Social psychologist Scott Plous, PhD, earned 2006 Connecticut Professor of the Year honors from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Plous, a faculty member at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., since 1990, studies prejudice and decision-making, and serves as the Webmaster for several psychology sites, including Social Psychology Network and the Stanford Prison Experiment. gradPSYCH asked the professor about his advice for beginning teachers, the role of the Web in higher education, and how he invented the character Joe Chemo.
Q. How do you help bring social psychology and the psychology of prejudice and decision-making to life for students?
A. I try to focus on topics and questions that I would want to learn about if I were a student. How can terrorism be reduced? Is it possible to be completely unprejudiced? What's the best way to tell whether a romantic relationship will last? In my view, good teaching begins with respect for students and an effort to address what matters to them.
Q. Do you think your research on prejudice, judgment and decision-making has made you a better teacher?
A. When I teach about prejudice, I tell students that they'll get more out of the course if they apply the material to themselves than if they focus on "the psychology of other people." Likewise, as an instructor, I perform better and get more out of the experience when I apply psychology to my own teaching. For example, I often apply social psychology and decision research to reduce my own attributional errors, decision biases, and self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom.
Q. You joined the faculty at Wesleyan in 1990. When it comes to teaching, what's the biggest lesson you've learned over the years?
A. I've learned that I'm not the only teacher in the room that teaching is a collaborative process in which students educate themselves, one another, and me. When I first began teaching, I viewed my central task as conveying knowledge and critical-thinking skills. Twenty years later, I rarely lecture for more than 10 minutes before inviting some form of student participation.
Q. What other advice would you give to new psychology teachers?
A. Don't get trapped into thinking that you need to have an answer for every question students ask. If you don't know an answer, just compliment the questioner, promise to find out the answer, and share it at the next meeting. This approach respects the questioner, humanizes you, and encourages students to ask more questions.
Q. Any other career advice?
A. To anyone feeling stress over school or career choices, I would advise against treating these decisions like multiple-choice questions that have a "right" answer. Career alternatives simply lead down different paths, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. What matters most is not whether you choose A or B, but how you do A or B.
Q. You serve as Webmaster for several psychology sites and have posted your course information on the Web. What role do you think the Web will play in higher education?
A. The Web has already had a dramatic effect on higher education, and I think this effect will only increase in the future. Thanks to search engines such as Google, students and instructors have around-the-clock access to far more information than ever before. And when it comes to communicating and disseminating information, most Web page owners have access to far larger audiences than ever before. For instance, Social Psychology Network and its partner Web sites, which I manage at Wesleyan, have now received more than 93 million page views. Before the Web, the only way to reach an audience that large would have been through the mass media. Our content includes more than 1,000 course syllabi and examples of action teaching--instruction that leads not only to a better understanding of psychology but to a more just, peaceful, and humane world.
Q. How did you create Joe Chemo?
A. In the early 1990s my father nearly died from smoking, so when I learned that tobacco companies were using psychology to hook kids, I wanted to turn the tables and use psychology to prevent smoking. I approached Adbusters magazine about the idea of creating a Joe Chemo parody of Joe Camel. They liked the idea enough to have one of their artists render the character for publication in 1996. The following year, R.J. Reynolds decided to discontinue the character, and I'm pleased to say that if you do a Google search for "Joe Camel," JoeChemo.org is one of the top search results you'll see.