How did your journey start with the Department of Psychology?
It began 13 years ago, when I had a part-time appointment here and an affiliation with the University’s Institute for Social Research. That was an interesting year: It was the election in which Obama was first elected, and I had both a future NFL player and the child of a prominent member of the U.S. Congress taking my classes. Previously, I had taught at UCLA (my alma mater), USC, Cal State Northridge, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri–St. Louis, and Missouri–Kansas City. But I’ve been with U of M longer than any of those universities!
What does teaching in the Department mean to you?
My field—political psychology—is pretty niche. Like all psychologists, we are interested in variation in human behavior, but we focus on the specific context of the political arena: decision-making and voting, for example, or the roles of motives, ideologies, and prejudices as predictors of policy stances. Yet, not only do the students here have an interest in and see the relevance of my topic, but so do the faculty. It is an honor to be in this department within this institution. Both have a long-standing and widely recognized legacy of scientifically investigating human behavior within the political arena. To be able to carry on in the footsteps of Professor Emeritus David Winter, who is an icon in political psych, by taking over his survey course (Psychology 393) means a lot to me.
Beyond teaching, what are some other ways are you involved with the Department? What inspired you to get involved in these ways?
Well, other than the usual service on various committees, I have found myself supervising students’ individual research projects more and more. These students generally come to me after having taken my senior seminar in political psychology, they find the topic to be fascinating, and they have a particular empirical question that they would like to answer. And I’ll say, “We have the data!” or “We could pretty easily get the data!” And certainly, for any student interested in going to graduate school in psychology, getting the research experience of an individual project or honors thesis—not to mention having a stronger letter of recommendation in hand—is the best endeavor one could undertake. And I want to help with that.
Tell me about the role of personal opinion in teaching political psychology. How does one strike the right balance in the classroom, especially in these politically charged times?
These are interesting times for sure. On the first day of those courses, I disclose my academic biography and am up front about my own progressive stances. However, I explain that these courses are not about politics so much as they’re about people’s construal of politics. As with any science, we want to make specific, falsifiable claims about people’s motives, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. Then we subject these claims to the most valid test we can come up with. And if you think another scholar is revealing some sort of prejudice or political bias, then the question is: How would you conduct the study? In the end, it doesn’t matter whether I’m, say, pro-Trump or anti-Trump. What matters is understanding why someone would support or oppose Trump.
What advice would you give to aspiring Psychology students or to people who recently graduated with Psychology degrees and may be wondering where to go from here?
A common theme I’ve noticed on new graduates’ resumes is that they tend to ignore or undersell some of the technical abilities they have acquired. With the BA in Psychology, you have designed surveys or experiments, you have probably collected data in Qualtrics, and you have had practice with Excel, SPSS, and/or R software to statistically analyze the data. And even if you don’t feel that you’re fully proficient with the software, this practice at least speaks to critical thinking and trouble-shooting skills. And that brings us to the larger theme for Department of Psychology majors: critical thinking, understanding complexity, and competency in asking and answering questions about people and the world. There’s so much you could do with all of that!