By: Elizabeth Iwunwa
1. TC: What piqued your interest in Psychology as a field? And I remember you mentioned in class that you were an accountant or something along those lines? I still don’t believe it.
SMK: Yeah I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? Someday I have to go back through the boxes in my basement and find a picture that shows that yes indeed I used to wear power suits and heels to work everyday. Though I think I’ve blocked that out on purpose in my memory because it wasn’t that much fun. It’s really weird in a sense, how I came to Psychology. I remember when I was in about third grade, my teacher took away my silent reading book because I was reading a book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay. That was basically fluff Psychology of the 1970’s and the early eighties and she felt that was far too advanced for someone in third grade. She probably wasn’t wrong but from the very beginning I had been interested in how and why people do the things they do and believe the things they believe. But I didn’t come to it formally for many, many years, almost decades afterwards.
I did start out in Education actually, Nova Scotia Teachers College. But I didn’t like the red tape and the structure of the school system. I didn’t like being told I had to teach something in a way that I didn’t think was right, so I left that and then progressed through an attempt at an English degree. But it made me not like to read anymore which was like breathing to me, so that had to go. And through Accounting and then ultimately when “Corporate Accounting Assistant” wasn’t the job I wanted to have for the rest of my life, despite the fact that they were paying my way through university to get my accounting designation.
I looked at my transcripts from all of those experiences and said well, what did I enjoy, what did I do well in? And the only course I’d ever gotten an A in was Adolescent Psychology back in Teachers College. This would have been five to six years earlier. So I thought, I’ll be a Psych major! And the funny thing was, I had gone into it thinking I’d be a Counselling Psychologist but I didn’t fall in love with the process of counselling. I take my people home with me, I even do it with my students. So I couldn’t do that on a crisis level, day in and day out.
So the second semester of what was technically my third year of undergrad although it had been many years in the making, I took a course on intimate relationships from a professor named Susan Boon who was only about five years older than I was at that point. I was a mature student and she was a new professor. And I loved it and she was looking for people to volunteer as research assistants in her lab. She was working on a project on forgiveness which is something I’m not good at. I thought well you know, I’ll give it a try and I fell in love with doing research, which shocked me. So I finished my undergraduate degree a year and a half later and then stayed for six more years and a half later to do a Master’s and a PhD. I’ve always loved the topic area but it was a long road to get there in terms of academia and career.
2. TC: Amongst other things you teach Social Psychology. So you’d describe yourself as a Social Psychologist?
SMK: Yes. When people want to put a label on how I’ve been trained, I’ve been trained in Experimental Social Psychology, just to take it one step further. The major interest area that I had throughout grad school was intimate relationships, particularly romantic relationships between adults. Looking at trust and risk, revenge and forgiveness. Those kinds of things. So that slots me in there, but my perspective on Psychology is much broader than that. Cathy Ryan is the neuropsychologist here in our department, and I often say you can’t have social interaction without a brain. And what’s the point of having a brain if you’re not going to do something with it?
So when you think about all the different subdisciplines of Psychology; neuropsychology, cognition, perception, development, clinical, and social they’re all interacting in every moment of our lives. So I really try when I’m teaching and when I’m working on my research and anything along those lines, to see it in a much more holistic perspective of which social psychology is only one part of the answer to the question.
3. TC: You taught my first Psychology course, 101 I believe, and I remember every time I thought of a professor I thought you were who a professor should be. You became for me the pedestal, and I think most of your work especially in university focuses on student engagement. What would you say is your motivation for that?
SMK: Having been an unengaged student! Truthfully, I’ve always been interested in student experience from the very beginning, but there was a turning point for me when I had my daughter, she is seven now. And when she was born, I saw this amazing little person who from day one was learning and taking such immense joy in her new abilities to do things. Simple things, what we would consider simple things like rolling over, you could see the look of joy on her face the first time she did it! She just had this joy about her, and then as she got older and learned to talk and started to engage and she was fearless in her learning. And she always wanted to know, “why mommy, how mommy?”
And then I had my maternity leave and was on sabbatical for a year, so it was almost two years from the time that she was born, before I resumed teaching full time. And I walked into my class it was a Social Psychology class. I walked into the classroom and I thought, I get really high teaching evaluations and people say they enjoy my course but look at their faces, where is the joy? You see moments of it here and there but where is the excitement in the fact that I’m learning something new? And it wasn’t there anymore. So then I started to question, where did it go? They were all at one point like my daughter, exploring their world, using every sense they had and in fact they had to tie them down to get them to stop. You eventually told them to stop asking so many questions.
