“A liberal arts education should encompass the heart and soul along with engaging the mind.”
Dr. Phyllis Freeman retired in December 2013 after over 38 years of impassioned service to New Paltz’s academic community.
Psychology Chair Glenn Geher interviewed Freeman for the summer edition of The Self Monitor, the department’s alumni newsletter. The following is an excerpt of the lengthy and illuminating interview. Read the full article here.
I entered NYU, the University Heights campus (in Bronx, NY) as a pretty naïve freshman, intent on declaring a pre-med major and focused on an eventual career in psychiatry or maybe internal medicine. Going to college and living on campus was especially challenging for me since I had spent two and a half years on home instruction and only returned to public school as a second semester 10th grader. At NYU, I was assigned an academic adviser during orientation and registered for his Intro Psych class during the fall of 1966. He was a junior professor named Philip Zimbardo. Being in his class changed the trajectory of my professional life. He modeled how a passionate, energetic, creative, and somewhat intimidating professor could engage a class, and how an adviser could affect a student’s life choices. I did well academically, and he encouraged me to major in psych (I still have the letter he wrote me on my office wall).
NYU prepared me for the rigors of graduate life at Bryn Mawr College (the oldest graduate school for women in the US). Graduate school involved all-encompassing lab and classroom and library work 24/7. I took care of a fish and a rat colony, fixed and wired experimental equipment, took a full load of five classes even during the dissertation year, and of course, conducted research on animal learning in fish, rats, pigeons, and cats. (I even attempted to classically condition cats while Marty Seligman watched me!) I chose Bryn Mawr from the places that accepted me since it was famous for the study of the evolution of animal learning (one of the founders of the field of Comparative Psychology, M.E. Bitterman, was chair of Psychology). I was an NDEA Fellow for my first three years. I’m not sure why the Defense Department thought that our work on learning would aid the defense of the United States, but this fellowship paid my tuition, and I promised to give back at least three years of teaching in exchange. I think I have repaid that debt!
SUNY New Paltz
On a hot day in August 1975 I arrived via bus to New Paltz for my job interview. I remember being asked by Bob Presbie, a member of the hiring committee and a radical behaviorist, whether I could teach Perception and how I would do it. Despite never having taken a course in Perception (undergrad or grad), I remember saying “of course,” and that I intended to teach a unit on consciousness as part of the course. Bob said something like “But there isn’t anything to consciousness.” The Chair of Psychology, Howard Cohen, also asked me to teach Experimental Psychology (Research Methods) which at the time was a laboratory course that included a unit on animal learning. I knew I could teach students to train rats to lever press! I was offered a one-year, nonrenewable position, substituting for a member of the department on sick leave. My salary was $12,000. I spent that year working late into the night trying to stay one chapter ahead of my students in the Perception text!
The 1970s and 1980s saw a number of positive – and some very challenging – times for our department. The graduate program started and we attracted both undergraduate and graduate students who were among the very best students any university could teach. I offered the first course in Comparative Psych at the College and started research on the behavioral effects of prenatal methadone exposure on the developing rat fetus. Getting money for animal food and bedding was always a struggle, as was passing the rigorous state inspections.
Changes in the Psychology Department
In looking back over the last 38 years, I can identify a number of ways that we have changed for the better from the “old” days:
1. Our department expects outstanding teaching (as it always did) but now coupled with progressive and sustained scholarly publication.
2. Students are more fully involved in our research activities.
3. Many of us are engaged in research activities and teaching that is service-oriented.
4. The psychology field has expanded to now include evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and health psychology, cutting-edge research areas.
5. Our department faculty now more closely reflect the diversity of our society.
I think I’ve been known as a demanding but kind and fair teacher. I know that I have been heavily influenced in my thinking about what should happen in the classroom by exploring the scholarship of teaching along with my own teaching experiences. Numerous authors’ writings about pedagogy have challenged me to teach well and to keep trying to get better. Parker Palmer perhaps more than any other writer has persuaded me that who we are in the classroom is as important as what we teach. I returned to his eloquent essays every few semesters for a reminder of why I teach and why it can matter. Broadly conceived, I believe that a liberal arts education should encompass the heart and soul along with engaging the mind. I know what people are capable of achieving when tested to their limits and when their accomplishments are acknowledged or celebrated. In the classroom and the laboratory, I strived to teach as a full human being. In Palmer’s words I teach to “rejoin soul and role.”
The process of ending a long teaching life at New Paltz has not been easy. As I leave my office of almost 30 years, give away my books, and file my course lectures notes, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for this career, and of course some sadness. I am saying goodbye to colleagues, some of whom I have known for almost 40 years. I am about to say farewell forever to students who I have taught, learned from, and walked next to on their educational journey. Over the last 38 years, more than 30 students who I mentored have earned Ph.D.’s or Psy.D’s in psychology, and many are making their way as academics, clinicians and researchers. I am proud of this legacy.
There is poem by T. Roethke in which he tells us that this is “one of the few professions that permit love.” Love of subject matter and love of students, I think he means. In my classroom, I have challenged students to aim higher, to learn to think like scientists, to grow and to change. My students have challenged me to confront my own views, to crack open my own assumptions, to find ways to present material that matters in their lives, and to have the courage to “be” in the classroom. And yes, they have let me love them while teaching from the inside out. I will take the lessons I have learned about myself from this teaching life to my next role. I feel full with the possibilities ahead of me.