their pathbreaking contributions to the science of psychology, but fewer people may know that they’re also really great instructors in the classroom. I’m sure all these people, at one point or another, gave me some specific teaching advice, but really they “advised” me more through their actions than their words.

Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
With no small amount of perversity, I’d say Statistics is my favorite course to teach, but that’s possibly only because I’ve now taught about 100 sections of it. Most instructors wouldn’t gravitate toward a class that students don’t want to take, that many students think they can’t or won’t understand, and that promises such a high degree of fear and loathing from its audience. Yet those moments – and there have been many of them – when the proverbial light bulbs illuminate over students’ heads, and the “this is easier than I thought” comments flow freely, make it all worthwhile.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
Also perversely, I’m not sure I’ve got a favorite activity or assignment. The oddity here is that I’ve enjoyed a multi-decade association with Pearson Education and other publishers, creating instructor's manuals, online content, study guides, test banks, textbook content, and yes, even transparency masters back in the day, but I use almost none of it myself. I guess I’m good at thinking up clever activities for other people to use, but you’d think that with a storehouse of suggestions that large, I’d draw from it myself a little more often!

What teaching or learning techniques work best for you?Active engagement in material, peppered with liberal doses of humor – the smart kind, not “Dad jokes” or goofy asides – seems to do the trick. I’d much rather have students talking and thinking, even if they’re getting the wrong answers, than sitting around waiting to be told what to think or what to do.

What’s your workspace like?
My workspace, aka “office,” tends to be an organized jumble of curiosities (see photograph). My other workspace – the classroom – tends to be a high-energy modernist/minimalist affair.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Interactive. Encouraging. Hilarious.

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Make students smarter than they were before.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
Fortunately I haven’t had real disasters or embarrassments in the classroom, of the “did you know your zipper’s been down?” variety or delivering, say, a personality lecture to a social psychology class and never realizing it (I’m not naming names, but it’s happened). Two related events do come to mind, though. First, every fall semester, like clockwork, I’d lose my voice for a few days. I was never sick, but allergies or strain or whatever caused my main “teaching instrument” to conk out. So more than once I delivered the day’s lecture via writing on an overhead projector or (more recently) typing in a document projected onscreen. The bizarreness of students silently reading and writing, but occasionally asking a question that received my nonverbal answer, was strangely calming. To counteract my hoarseness, I eventually wised up and started bringing a glass of water to each lecture. That worked well until, during one final exam, I promptly spilled the entire glass over the entire stack of exams, minutes before I distributed them. I got even wiser and started bringing a cappedcontainer of water to class…

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
Students might be surprised to learn that I’m a big record collector. In these days of downloaded music, I cling to having the actual vinyl article in hand, but decidedly not in any hipster-come-lately sense. Trolling thrift stores for elusive finds leads to amassing some 6,000 LPs, but I still see that as “small” compared to the real fanatics. Students might or might not be surprised to learn that I play the drums and guitar, and dabble in bass, synthesizer, and Theremin, yet I can’t play a harmonica to save my soul. And putting all that together, they’d be really surprised to learn that my first paying gig was playing drums with a Lithuanian polka band in San Francisco.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?
I tend to read books by and about musicians. I just finished Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography, Been So Long. (Jorma was the guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and is the guitarist with Hot Tuna.) I’ve read almost everything by or about the Ramones. A Tom Petty biography is next on the list.

What tech tool could you not live without?
I could live without almost any tech tool. Does a turntable count?

What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
I’m very lucky to be surrounded by supportive, agreeable colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and that characterizes both the psychology crowd and my colleagues in other departments. We certainly chat about business – that tends to come with the chair gig – but we talk a lot about food, family, fun…the kinds of things that make Austin a great place to live and that energize people in their daily lives.

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