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Max. Classroom Capacity: An Interview With Dr. Janet Kottke

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Dear readers, I am delighted to welcome Dr. Janet Kottke, the 2020 winner of SIOP’s Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award, to Max. Classroom Capacity to discuss her exceptional teaching career. Dr. Kottke is a professor of I-O psychology at California State University San Bernardino (CSUSB) and founder of that school’s MS program in I-O psychology. Dr. Kottke has been at the forefront of research on and the practice of undergraduate- and graduate-level I-O psychology education. Her collaborative research with directors of MS programs around the country has produced publications and conference presentations that have advanced teaching practice.  Some of this work has appeared in Teaching of Psychology, Psychology Learning & Teaching, Active Learning in Higher Education, College Student Journal, and Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice. The most recent work, with Ken Shultz and Mike Aamodt, is a chapter in Mastering Industrial-Organizational Psychology: Training Issues for Master’s Level I-O Psychologists, edited by Betsy Shoenfelt, a volume in SIOP’s Professional Practice Series (2020).

Loren Naidoo: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! Congratulations on receiving SIOP’s Distinguished Teaching Award! You are perhaps best known for your teaching in CSUSB’s MS program in I-O psychology, a program that you founded and have directed. Perhaps we can start by talking about how that program came about. What was the impetus for founding the program? What made you decide to found an MS program in I-O psychology in what might seem like an unlikely place given how I-O psychology is less well established on the West coast compared to most other regions of the country?

Jan Kottke: Thanks, Loren, for taking the time to conduct the interview when you are no doubt very busy, getting ready for fall classes.

I am delighted to talk about our master’s program in I-O psychology. Our program and I-O are my favorite topics! The I-O program at CSUSB came about in much the same way that I-O psychology came about: People needed jobs after they earned their doctorates in psychology and, fortunately, employers began to understand the considerable value in applying psychology to work. For myself, I had done an internship at Baltimore Gas & Electric and though that experience was invaluable, I had concluded that working an 8-to-5 job wasn’t for me. When I did a national search for a job, CSUSB was advertising for someone to start a master’s program in I-O. I had been a TA for a career development course taught by Bob Guion at Bowling Green and, because he was involved in many consulting projects elsewhere, I did a fair amount of TAing. In that career development course, one topic emphasized was “stretch” assignments: challenging but doable work assignments. Building a program from scratch thus looked like a good career option. To be frank, I was somewhat ignorant of just how few programs were on the West Coast. The psychology department was very small then—just 15 faculty—and had two existing master’s programs, one in counseling and the other in general experimental. The new I-O program would become a concentration in the GE program, though, ironically, it was a counseling faculty member, Dave Lutz, who proposed to the department that it establish an I-O graduate program. Dave thought that a program in I-O could do well in southern California. He was right. (Thanks again, Dave!)

LN: Wow, I didn’t realize that you were hired to start the MS program—that’s quite a stretch assignment for your first full-time faculty position! Did you have a particular teaching approach or philosophy that informed your early decisions about what the program would look like?

JK:  My primary guiding focus at the beginning was to identify what the students needed to apply psychological principles to work settings—and what would fit into the existing curriculum, which meant that the program began with just two I-O content courses! These were, if memory serves, Motivation and Morale (the Oish side) and Industrial Psychology with a heavy focus on selection and performance appraisal. Initially, I viewed the program as predominantly applied with the I-O courses overlaid upon the backbone of the general experimental research and statistics courses. As we began to expand our I-O course offerings—and heard from our alumni—I concluded that the scientist–practitioner model was a superior approach for training and for students to conceptualize the field. The technology that we apply to our work has consistently changed—consider the use of big data in recruitment, for example—but the fundamental thinking about how to solve problems and innovate in the workplace is still very relevant. If one can answer questions scientifically, one can keep up with and manage the changes in technology, environment, and composition of the workforce. Because our students typically take jobs upon graduation, I like to think of I-O master’s education as on the frontline of the often-debated scientist–practitioner divide. We need to balance the needs of organizations who want our graduates to plug in and contribute right away, with our understanding that science may not support the latest organizational fad (or there may not yet be any science to support that fad). A scientist–practitioner focus serves those who choose to work immediately upon (or often before) graduation but also those who elect to pursue doctoral education.

