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The Academics' Forum: Fun With Family Trees (Tracing Your Academic Lineage) 

Satoris S. Culbertson
Kansas State University

Hi. My name is Tori and I’m the new Academics’ Forum columnist. You’ve probably already heard of me. After all, I am Wilhelm Wundt’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great (academic) grandchild. No, not that one. Or that one. Or that one either.  Okay, so maybe there are quite a few of us. Nevertheless, it’s relevant. Allow me to explain.

I was recently asked if I would be willing to do this column. I was flattered and nervous, especially knowing I’d be replacing Sylvia Roch, who has done such a great job with this column. Rather than immediately accept, however (as I have actually started listening to the advice to learn how to say “no” to requests), I asked myself (a) whether I had the time to undertake such an activity and (b) whether I had enough ideas for possible topics to cover in the coming years. After convincing myself that I had plenty of time on my hands (I’m very good at lying to myself) and making a list of topics (which I’m actually excited about), I accepted the invitation to do the column.

Upon accepting the offer, I was informed that the hope for this issue of TIP was to continue the theme from this year’s conference of looking back on the past 25 years, examining our present, and pushing toward our future. I was given the option to stick with the theme or go an entirely different direction, but I aim to please (another lie to myself?) so I set out to follow the theme.

Coming up with a topic to follow the theme proved more difficult than I had expected. I mean, 25 years ago I was only 3 years old (just let me have this lie). And 25 years from now I’ll only be 38 (trust me). Was I really the right person to be looking backwards and forwards? Perhaps, I thought, I should ask my advisor from grad school. No…maybe I should ask my advisor’s advisor. Heck, why not ask my advisor’s advisor’s advisor? But, I wondered, who was that?

Then it hit me. I could write about our academic family trees. Certainly this qualified as looking back and looking forward (assuming we continued to procreate academically, so to speak). And so I started to dig around and began asking people whether they knew their academic lineage and whether they were willing to share it with me. I won’t share my methodology of collecting my data, as it would only lead you to believe I know nothing about random sampling, but I will say that I asked a variety of individuals at various stages in their academic careers. And here is what I learned…

First, a lot of people are very interested in their pedigrees but far fewer actually know theirs. It was common for me to hear such statements as, “That’s a good question…” (thank you) “…but I don’t have a clue.” It was also quite common for such statements to be followed with something along the lines of, “I’d be interested in knowing though. If you find out, let me know.” (Note: I was unable to convince myself that I had enough time on my hands to trace the lineages of others at this point in time.…)

Second, I learned that just because some people indicated knowing their lineage didn’t mean it was true. That is, per my requests, I had several people send me their lineages. According to my “research” (note my use of quotes), however, I discovered numerous inaccuracies in the lineages I received. Some people simply had missing links, but others traced their lines through the wrong person entirely. One person even reported having James Patterson in his family tree. (Note: James Patterson is an American novelist known especially for his detective series featuring psychologist Alex Cross. This individual meant to say Donald G. Paterson, an applied psychologist whose work bridged I-O psychology and vocational psychology. See Erdheim, Zickar, & Yankelevich, 2007 for more on Paterson’s career).

Third, it seems that a large number of SIOP members (again, based on my not-so-random sampling techniques) are descendants of either Wilhelm Wundt or William James. Of course, many individuals are confused as to which of these individuals they descend from, if indeed they link back to them at all. The most common way in which people seemed to be confused on this matter was when their lineage took them through G. Stanley Hall. Some individuals had Hall leading (inaccurately) back to Wundt whereas others had Hall descending (accurately) from James. This mistake is quite common, and Hall is apparently to blame for this to some extent. An article by Ludy Benjamin and colleagues (Benjamin, Durkin, Link, Vestal, & Accord, 1992) helps to clear this up. In their article, they explain that although Hall considered himself to be Wundt’s first American student and did study with him for a short period, they tended to not think highly of one another, and Hall’s own published and unpublished writings “make it clear that his contact with Wundt was so minimal that he cannot seriously be considered one of Wundt’s students, first or otherwise” (p. 124). So, we sing the “liar, liar, pants on fire” song to Hall for considering himself something that he’s not and, looking elsewhere, discover he was actually a student of William James. For those of you who were previously unsure in your lineage regarding Hall and Wundt/James, and are now enlightened, you’re welcome.

