Name: Bill Altman
School name: SUNY Broome Community College
Type of school: Community College
School locale: Binghamton, NY
Classes you teach: General Psychology, Human Development, Adolescent Development, Educational Psychology, Social Psychology
Average class size: 20-32 (depending on whether the class has a writing emphasis)
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received? The best advice I’ve ever gotten about teaching (or anything else), was actually more general advice, geared to life as a thinking person. Professor Alexander Riasanovsky, my undergraduate advisor and the professor of my Russian History and Byzantine History classes impressed on me, and on all of his students, the need to learn about everything. He pretty much meant that as it sounded. Everything. And that our task as people, and especially as scholars (and I take it as a teacher) is to somehow figure out how all of that information fits together into a single, intelligible whole. All of the arts, sciences, humanities, and all of the other human and non-human endeavors in the world are connected, and all of them are meaningful. The joy, and the challenge, is to make sense of it. As a teacher, I try to bring some of the enthusiasm for this approach to the world that I got from Dr. Riasanovsky to my own students.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher? Actually, there are too many to name. But a few of the most important to me as a teacher would include works that are generally not thought of as part of the “teaching” canon:
- His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem
This novel chronicles the failure of scientists to decode what seems to be a message from outer space. It illustrates how our preconceptions as researchers give us blinders, preventing us from asking meaningful questions and from truly understanding not only what we research, but even one another across even closely-allied fields of study. Like much of Lem’s work, it delves into the psychology of people in different, often problematic situations, and how difficult it is to communicate and understand one another.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
This is a well-structured, philosophical look at how science advances through the changing of paradigms, based on the ongoing failures of our existing ways of thinking about our realities.
- The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Hoff’s book is a pretty good explanation of Taoist thought for the lay reader, which provides some excellent perspectives that aren’t often taken in our sometimes high-stress “scientific” approach to discovery and understanding.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach. I love teaching general psychology. I think it’s the most fun course in our entire curriculum. It allows us to explore nearly every part of the science of psychology, and learn through experiments, demonstrations, and other hands-on exercises. As an educational psychologist, I like to stress the practical applications of the things we learn, as well as how my students can learn better while having more fun and doing less of what they think of as work. So, we don’t only talk about the theories, history, or methods of psychology, we look at how psychology can help in many different aspects of life beyond the classroom.
One of the most important topics in the course (in all of my courses, actually) is the need to embrace failure as the route to learning, so the course is designed to allow students to fail a certain amount, recover, and do well. It’s sometimes a shock for them at first. But when they realize that each failure is actually helping them to learn, and that their grades not only don’t suffer, but actually are better than they expected, they really start to accept and value the idea.
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity. The culminating activity in my introductory psychology class is one of my favorites. It actually runs through the entire semester. We design our own cult. It helps students to use the information they’ve learned about brain development, nutrition, perception, attention, sleep, cognition, memory, identity, social pressure, and many other topics as they decide whom to target, how to convince them to join, and how to take control. It also serves as an organizing strategy throughout the course, piquing students’ interest about each topic and how it will be used in the final analysis.
On the last day of lecture, we begin the exercise by saying that we’re obviously not going to call ourselves a cult. We’ll be an educational foundation (registering with the IRS as a 501(c)(3)-type organization, so we can take donations and remain totally legal and open), founded on Maslow’s principles of helping people to achieve self-actualization, and addressing each individual’s full range of needs. Next, we discuss ways and places in which to recruit adherents, the design (including security aspects) of our compound, the activities and amenities we’ll provide (including free gaming laptops and smartphones with unlimited Wi-Fi, data, and talk/text–not to worry, our members won’t be spending a lot of time talking with the outside world in ways that could cause problems for us–we talk about that, as well), how we’ll gain control over our members’ thoughts and attitudes, and train them to go out into the world and send us their money and their children (when they have them). And when they’re out in the world, our members will also help with recruiting, as well as hiring other members into their organizations.
At the end of the process, most students are surprised to find that we’ve actually designed a university (in fact, a particular one, that shall remain nameless here). Students who’ve served in the military also begin to see parallels to their training and years in service. This kicks off a very spirited discussion of how schools and other social institutions work, and helps students to exercise a great deal more critical thinking about their surroundings. Some former students have come up to me years later to talk about this exercise and how it helped them in particular situations.
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you? A combination of activities and banter. Learning needs to be fun. Demonstrations that involve the class, rather than lecturing, are more fun and seem to be more productive. The other stuff lives on the LMS.
One example is a texting-while-driving activity. I set up a simple driving simulator, and a student volunteer (who claims to be a good driver) is then hooked up to our EEG unit by other students. Some monitor the EEG during the demonstration. Others watch for errors in driving, accidents, and other problems. The driver is then allowed to drive for a while with no distractions (other than the wires on their head, and the other people watching them, of course). After a few minutes, another student begins texting to the driver during while they’re driving. EEG and driving behavior monitoring continue. We may also test talking on the cell phone while driving, or driving while singing along with the radio. Students love the exercise, and are amazed at the differences in brain activity and driving errors. And sometimes there are some interesting outcomes. I’ve now had one student back up a telephone pole (twice on her run), and two other students hit parked fire engines at high speed (so at least the first-responders who weren’t killed were on scene to help everyone else). There was also one student who actually managed to get arrested in the simulation.
What’s your workspace like? Arthur C. Clarke once described working with Stanley Kubrick by saying that, “Stanley uses a tame Black Hole as a filing system.” My workspace looks like the inside of that Black Hole. But I do clean and organize it at least once a year, whether I think it requires it or not (generally I think it’s fine). I’ve long been convinced that any horizontal surface above the floor must be subdued by an appropriate amount of papers, books, technical equipment, coffee, snacks, and other paraphernalia. And I’m beginning to look at those floors with some suspicion, as well.
Three words that best describe your teaching style. I hate limits. Let’s go with 4:
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer? Educators should inspire, challenge, and support students.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation. There have been too many to count. Let’s just skip this one. I’m sure my students will be too happy to relate any number of these.
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you? I’m pretty transparent, so I don’t think there’s much that would surprise them. They hear about various past jobs, being a houseparent (house mother, actually) for an engineering fraternity, doing standup, acting, doing theater tech and directing, spending a decade on talk radio, and too many run-ins with various forms of authority. There’s not much that doesn’t make it into our discussions when it might be useful in making a particular point.
The only thing that seems to surprise them is if they see me away from school, perhaps at the grocery store or the farmers market. Sometimes the shocked expressions have been priceless.
What are you currently reading for pleasure? I just finished Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. It’s a fascinating book, and it made me begin to think that there may be some small hope of my getting a tiny glimmer of understanding quantum physics.
I’m currently reading a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell, and wandering through several science-fiction novels and collections of short stories.
What tech tool could you not live without? I don’t think there’s anything that dramatic about my tools. The ones I find most useful are WordPerfect, Quattro, Firefox, Thunderbird, Dropbox, and my phone. But I’m often most happy going back to a pencil and pad to do most of my work. Though many of my students are convinced (because they’ve seen me doing it at times) that I use a slide-rule to work up their grades (just for fun–I actually keep everything in Quattro) for their reactions.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)? It’s pretty eclectic. Most of the colleagues to whom I’m closest are in my college’s History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences Department. So, with a group made up of historians, a sociologist, an anthropologist, a specialist in the humanities (concentrating in comparative literature), a couple of economists and philosophers, and various people from our technical support areas, our conversations can cover a really broad range of topics. And that’s not even taking our various hobbies and outside interests into account!