May 14, 2008

Psychological issues link teaching subjects for 2008 John S. Diekhoff winners

Heath Demaree and Athena Vrettos recognized for their graduate teaching

Heath Demaree and Athena Vrettos

Creating emotional connections to subjects taught are important in successful teaching, according to Case Western Reserve University's winners of the 2008 John S. Diekhoff Award for graduate teaching, Heath Demaree, associate professor of psychology, and Athena Vrettos, associate professor and director of graduate studies in English.

This year's recipients expressed sentiments about being recognized and honored by their students. They will receive their Diekhoff Awards during commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18.

An ace of hearts reminder

Heath Demaree's first teaching experience as a faculty member occurred when he stepped in front of a psychology class to teach at Case Western Reserve in 2001. As he went to the head of the class, he found a playing card—the ace of hearts—on the lectern

For the psychologist, who studies emotions and their role in decision-making, it has become his symbol for teaching.

After that class, Demaree put the card in his wallet. Since that pivotal moment, he continues to pull it out before each class to remind himself that no matter how good or bad the day has been his students deserve 100 percent of his best teaching.

Demaree knows from psychology literature that an emotional attachment to the subject promotes learning. As a teaching technique, he tells his students emotionally ridden stories to connect and illustrate theories he has just discussed. He keeps a collection of found stories in a binder.

The message of the story and theory hold over time. Demaree said his students often repeat stories he told in class and can link them to the theories he taught.

At the graduate level, Demaree teaches Psychology 403, "The Physiological Foundations of Behavior"—a course that gives the physical foundations of how the brain and spinal cord function and produce physical and emotional responses to the world, and if it is injured or damaged, how functional and cognitive problems can result.

This is the physical background to life, he said.

Even if his students do not continue research into the physiological side of emotions, Demaree said the brain and spinal cord are the underpinnings of everything a person does from handing over $12 to get an emotional response from a movie to making a decision to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.

Enthusiastic about teaching, Demaree said he enjoys his graduate students who come to class passionate about learning and incredibly motivated.

This is not Demaree's first recognition for his work at the university. He was honored in 2005 with the J. Bruce Jackson, M.D. Award, given to a faculty or staff member for outstanding advising and mentoring of undergraduate students.

Medical history and literature

Athena Vrettos connects graduate students to her courses on Victorian literature and psychology and medical history and gender studies by sending them to the stacks of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Kelvin Smith or Allen Memorial Libraries on an exploration into the medical materials of the 19th century to find something that sparks their interests.

When students come back to class, Vrettos lets them experience the joy of discovery as they tell about their sometimes quirky and off-beat medical findings and then relate those discoveries to the literary works of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and other writers of the Victorian era.

The medical "finds" produce personal connections to literature, said Vrettos.

But it also serves another purpose in keeping her courses alive and fresh with new information. "You never know what is going to happen, and that is what I love about teaching," said Vrettos.

Even when Vrettos teaches the same book in a subsequent course, what students bring to class from their expeditions can change that experience.

"It's energizing and fun to see what happens in this kind of mixture of different people, personalities, analytical approaches and interdisciplinary research," she said.

During graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, Vrettos made a personal discovery of approaching Victorian literature through "the window" of medicine. She was teaching an undergraduate class, primarily of nursing students, when she noticed many had tuned out of class. She began to seek ways to relate the literature to what the students were studying in medicine.

What has resulted for Vrettos is a novel way of approaching 19th century British literature for her classes and research, with a start in medical history. It has now expanded to mind and body connections in literature.

This interdisciplinary approach is reflected in her books, such as Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (1995) and Mental Economies: Victorian Fiction, Psychology, and Spaces of the Mind (in progress) and articles like "Defining Habits: Dickens and the Psychology of Repetition" and "Dying Twice: Victorian Theories of Déjà Vu."

About the award

The Diekhoff Award honors John S. Diekhoff. He served the university from 1956-70 as professor and chair of the English department, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the graduate school and vice provost. Each year, a committee of graduate and professional students reviews nominations and recommends recipients for the honor.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, May 14, 2008 11:03 AM | News Topics: Awards, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, Graduate Studies, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, features

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