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Max. Classroom Capacity: An Interview With Dr. Lisa Finkelstein

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Dear readers,

Freshly returned from a SIOP conference that (at least to me) felt almost normal again, I am delighted to present my interview of SIOP’s 2023 Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award winner, Dr. Lisa Finkelstein. Dr. Finkelstein is a full professor of Social and Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Northern Illinois University. She is also a senior consortium research fellow for the U.S. Army Research Institute. Dr. Finkelstein’s research lab focuses largely on understanding how people perceive others and/or themselves in different workplace situations and relationships, and how those perceptions in turn affect those workplace situations and relationships. Dr. Finkelstein has served in many roles in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), including Executive Board Member (Secretary), Conference Chair, and Program Chair. She is a Fellow of SIOP and the recipient of SIOP’s 2016 Distinguished Service Contributions Award in recognition of sustained, significant, and outstanding service to the organization and profession. She is also the recipient of Northern Illinois University’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women Outstanding Mentor Award (2019), Northern Illinois University’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award (2006), and Northern Illinois University’s Presidential Teaching Professorship (2021).

Loren Naidoo: Lisa, welcome to Max Classroom Capacity! I’m so grateful to you for agreeing to chat with me and excited to hear your thoughts on teaching! I would like to start by asking you how you became interested in I-O psychology and how you ended up pursuing a career in academia?

Lisa Finkelstein:  Hi Loren! Thanks so much for talking with me. Let’s see, I first became interested in I-O after taking an Org Psych undergrad class my junior year at University of Vermont. My professor, Dr. Bob Lawson, was fantastic and kind and challenging and supportive—all the wonderful things—and I think that helped not only get me into the topic but also first planted the idea of wanting to be an academic and to be for other students what he was for me.

I did actually apply to programs in both social psych and I-O, loving both and not quite sure, and I ended up at Tulane University in the I-O PhD program. My love for social and I-O is definitely clear in my research, and I was so lucky to end up working in a department here at NIU that combines social and I-O!  

During grad school I originally wasn’t really sure that academics was for me, and then I had the opportunity to teach my own class in my 4th year. I was so nervous on the first day I thought I’d pass out before the class even started. I can remember how visibly my hands were shaking as I put those overhead slides on the projector—dating myself here!  But by the end of that semester I knew I wanted to go for it and see if I could get an academic job. I really was interested in a place that valued both research and teaching, and I definitely found that and have been at NIU almost 27 years now.

Loren: You mentioned Dr. Bob Lawson as an influence in your decision to become an academic. I think we can all think of mentors who have had that kind of profound influence on our careers—I definitely have a long list! You mentioned a few qualities of his, but I would love to dive deeper into what about those early experiences and Dr. Lawson’s example that made you want to become a teacher. What was the primary appeal of teaching for you?

Lisa:  I can think of two very specific instances where he did something that really inspired me. First, he had assigned a journal article that was really hard to read—very dense and technical. All of us were confused when we came to class. So he changed gears on the spot, and he had us go around, and every person read a sentence and then tried to translate it from “academese” to English, and if they got stuck, we worked on it together (with him coaching us). We went around until the whole classroom got a sentence, and then we saw that we really could read tough stuff; we just had to be patient. The second thing was at the end of the semester, we somehow got talking about ropes courses as a training exercise, and someone said, “We should do that as a class,” sort of offhandedly, and he said that sounds great and arranged us all to go on a Saturday to a local place to do a ropes course. I am really afraid of heights, and I managed to do the thing where you are wired in but you cross a rope really high up (Well, seemed high to me!) from one tree to another. I hesitated for so long, telling everyone I was too chickensh*t, and was terrified, but he led everyone to cheer me on. At the end of the day, we did a closeout exercise where there was a rock or something like that that you’d pass to someone you wanted to say something to about how they impressed you or surprised you, and Dr. Lawson passed me the rock and said this is for Lisa for showing us she is not a chickensh*t. I remember being so touched (and surprised because at the time I never heard a professor swear!). I really felt such a sense of inclusion and support. So, I guess I’d say the idea that I could help motivate others and show them that sometimes things are hard, but we can figure out a way to tackle them in a safe space; that really spoke to me.