LN: When you reflect on all of your work in undergraduate- and graduate-level I-O education, what specific practices, innovations, or policies are you most proud of having instituted?

JK: This is a really thought-provoking question; thank you for posing it. From the very beginning, my goal was for students to conduct applied projects in as many courses as was feasible, at both the graduate and undergraduate level: doing job analyses, developing recruiting strategies, interpreting satisfaction data, constructing interview protocols, and conducting organizational diagnoses to name the most obvious. I felt that it was important for students to connect the theory, research, and application. Besides giving students practical experience for a résumé item, it promotes learning (i.e., the ancient proverb, “I do and I understand”). One of my other guiding principles of teaching—degree of student autonomy—has evolved. When I started, I felt that the instructor was completely responsible for structuring everything. And to be sure, we need to provide guidance and offer our knowledge and experience. But especially at the master’s level, students are quite capable of doing the background reading and are eager (and motivated) to apply the knowledge. When we work on a class project now, we discuss the desired outcome, and I provide students the tools to work toward achieving that goal. As an example, a key course in our program is an applied practicum in which we typically do pro bono consulting. The students form a short-term consulting team who nominate a project manager, develop an organizational structure, and work with a client. The instructor serves as a partner in the firm, offering guidance and support. Students in this class have done remarkable projects and have had impacts beyond a single organization. For example, one year, through interviews and surveys of physicians, nurses, mothers, and breastfeeding advocates, the class team was able to clarify why two counties with similar demographics had strikingly dissimilar breastfeeding rates. They made their recommendations to the county governing body (client) for how to increase rates. I won’t go into detail here, but breastfeeding has long-term effects (e.g., lowered rates of childhood obesity, fewer allergies as an adult), so any increase in these rates has major societal benefits. There are many other projects we have done that I could name, but my bottom line here is that even if the only outcome is that the students learned by doing, that is a major win.

I’d like to mention one other thing that isn’t directly related to the classroom, but I believe has had an impact on the quality of our program. When I first arrived, I was the director of the program for nearly a decade. As we hired more faculty, I proposed we rotate every 2 years the directorship of the program (and we also created some specific functions for all members of the faculty, such as a recruiting coordinator and a student club supervisor). This may seem like a small thing (and an obvious division of duties), but I think with everyone having a responsibility helped to unify the faculty around the needs of the program. Further, having all of the program faculty rotate through the leadership role gives everyone a good sense of the totality of the program, its curriculum, its complexities, faculty strengths, and student needs. I guess you could call this an academic version of “term limits!” I am very proud of our students and of our faculty who form the partnership that has led to and continues to lead to such good outcomes.

LN: Changing directions a bit here, it looks like a lot of I-O programs are considering major structural and/or curricular changes due to COVID-19. I’d love to hear your thoughts on teaching during the pandemic. I have so many questions! Let’s start with the short term—the CSU system was early in deciding to deliver almost all instruction virtually for the fall, and many other (though not all) universities have made similar decisions. What adjustments do you think instructors need to make to be effective teaching in a virtual context?

JK: Good question, and honestly, a hard one to answer. Whereas I am grateful that technology has given us tools to continue in the face of a worldwide pandemic, this has been tough on students and instructors alike. I view learning as a partnership of student and instructor; we work together to construct knowledge and to develop professional skills, among others. How can we do that virtually?

