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                                Thirty Years in the Trenches
                   (Or, the Academic Life and Times of David R. Murphy)

                                     David R. Murphy
                                Waubonsee Community College

         I am Professor of Psychology at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove,
Illinois, where I have been teaching for 30 years. I have also taught courses as an adjunct
professor at Northern Illinois University and College of DuPage. I received a Bachelor’s
degree in Education with a major in Psychology in 1972 from Eastern Illinois University. My
Master’s degree was also earned at Eastern in General/Experimental Psychology. In 1982 I
earned my doctorate from Northern Illinois University in Educational Psychology.
       Selected awards and honors that I have received include the Teaching Excellence
Award for Two Year Colleges, sponsored by Division 2 (Society for the Teaching of
Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. I was recently notified by the
graduate school at Eastern Illinois University that I have been selected as one of 50 graduate
alumni to receive the Outstanding Graduate Alumni Award commemorating 50 years of
graduate education at the university. In addition, I serve on the advisory board to the College
of Sciences at Eastern Illinois University (2001-present). I received the “Golden Eraser
Award” from the Phi Omicron Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa as teacher of the year in 2000. I
was a member of the National Council of Psi Beta (the National Honor Society in Psychology
for two-year students) from 1997-2002, serving as Midwestern Regional Vice President and
as National President of the organization. I am faculty advisor for our chapter of Psi Beta,
which I chartered in 1991.
                             My Early Development as a Teacher
       As part of the degree requirements for my bachelor’s degree I took several education
courses that related to teaching, along with a methods course on teaching that was taught
through the Department of Psychology. In addition, I was required to spend a semester
engaged in student teaching in my subject area at my appropriate certification level (6-12th
grades). In my master’s and doctoral programs, I was required teach classes. However, I
received no formal teacher training of any kind as a graduate student.
        I do not believe that I have had any mentors in my teaching career, at least in the truest
definition of that word. No one ever took me “under his or her wing” in an attempt to teach
me how to teach. What I did have, however, was the good fortune to have had a large number
of incredibly talented, bright, and dedicated teachers throughout my life who made learning
fun. These teachers commanded respect and maintained it by setting rigorous standards, but at


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the same time provided a nurturing learning environment. As early as junior high school I
knew that I wanted to be a teacher and often reflected back on my “good” and “bad” teachers
and what made them that way.
        A former colleague of mine taught history at the college for some 33 years—he was
the most successful classroom teacher that I have ever encountered in my career. He was
terribly demanding of his students and only those students who truly earned high grades
received them. He always said that we should set the bar high and keep it there, particularly
for those students striving for As and Bs in our courses. He reminded me that not only do our
students take their grades and reputations with them to senior institutions when they transfer,
but that they take our grades and our reputation with them as well. When my best students
transfer to a university and get singled out by their professors as being particularly well
trained, the professors often ask who provided that training. When the students tell their
professors that it was “Murphy at Waubonsee,” then the college, the program, and I, along
with the student, all win. It is most gratifying to get a “thank you” from a student who has
become successful because of the high standards I set for my courses.
        The factors that led to my becoming a college instructor make for an interesting story.
As I stated previously, I was originally trained to teach psychology at the high school level. I
student taught at a high school in Indiana and I absolutely hated the experience. My
cooperating teacher in psychology was also the Dean of Boys at the school and he was
something of a tyrant. Rather than teaching me to be a good teacher, he instructed me to be
suspicious and untrusting of the students in my classes. I was forced to spend incredible
amounts of time taking attendance, checking passes, and sending students to the office for
tardy passes if they were even a moment late for the class. If they were late a certain number
of times, he would force me to assign them detentions and then make me monitor those
detention sessions. It was not academia; it was more like a prison camp.
        When I was teaching, I thoroughly enjoyed the students and do think that I made a
difference in their learning. I protested to him that I felt uncomfortable in the role as enforcer
and he said something similar to, “This is what we face in high school, so you had better get
used to it.” I never got used to it. Although I made it through the experience and received a
good evaluation, I decided then and there that if this is what high school teaching had become,
I wanted no part of it. I know now that this situation is not at all what high school teaching has
to be like and was just an unfortunate situation into which I was thrust. Nonetheless, there I
was with a degree in one hand and a teacher certification in the other, facing the reality that I
did not want to do what I had spent all those years training to do. Talk about identity
diffusion!