Loren: What a lovely story! There are many elements of that anecdote that jump out at me when thinking about what makes this great teaching: It was experiential, fun, challenging, personal. It also strikes me that it would be quite difficult to pull off this kind of spontaneous activity nowadays (permissions, liability, scheduling!). I am curious as to whether and how you try to include these elements in your own teaching—or, am I missing the mark about WHY this experience was so formative for you? 

Lisa:  Yes, I think you are right about what we can/can’t pull off nowadays, but I think some of the elements inspired me. In the first example, he was willing to change his plan for the day when he knew we really weren’t understanding what was going on and came up with a strategy to get us engaged and show us we could do something we didn’t think we could. I guess in the second example, I was motivated to also try something I didn’t think I could because I felt so supported. And as the leader of our class, he really modeled kindness and support in a way that made our class feel like a community—a group I was part of where I was seen and welcomed. That’s what I try to create.

Loren: OK, that makes sense. I’m curious as to how you have taken these insights and applied them to your own classes. In what ways do you demonstrate flexibility, understanding, and support in the classes that you teach?

Lisa:  Great question. Here are two stories that I talked about during my teaching talk at SIOP that might bring some of this to life. First, during the pandemic one of the things I missed most about in-person class was being able to see the metaphorical lightbulb go off over the students’ heads when they got something that was initially puzzling or tough. Online my undergraduates did not want to turn on cameras or talk, which was really hard to adapt to. I finally told them we’d work with that, but they would have to be active in the chat. I made sure to use their names in the chat, greet them when they logged on, asked them for their “emoji of the day,” asked specific people questions, etc. I told them what a hard time I was having that I couldn’t see the lightbulb, and one student came up with the idea of giving me the lightbulb emoji when they understood something. One day all these lightbulbs were popping up and making a ding noise after I explained something, and I almost cried it felt so good to both see that they got it but also to get some palpable feedback when I had felt like I was kind of talking to myself. Once we established this practice, I found that they also had an easier time letting me know they were confused. One day I was going to teach them how to read a regression table without really knowing regression—just give them a few pointers so that they would get out of the habit of skipping over tables when they read articles. One page had a correlation table and a regression table. I said something like “well, you all know correlations,” and one brave student asked me to explain them, saying they never really understood it. And all of a sudden—ding ding ding—all these messages saying “OMG me too!” were popping up. For years I assumed they understood that; I know they’ve had it before, but for a lot of them it hadn’t clicked. So we changed the topic of the day and practiced all the things they could learn from a correlation table. They were so grateful. I was the one that got a lightbulb over my head that day!

The second story is that I had a class of 1st- and 2nd-year grad students who were having a little struggle understanding how to draw moderators and mediators in a theoretical model and how to really understand the difference. I had a habit of kind of dancing it out physically, putting myself in the shape of the different parts of the model. They liked that, and I realized what might work better was if they all got into the shape of a model. It was great fun (we have a really good photo of this), and I adapted it to my advanced undergrad class. Actually moving around and experiencing “being the model” seemed to help it stick for both groups!

Loren: Lol. Great stories! I especially love the idea of students using a lightbulb emoji to note when they understand something! Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with the readers?

Lisa:  Yes, just one more thing, please!  Recently I have had the great pleasure of developing a 1-credit course, University Experience in Psychology, that helps teach students early on about what they can do with a psychology degree (and expose them to I-O, among other paths, early—yay!). In addition, this course is essentially “Studenting 101”; I provide them with resources about everything from writing professors an email to where to find campus resources to how to take better notes in class to time management and more. I also use a gamified social-media style discussion board platform (Yellowdig) and create some nonpsychology topics too (pets, binge-worthy TV shows, music, etc.) to help them get to know each other a little better. Although I think having this type of course would be great for all psychology (and management) departments, I think all of us, when in the teaching role, can do a little bit more to provide accessible resources to help students maximize their success and build skills and confidence. Some people say “that’s not my job”; I argue it is one of the most rewarding and important parts of my job.

Loren: Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us!

Lisa:  My pleasure. Thanks for the thought-provoking questions. I really enjoyed reflecting on all of this!

Readers, as always, please email me with comments, feedback, or just to say hi!



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