Answering that question depends somewhat on how we define “effective.” If by effective we mean that content is delivered and students stay on track to complete assignments (and the course), structuring the course to be consumable in weekly “bites” is important. Being responsive to student questions, understanding, and making adjustments to accommodate unexpected hiccups are critical. But that is only part of the equation. We are social creatures, and some of the most important learning takes place from working with others. Some of this social contact is possible with online discussion boards or breakout rooms in Zoom. Further, we know that engagement is important in the face-to-face environment and, so too, in the virtual world. To engage requires considerable effort in the virtual context but can be done. This spring, I supervised an intern who conducted interviews and performed tasks virtually. Through weekly voice conversations and shared electronic documents, we were able to create a meaningful, engaging experience. (BTW, I found SIOP’s resource page posted earlier this year to have a lot of helpful tips.)

LN: Yes, I think that is the question—can we (as a profession) engage students as effectively in a virtual environment as in a face-to-face environment? I think we are at a very interesting inflection point where we may make tremendous strides in developing tech-based education solutions that cement the future of education in the virtual space, or it may become increasingly clear that the fundamentally social nature of education cannot adequately be reproduced with the technology currently available. How do you see the future of education from where we stand now?

JK: To address that first question about engagement, I feel at a disadvantage when I rely exclusively on the virtual for working with students. There is a synergy from the students interacting in the same space and me with them. It is far easier to read nonverbal cues and give immediate feedback in the FTF environment. This synergy can be captured to some degree in the synchronous format, but I feel some process loss.

The future? My sense is that the future of education is going to continue to build on technological platforms, with many variants of hybrid models. These distinctions may depend on the mix of knowledge and skills to be learned. There will continue to be some face to face—for example, it is hard to imagine a phlebotomist learning how to draw blood with only an orange and YouTube videos or a budding surgeon learning surgical techniques exclusively through virtual simulations—but increasingly students in all majors will be enrolled in purely online courses as well as combinations of face to face, simulations, and so on. With regard to the example of the phlebotomist, it is possible that technology will lead to less need to draw blood to make medical decisions (i.e., alternative physiological readings), which would reduce the need for phlebotomists in the first place. To my mind, these issues all speak to the importance of I-Os continuing to monitor the trends in the workplace. We have already seen how many organizations have replaced people with machines. Simply dialing customer service brings that point home. No doubt automation will continue to expand into education as well. As I-O psychologists, I think that one of our aims should include not only understanding how these changes affect people’s attachment to their work—with resulting productivity issues—but consider how I-Os could take the lead in emphasizing to organizations that some of their best payoffs are just as likely to come from listening to their employees. Focusing on automation to the exclusion of hearing what employees on the frontlines working with customers, clients, patients, or students have to say seems shortsighted. I worry that employees are returning largely to the role of tending machines—much as we saw in the industrial revolution with Taylorism. Whether I-O takes a lead in promoting employee well-being will have an impact on our educational models.

LN: I think that’s a great point, and the burgeoning focus on occupational health issues in our field is an encouraging sign. But to further delve into that idea, the massive changes to the nature of work that are happening right now also makes me wonder whether we I-O psychology educators need to rethink our curricula and reimagine our roles or our goals when it comes to preparing students for the working world of the future. How do you see the field of I-O psychology and our roles as I-O educators changing (or not)?

JK: The largest change I have personally seen over my career has clearly been the effect of technology. It has changed nearly every aspect of my professional life, including teaching. (Does anyone remember chalk? Overheads?) How people learn hasn’t really changed, however—we need to process information deeply to be able to apply it—so the fundamentals of teaching will probably evolve somewhat as we may learn more about the learning process but not that much. To the more “nuts and bolts” question of changing curricula, and I am thinking of this from the perspective of someone working with master’s-level students, we may be walking a fine line. We want our students prepared for the jobs they will take in a year or 2, meaning we monitor what employers are looking for, and the students gain applied experience that mirrors those jobs. We also want to be sure that students are prepared for their long-term careers, which means to me that we continue to teach students the basic critical-thinking skills that ensue from understanding the scientific method and its results. 

LN: Jan, thanks again for a very interesting and thought-provoking conversation—it’s been a real pleasure!

Readers, as always, your comments, questions, and feedback are welcome: Stay safe and healthy!

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