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        However, the community college movement was gearing up in Illinois in the early
1970s, and I knew that I could teach at a community college with a master’s degree. I had
never intended to earn a master’s degree, but really saw no other alternative to my dilemma. I
received a scholarship and enrolled in Eastern’s MA program in General/Experimental
Psychology. I graduated in 1974 and with my newly minted degree I struck out to land a job
at a community college. Little did I know that teaching experience was a prerequisite for full-
time employment at virtually every institution and, of course, I really had none. I worked
construction during the day and started teaching nights as an adjunct instructor for colleges in
the western suburbs of Chicago. After a year of working two jobs, Waubonsee Community
College opened a search for a tenure-track position. I applied for it and was offered the job
starting in the fall semester of 1975. I have been here ever since, doing what I love, with the
freedom (more or less) to establish my own classroom policies that allow me to teach.
Essentially, then, I became a college teacher by default.
        In 1976, I began to offer students in my developmental psychology courses (then
Child and Adolescent Psychology) the opportunity to engage in “field work” experiences so
that they might avoid making the same mistake that I did as an undergraduate. For example, I
had many education majors who were absolutely convinced that they wanted to teach and
only at a certain level. I thought that by offering them the opportunity to get first-hand
experience of what teaching at a particular level was actually like would afford them the
opportunity to verify that this was truly what they wanted to do, or just as importantly,
something that they did not want to do. Innumerable students have thanked me for offering a
“real world” look at the various professions that they investigated. Most students enjoyed
their experiences and had reaffirmed that this was what they wanted to do as their life’s work.
Other students found that they were mistaken in their early assumptions about becoming a
teacher and shifted gears toward another career choice altogether. Knowing that you do not
want to do something is as important as knowing what you do want to do, and students
appreciate the opportunity to make this discovery before they are too far along in their
academic training. This early effort turned into a college wide “service learning” component
of instruction that is becoming more common on college campuses around the country. The
students and the communities in which they live all benefit from such programs.
                           Working at Defining Myself as a Teacher
         One obstacle that I have repeatedly encountered in my years of teaching has been
resisting the growing trend of grade inflation. I have strived to maintain an appropriately
rigorous curriculum in my classes so that my students would leave the college with a firm
foundation that would allow them to succeed in upper-division courses. This path of retaining



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high levels of rigor is particularly difficult to follow given the very nature of the community
college population, which tends to be much more diverse than traditional university students,
particularly with regard to previous educational success. I have developed a reputation as a
“fair, yet demanding” instructor. In short, the academically superior students must
consistently demonstrate that superiority throughout the course to earn a high grade. Those
students who work hard to learn, but who struggle, receive a lot of my time and attention so
that they can learn how to learn. Those students who are not willing to make the effort to do
well receive little of my time or attention and usually earn poor grades. Because I have taught
at the college for so long, the word is out about me among the students. My classes still fill
every semester, even with my long established policy of not handing out easy grades. It is
refreshing when students enter my class and tell me that their mothers or fathers had me 25 or
30 years ago and that they are taking my class on their suggestion. On the other hand, it
reminds me how old I am getting. I will retire from teaching before the first grandchild of a
former student takes my class.
        Inside the classroom, a major obstacle that we all face in teaching psychology,
particularly the Introductory Psychology course, is providing a good balance between breadth
and depth of coverage of the information available in the discipline. I decided a long time ago
to sacrifice breadth of coverage for a more in-depth analysis of certain areas that I know
students are going to have to understand if they are to do well at a four-year school. I have
dealt with this continuing dilemma by discussing this issue with colleagues at all levels of
teaching to see what they think is most important for students in an introductory course.
Somehow, though, I always feel as though the students are getting cheated if I do not cover all
the topics in significant depth. I think that the introductory course should be a two-semester
course, which is unlikely to gain widespread support in most colleges and universities. C’est
la vie!
         Because the primary mission of faculty at the community college is to teach (I have
taught 5 classes per semester plus overload every semester, including summer, for my entire
career), there really is not much time to sustain an active research program. Waubonsee
always encouraged and supported research activities, but I felt that I could not teach that
many courses and conduct quality research simultaneously. I routinely taught over 800
students a year without any assistance in grading, and that was about all that I could handle.
As a result, I decided early on that I would concentrate on my teaching. I stayed active by
reviewing textbooks, being involved with Psi Beta, attending conferences, and doing
committee work at the college.