These three learnings led me to one main conclusion: More people should be made aware of how to find their (accurate) academic family trees. This is clearly of interest to many, and rather than passing down erroneous information to our future academic descendents, many of us can identify our “true” academic ancestors in order to make an accurate family tree. In order to determine your academic lineage, I offer three recommendations. First, you should identify who is your own advisor. This is a nice, easy first step, but can be confusing if you have more than one person you consider your mentor or if you obtained a master’s degree under one individual and your doctorate under another. For the purposes of creating your tree, particularly if it is meant to be the one you disseminate to your own students, it is best to use your major professor for your doctoral degree. If you can’t remember (wow, really?), then look at your dissertation (confirming that you really finished one) and see who signed off as your major professor. Once you’ve identified your major professor, find out who his or her advisor was. This is easiest done by simply asking them (if they’re still alive, reachable, and you’re not afraid of calling them). From there, determine your advisor’s advisor. Continue this until you are no longer getting definitive answers but instead are obtaining guesses. Otherwise you may wind up getting erroneous information (see previous examples).

My second recommendation is to look to the published literature to determine and/or verify ancestry. For example, in addition to Benjamin et al. (1992), there are other articles that are quite helpful in determining one’s lineage. Boring and Boring (1948), for instance, provide the names of advisors and their pupils for many American psychologists at the start of the twentieth century. Even more helpful, particularly for I-O psychologists, is Frank Landy’s (1992) article in which he traced the roots of past presidents of Division 14. In his article, individuals can find several branches of the Wundt and James family trees, showing the links from these early scholars to the various SIOP presidents through 1992. In this manner, individuals who can at least trace their own ancestry back to one of these early presidents can easily identify their more distant predecessors. 

My final recommendation is to not give up on tracing your lineage simply because you may not find your ancestors easily at first. Chances are, with a little digging, you’ll be able to trace your lineage back at least a little ways. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t like what you find. For example, if you find that your academic great-grandfather is also your academic grandfather (e.g., Robert Pritchard reported that Marvin Dunnette and John Campbell, Dunnette’s student, were joint major professors for him), just write a country song about it and move on. Or if you find your lines lead you completely out of
I-O psychology, perhaps be happy about that. As Mindy Bergman so aptly told me after I ribbed her for not being from a more traditional I-O lineage (her advisor was a quantitative psychologist), “family trees should fork.” Touché.

Finally, all of this begs the questions of why we should care about our family trees at all and what we should do with them once we have them. The “why” answer is easy: because they are cool. For example, I get to tell people I’m academically related to Wundt. As if that’s not enough, knowing one’s academic lineage is cool, especially within psychology, because it can serve as a reminder of what a young science we are, how far we’ve come already, and how little we still know. In addition, in the words of Suzanne Bell, “they are inspiring…I think it is cool that my academic great grandpa (Jay Otis) influenced the career placement of countless high school students.”

As for what we should do with our lineages, we could just file them away and never talk about them, but what fun is that? We could be like Kurt Kraiger and his fellow faculty members at Colorado State University and post our lineages online on our faculty pages. Or we could go crazy and build an entire conference theme around our lineages. We could call the SIOP conference a “family reunion” and have members who descend from Wundt wear stars on their badges (recall, I trace my lineage back to Wundt) and those descending from other lines have no stars. Clearly I learned nothing from Dr. Seuss’s (Star Bellied) Sneetches story…and even more clearly I am probably not the person you want as a SIOP program chair anytime soon.

Regardless of what you plan to do with your academic family trees, should you choose to trace yours, I hope the information I have provided in my roundabout, scattered way has been helpful in some way. And I hope you tune in for later columns where I’ll be examining a variety of topics (in a more traditional format for the column). I now leave you with my own lineage, not only as proof I really did this exercise but also to possibly start a new “six degrees of separation” game…

Wilhelm Wundt → James McKeen Cattell → Edward Lee Thorndike → Herbert A. Toops → Robert J. Wherry → Ben J. Winer → James C. Naylor → Arthur L. Dudycha → Neal Schmitt → José Cortina → Stephanie C. Payne → Satoris S. Culbertson


     Benjamin, L. T., Jr., Durkin, M., Link, M., Vestal, M., & Accord, J. (1992). Wundt’s American doctoral students. American Psychologist, 47, 123–131.
     Boring, M. D., & Boring, E. G. (1948). Masters and pupils among the American psychologists. The American Journal of Psychology, 61, 527–534.
     Erdheim, J., Zickar, M. J., & Yankelevich, M. (2007). Remembering Donald G. Paterson: Before the separation between industrial-organizational and vocational psychology. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 70, 205–221.
     Landy, F. J. (1992). Hugo Münsterberg: Victim or visionary? Journal of Applied Psychology, 77, 787–802.