Profile: Amy Marcus-Newhall

by Matt Hutaff

The race from lunch to social psychology ends at the doorway of a classroom, quiet save the scribblings of fellow students completing a questionnaire. Professor Amy Marcus-Newhall smiles, hands you the same form, and bids you join them.

Glancing back and forth between questions and classmates, you enter your personal information. Name, e-mail address, phone number…family member you like the least?

A secret you have never told anybody?

No one else has stopped, or raised a hand in confusion. There’s only the symphony of pen strokes filling the air. So you write a small secret—everyone else is! —and, when roughly half the class has turned the paper in, you rise, walk to the front to the room, and do the same.

Forms collected, Marcus-Newhall gives them a cursory look before addressing the class. “How many of you revealed a secret?” Hands rise, including yours. She stands. “Why?”

“You’re the instructor,” another student says. “You told us to do it.”

“How do I have authority to ask secrets of you? Didn’t any of you question that while you wrote?” A series of uncomfortable looks passes between you and your peers.

“It’s okay,” she answers. “We are all under enormous pressure in terms of social influence. Things that would get most of us to behave in ways we don’t think are possible.”

The smile hasn’t faded. “I would absolutely do it, too. So let’s figure out why.”

And that is how you are introduced to the world of social psychology at Scripps College.

· · ·

Marcus-Newhall is the first to admit she’s a fast talker. “I always tell students they get two classes for the price of one,” she jokes. “You take notes quickly, but you won’t worry about getting bored.”

Her spring semester seminar is proof of that. Titled “When Good People Do Bad Things,” the class examines the distressing notion of regular men and women driven to evil acts. Marcus-Newhall points out that while most people don’t feel good about harming others or being followers, it’s not hard to do it.

“This class is trying to figure out under which conditions people would be likely to do bad things they normally wouldn’t do,” she says. “It’s very easy to say ‘I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t go along.’ Students have been saying that to me for 14 years, because it’s so easy to think we wouldn’t. And the evidence is that we would.

“The goal is to be able to combat this in the future. I do believe the way to fight social pressures is to know about them. And it’s very hard—these are not easy topics to cover.”

Said topics include classic fiction like Lord of the Flies, as well as psychological studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, where psychologists observed a group of men role-playing guards and prisoners only to watch the guards’ actions devolve into brutal and dehumanizing treatment of the prisoners in just six days.

And as each class revolves heavily around student discussion, Scripps’ small class sizes proved attractive to Marcus-Newhall’s style of teaching. “I try to get them as involved as possible,” she says. “I went to a big research university for my PhD, but I always knew I wanted to go back and teach at a liberal arts college. I engage myself with students both in and out of the classroom in a way that I couldn’t at a bigger school or a different kind of school.

“At Scripps, I directly interact with students on a daily basis and make a difference in individual lives. A classroom size of 22 [often less at Scripps] is completely different than a class of 60 or 70—it’s just night and day. You start a rapport and are able to really push the envelope in a way you couldn’t if you didn’t know people.”

Scripps’ psychology department believes in close interaction between faculty and students. They frequently forge deep relationships with one another, working more as colleagues than as teacher and student.

“We dialogue about the information and research,” notes Marcus-Newhall. “They create studies, collect and analyze data, and submit publications. That stuff is really hard to get at big schools.”

For her, it’s also the beauty of a Scripps education. “The student-faculty relationship is the prominent reason for being here,” she says. “At many universities, research is the primary goal, but I chose to be at Scripps specifically because I want to work with the students. I want to hear what they have to say and have both of us share our opinions. But I also teach them to go out and think in ways that they hadn’t thought before.

“If I can get them after a class to have different ways of pursuing knowledge, interpreting knowledge, different ways of reacting to situations, then I’ve accomplished my job. Having and maintaining relationships with extremely bright and motivated young women is just a bonus. I get probably more out of it than they do. And I can say I go into class every day excited about what I’m going to teach.”

Even if the topic of discussion is whether or not the members of her class are good or evil?

“That’s what I live my life for,” she says. “I accomplish something in the classroom that allows more people to go out and make a difference.”

Then she takes her students’ secrets, smiles again, and shreds them without looking.

 

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