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                                The Examined Life of a Teacher
        My personal philosophy of teaching is rather simple. At the very heart of this
philosophy is maintaining legitimately rigorous academic standards and not deviating from
them. I see my job as providing students with a true picture of their ability to do college level
work. It does not matter if the student does outstanding work and earns an A, average work
and earns a C, or does poor work and earns an F. I tell my students that they will receive an
honest appraisal of their ability (at least in psychology) to perform college level work
anywhere they might go in the future. I remind them that I do not give grades but that they
earn their grades. This practice has served me well.
        Whenever possible, I use real-life examples to make difficult concepts clear. My
evaluations from students often mention how the examples or the stories that I provided in
class helped them to understand the material. Over the years, my students have provided me
with many of the stories that I retell in my classes. The good news is that these really aid
student learning. The bad news is that I have accumulated so many stories and examples that I
often get behind in covering the material that I want to cover. As evidenced by student
comments, however, this practice seems to be a fair tradeoff.
        An effective teacher must be tremendo enthusiastic about his or her discipline or the
presentation in the classroom comes off as flat and uninteresting. If teachers really enjoy what
they are teaching, they feel more at ease in front of the class and are much more likely to keep
the class lively. The use of humor is well documented as an effective strategy to keep students
engaged, and when they are engaged, they cannot help but learn.
        In 1976, my colleagues and I created a “hands on” Research and Methodology course
that was distinctly unusual in a community college setting. We created a sophisticated
program where we established a rat colony for learning experiments, a perception laboratory,
and a statistics laboratory. That course, although significantly modified, is still being taught
today. This class allowed students to take what they had been taught in their earlier courses
and to apply it in real experiments. This experience proved invaluable when they transferred
to universities.
         In 1977, I was one of the first community college instructors in the state of Illinois to
start teaching using the (then) new technology of telecourse instruction. Reaching out to
provide educational opportunities to those students who could not attend regularly scheduled
classes seemed a logical thing to do, and I am still teaching a section of Introductory
Psychology in that format today. I have also used computer aided instruction (CAI) and am
currently teaching an online course. Embracing new teaching methods has kept me involved




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in the discipline in ways that teaching only in the classroom cannot. Do not be afraid to try
new things.
        My most rewarding experiences that in teaching are when students who have become
successful either write or visit me to thank me for whatever part I might have played in that
success. To me, student success serves as validation that what I do is important and that it
made a difference in their lives. On the other hand, there is great frustration when I see huge
potential in a student but cannot convince him or her that it is real. Some very talented
students have gotten away from me, and I deeply regret that I could not do more to help them
realize their academic abilities.
        Student evaluations of my classes are the primary method on which I rely to assess my
teaching. Because they are the consumers and have had other classroom experiences against
which to judge mine, I take what they say seriously. Students write down three things that
they really enjoyed about the class along with three things they did not enjoy (or would like to
see incorporated into the class), which affords me the opportunity to improve continually the
methods that help them learn. I feel that student assessment is critical to the improvement of
teaching process.
        I try to improve my teaching by learning from my colleagues who are successful
teachers. I do so by regularly attending local, regional, and national teaching conferences
every year. I maintain memberships in those organizations that value and support quality
teaching. I read Teaching of Psychology in which master teachers share their successes with
other teachers. By hanging around good teachers I figure that some of what they possess will
rub off on me—and it has.
                                            Advice for New Teachers
        Get involved early in your career with organizations that promote good teaching. The
support provided by colleagues who share your passion for the discipline and quality teaching
will serve as an invaluable resource for the rest of your teaching career.
                                        Final Thoughts
         Set high standards and maintain them. Have fun. Stay involved. I simply cannot
imagine having done anything other than teaching for the last 30 years. It is truly a rewarding
profession that has provided me with tremendous satisfaction.



†
  From T. A. Benson, C. Burke, A. Amstadter, R. Siney, V. Hevern, B. Beins, & W. Buskist, (Eds.), Teaching psychology in
autobiography: Perspectives from exemplary psychology teachers (pp. 241-246). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.
Retrieved [insert date] from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Web site: http://teachpsych.lemoyne.edu/
teachpsych/tia/index.html




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