The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


   Teaching and Mentoring Committee Report
   Kim Case, Teaching and Mentoring Committee Chair 

On behalf of the SPSSI Teaching and Mentoring Committee, congratulations to Peony Fhagen-Smith, the 2011 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring Award Winner. And congratulations to Mark Pilisuk, at The Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, for receiving the SPSSI 2011 Outstanding Graduate Teaching and Mentoring Award. For more information about the teaching committee or if you are interested in writing a teaching column for the newsletter, please feel free to contact the chair, Kim Case, at

Guide vs. Expert: A Teaching Essay

By Peony Fhagen-Smith, Wheaton College

This essay was written at the end of the first day of classes.  Therefore, I am keenly reminded of why I love to teach.  The first day of classes always gives me butterflies in my stomach because first days are full of anticipation for me and many students in my courses.  The first day is when I have the opportunity to talk about my teaching philosophy and provide an overview of the course.  My syllabi include the following teaching philosophy statement:

“You can lead a student to knowledge, but you can’t make him or her learn”.  I believe it is important for students to take ownership and build their own knowledge. While I do have expertise in two subareas of psychology, developmental and multicultural, I do not see my role as being the expert.  Rather I see myself as a guide, your guide, for building knowledge in ________________ psychology.

I have included this idea in my syllabi for about 6 or 7 years.  At the heart of my teaching philosophy are characteristics of accessibility for students and being humble as a professor. I always joke with my students that after about 30 minutes I get tired of hearing my own voice in class and am ready to hear their voices—hear them actively engaging in learning.

On the first day of classes I believe it is important to hook students into the course even before they have read any course material such as the “introductory” chapters of their textbooks.  Beyond “hooking” them into the course, I also want these opening exercises to allow as many students as possible to “talk” at the very beginning of the course.  Giving students the space to voice their perspective in the first class sends the clear message that my courses will provide them with ample opportunities to practice expressing ideas and engaging in intellectual discussions, and building skills in listening to others. Today in my “Multicultural Psychology” course I asked students to answer the question “Who am I?” ten times. That is, to list 10 characteristics to describe themselves.  I then ask each student to read aloud the 10 characteristics they jotted down to answer the exercise question after I call their name when I assess course enrollment.  Inevitably about 1/3 of the class includes descriptors based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability, etc.  Most of the students who list an aspect of culture as one of their characteristics are students of color.  I ask students to think about other patterns they heard in what students had stated about themselves. I take the opportunity to point out that noticing patterns is an important skill for conducting research on psychological phenomena. One student noticed that among his classmates, if culture was mentioned as a characteristic, it usually was mentioned as one of the top three or four characteristics listed.  This exercise provides a natural transition to a brief presentation of the Census2010 form in terms of questions related to race and ethnicity.  I end the class pointing out that defining ourselves personally must be distinguished from how our society defines us based on preexisting labels such as the labels established on Census2010 by the federal government for political reasons. 

Being accessible and humble for me also entails revealing dimensions of my life to students when appropriate.  For example, in “Developmental Psychology” I ask students to briefly describe a childhood memory.  To begin this activity I describe several memories from my own childhood such as the time I was bitten by a dog at age 5 or swinging on a homemade hammock fastened between two trees and taking long afternoon naps in my hammock during the lazy days of summer.  Being able to discuss my own experiences in a comfortable manner helps the many first-years in the course become comfortable with sharing with the class.  Many memories entail injuries, misbehavior, or humorous statements made during particular family situations.  Much is revealed about child development through these simple childhood memory stories such as the role of emotions in processing and retaining information, the type of activities common to children of a variety of ages, childrearing beliefs, etc.  

Finally, creating a space for students to participate on the first day of class gives me an opportunity to understand students’ perspective on a topic and perhaps point out misconceptions. For example in “Adolescent Development” I asked students to tell me the first thing they think of when they think of teenagers.  After 10 minutes of many students participating the class has come up with approximately 20 characteristics which I write on the blackboard. I ask students which of the characterizations listed might be stereotypes or generalizations that are inaccurate about adolescence.  These include thinking your invincible and engaging in risky behavior. This then leads to a discussion about the characterization of the characterizations; that is, students notice that the descriptors listed on the board are all negative. 

One student pointed out that we think of adolescence negatively because it is an age period that involves change and immaturity with much growth needed to reach adulthood.  I took this opportunity to point out that childhood could be described in the same way—great change and immaturity--yet if the class did the same exercise, but were asked to name the first thing they think of when they think of childhood, most of the characterizations would be positive.  In the last fifteen minutes of class I showed a documentary on adolescence that follows teens over 2 or 3 years documenting their growth through major pubertal changes (for girls 11-13 years and for boys 13-15 years).  The documentary is part of a film series with two films, each 50 minutes long: one highlighting development of teenage girls and the other on teenage boys.   This film helps students begin to view adolescence more objectively and begin to have a more nuanced understanding of this age period.  Seeing these films and conducting the “stereotype” exercise on the first day guides students to the way I want them to be thinking about adolescent development throughout the course. 

Being an expert is what I am when I conduct research, speak at conferences, or write journal articles, book chapters, reviews, etc. ; the classroom is where I prefer to free myself of my expert role and become a guide for students’ discovery of new ways of thinking about human development and human behavior.  By freeing myself of the expert role in the classroom, I open myself up to learning as much from my students as they learn from me and my courses.

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin