How Did a Second-Grade Teacher from California
(with a Bachelor's Degree in History)
End Up as a Psychology Professor at Winona State University in Minnesota?

I grew up in Southern California, and for a time could lay claim to the dubious honor of living next door to Richard Nixon in San Clemente.

As a child I was always interested in science and imagined myself one day being an astronomer, nuclear physicist, or perhaps, best of all, a cosmologist. The plan got a bit off track in high school when I became interested in the humanities and when I received my only grade of 'B' in physics (thereby becoming salutatorian rather than valedictorian).

As an undergraduate, I attended Pitzer College, which is one of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five small liberal arts colleges in the Pomona Valley area of southern California. There my attraction to the humanities won over my interest in the sciences, and I majored in history and literature. Ironically, despite Pitzer's specialty in the behavioral sciences with a particularly strong psychology department, I did not take even a single course in psychology while working on my bachelor's degree. While at Pitzer, I took a leave of absence to attend the University of California at Berkeley during the spring of my sophomore year. One of my classes at Berkeley had an enrollment of 1200 -- 50% larger than the entire student body at Pitzer. The class had as many graduate teaching assistants as the typical course enrollment in Claremont! From the experience, I gained an appreciation for small class size and a more personal approach to undergraduate education.

About a year after I graduated from college, I moved to Hamilton, Ontario (Canada) to be a part of a community outreach and social service project that called itself The Welcome Inn. This community center was located in a mixed working-class/welfare-class neighborhood of a medium-size industrial city going through the adversity of the decline of the steel industry. The center provided a wide range of recreational and support services to a diverse group of community members. While there, I lived as part of a small household of full-time volunteers working at the center in exchange for room, board, health care, and a monthly stipend of $35 (Canadian, of course!). The project was sponsored by the General Conference of the Mennonite Church. Although I was not a Mennonite, myself, I found considerable common ground with the church's historic commitment to peace, justice, and service.

After two years in Canada, I returned to the U.S., this time to the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California. There I decided to obtain a teaching credential and put my experience working with children (mainly in Canada) to use as an intermediate-term career choice. It was while working on my teaching credential at San Francisco State University that I discovered psychology -- and also discovered that I was a bit out of step with my peers in the teacher-preparation program. One required course was essentially 'psychology for teachers'. Whereas my peers tended to be very excited about courses covering specific practical teaching methods, I found the more theoretical and research-based psychology course far more interesting. As a result, I began to take every opportunity I could find to enroll in psychology courses. Ultimately, this led to a year of full-time undergraduate study in psychology at UC Berkeley.

Although I toyed briefly with the idea of a career in clinical practice, I settled on the goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in order to teach at the college/university level. Given my recent work in the elementary school classroom, I was a bit unusual among prospective doctoral students in thinking of the Ph.D. as simply another teaching credential.

During my undergraduate year at Berkeley, I became an assistant on two quite different research projects. One dealt with the physiology of emotion and was conducted by Paul Ekman, Robert Levenson, Dacher Keltner (at the time a post-doctoral fellow, and now a professor at UC Berkeley), and James Gross (then a doctoral student, and now a professor at Stanford). Among the things I gained from this experience was an abiding appreciation for the importance of the details of experimental design and procedure, especially when studying subtle phenomena or important effects that may be embedded in considerable 'noise'.

The other project began my collaboration with Irvin Rock, which continued for several years. From Irv I discovered the joys of experimental research. Although one of the world's most prominent perception researchers, having retired to Berkeley, Irv maintained an active and productive research program up until his death from cancer. His motivation always appeared to be the satisfaction of his own scientific curiosity. Even after a full career, it seemed that there was no place Irv enjoyed being more than his lab. Given his stature in the field, it was also remarkable how open Irv was to discussing the ideas and suggestions of novices; from Day One, I had the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to every project on which we collaborated. Whereas I set my sights on a doctorate in psychology in order to teach, my work with Irv Rock, more than anything else, created in me a love for the scientific process. I think of Irv as my role model and ideal for how to conduct myself as a mentor and scientist.

One other crucial experience shaped my career during my undergraduate year in psychology at Berkeley: I took an introductory course on cognitive psychology taught by Daniel Kahneman and Anne Treisman. This class was utterly fascinating and enchanting, and it led directly to my decision to become a cognitive psychologist. Also, due to this course, I made the acquaintance of Danny Kahneman, with whom I eventually began a research collaboration (which was, sadly, mostly long-distance due to his move from Berkeley to Princeton)

My volunteer work with Irv led to being hired for two positions in the Berkeley Psychology Department (one as Irv's research assistant) during the interim between my undergraduate year and the year I began graduate work. During that time, I also had the opportunity to join a research project on autobiographical memory that was in progress as a collaboration among several researchers including Ulric Neisser and Stephen Palmer.

Here the story becomes a bit more conventional, at least for an academic. I completed graduate school, although perhaps with more than the usual number of changes of mentors and research topics (my advisors tended to disappear due to either relocation or death!). Although this extended my time in graduate school, it also extended the breadth of my training. The first stop on my way to my current position at Winona State University was a three-year post-doctoral fellowship, working with Jonathan Schooler at the University of Pittsburgh on an Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. This was followed by a year of teaching at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

And now, as is obvious, I am currently (and happily) a member of the Psychology Department faculty at Winona State University, having arrived in Winona, Minnesota in July of 2005.

Postscript (9/6/08):

My collaborations with Danny Kahneman have become rather well-known (as is true of everything Danny works on), but also unjustly notorious. I have known for some time that the study of 'cold pressor' pain which we conducted with Barbara Fredrickson and Donald Redelmeier is often reported to have involved submerging participants' hands (or even arms!) in ice water. I even used a textbook once for an introductory psychology course that included this inaccuracy. In fact, the water was well above freezing (approximately 14 degrees Celsius), which is just cold enough to produce mild pain.

I also learned recently that there is a Wikipedia entry on the 'peak-end rule' of hedonic judgment which refers to a study from my later work with Kahneman. The article does not include citation information for our paper, but it does characterize our stimuli as 'loud, painful noises'. This is incorrect. The noise used in our research never exceeded 85 dB, a noise level exposure similar to standing near a vacuum cleaner on a wood floor. It is safe but annoying (not painful). I proposed using noise annoyance to Danny as a means of continuing the research without resorting to actual pain. The level at with noise crosses the pain threshold is considerably more intense than our stimuli and should not be considered either safe or humane for use with research participants.

(July 2009: I think this page could use a little updating!)