Where did we get from that to not asking a question even though your life depended on it? Paying money to come into a classroom and just sitting and waiting. It didn’t mean they didn’t get good marks, probably didn’t even mean they weren’t learning things but the joy wasn’t there. So when I’m talking about student engagement, I’m now talking about it on a whole different level. I’m talking about student engagement more as students’ investment at a cognitive and emotional level with their own learning. To have students stop being students, which is a very passive term and would say let me allow you to fill me with knowledge and have student become learners. I am here to learn, I will take from you what I can but I will go and look for other bits and pieces too.
Learning is an exploration as opposed to a sitting and getting kind of thing. For me that’s what student engagement really is. So I’m really looking at this idea of lifelong learning as an actual thing but also life-wide learning where what you learn in my class, you see happen in life, you figure out where it fits with another course, you see how it can apply in a difficult situation, you ask questions that start out with “what if?” And we explore those answers together, knowing that there isn’t a concrete solution out there but there are many possibilities. That’s student engagement to me and that’s what my focus has been on for the last six years.
4. TC: It seems like it’s working pretty well, I’m in the Social Psychology course and lots of people are very interested in the Curiosity Project. Would you be willing to talk about that?
SMK: The Curiosity Project came out of my observation of my daughter, that was the new thing I started when I came back teaching full-time. And we’ve done it for nine semesters now and that came out of this idea of how can we get people to really plug into their own desire to learn? And so we set up a situation where you come in and we say, go learn about something all semester, I don’t care what is. Everything is Social Psychology in the long run. So choose something that’s of interest to you, don’t choose something you think I’m interested in. Go find something you’re passionate about and explore it in a very structured way, in the sense that there’s a learning log due every week. You’ll also have facilitators leading your discussions and online feedback. It is the most highly structured-unstructured project you can imagine. It didn’t start that way but has developed over time.
5. TC: UPEI is a great place for learning, some people don’t seem to realize that and I always struggle with how to get people to care. Because when I’m doing work for the Cadre, I want people to read it because it’s for them, that’s the reason I do what I do. But from a professor’s perspective, what would you say students can do to help themselves here at university?
SMK: That is the question that keeps me up nights. It’s how can I get people to see that the more they effectively give to their own education, the more rewards they will reap from it. I think there’s a couple of stumbling blocks in the way that are societal and some that are individual . The first thing I would say is slow down, We’re rushing way too fast nowadays, trying to cram way too much into way too short a space of time. We need to slow down. Creativity and curiosity and learning flourish when you can breathe. There is a lot of modern life that is just busywork. I am just as bad as anybody else. Life is busy but we’re making it busier than it needs to be by taking useful time when we are awake and functioning, and doing mindless tasks.
Next thing I would say is read your syllabus! I have a class right now that’s about eighty people, and seventeen of those who actively come to class have never opened the syllabus. How can you know what to do when? How can you know what the content of things are if you’ve never looked? So don’t just look it over, read it in detail and ask any questions that you have as you’re going along. It sounds so silly but it’s a simple thing that will really help you move forward.
Ask questions, ask lots of questions but based on preparation. To come to a professor and say I don’t understand chapter 3, that doesn’t help. What is it about chapter 3 that you don’t understand? Which particular concept, period, idea, research study? Be more specific, know what you don’t know and then you can find the answers for it.
6. TC: Are you working on any projects or research at the moment?
SMK: I’m working on too many projects! I never have a time when I’m not. It’s a popular misconception that professors are teachers and that’s all we do and reseach is a hobby. Teaching is an important part of what we do but it’s also important that we’re engaged regularly year round in research. Though right now I have 7 projects on the go in various stages of completion. We call it a research pipeline. So you’ve got different projects at different stages so you’ve constantly got something flowing through the system. My former supervisor in grad school used to say, “don’t let your pipeline get constipated, bad things happen.”
So I’ve got two different levels of research that are somewhat related which is the next project we’re doing a research on the curiosity project. Right now in fact, we just had a paper accepted for publication based on that particular project in the Journal of Transformative learning. So that will be coming up by the end of the year. We have a project that is currently being written for potential publication on the areas and challenges of curious learning that we will hopefully have submitted by Christmas. That was actually an honours project that has grown.
We’ve got some theoretical work going on and we’re constantly trying to understand the underpinning of what’s happened in learning and education systems. So we’re working on a theoretical model of inquiry and learning that is taking into account people’s desire, their willingness in the environment they find themselves, and the skills to be able to do so. Because the assumption of universities is that everyone who comes here want to be here and is in a creative environment. We are also doing some work right now on academic thriving.