Professor, Partner, Parent — An Interview with Woo-Kyoung Ahn

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Professor, Partner, Parent — An Interview with Woo-Kyoung Ahn

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Woo-Kyoung Ahn is a professor of Psychology at Yale College whose work focuses on human thinking and reasoning. She teaches the course PSYC 179: Thinking, which has attracted over 500 students this semester, and she has previously worked as the Direct of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) of the Psychology department. Professor Ahn occupies multiple positions at Yale: she is an esteemed professor, the wife of Dean Chun, and the mother of a Yale student. This week, Professor Ahn spoke with The Herald about her research and its influence on both her lecture style and American society, how she balances her numerous roles within the institution, and her professional interest in the Yale Memes for Special Snowflakes Facebook page. Professor Ahn combines a keen sense of humour with psychological insight and provides a candid glimpse into her experience of race, gender, and pop culture as a Yale professor.

Yale Herald: Your class PSYC 179: Thinking has become wildly popular this semester, drawing in over 500 students. What do you think they’re hoping to find in your work? Do you see the class as something that can impact student’s daily lives?

Woo-Kyoung Ahn: That’s my goal. The word that I use is mental masturbation. That’s what I’m trying to avoid in this psychology course. When I screen which studies to cover, I think about whether this is something they can actually apply to their real life. In the paper assignments, they really have to think about this. All the time, can they detect this [cognitive bias] everywhere in their daily lives? So there are some studies that are done just for the sake of science, but sometimes it feels like, what’s the point of this? I make it really applicable, so that’s one of the main goals of this course.

YH: You play pop songs before lectures start, insert movie clips into your slides and have a teaching style that you’ve termed “PG13.” Have you ever got into trouble for your humorous approach to teaching? What motivates your style choice?

WKA: [Laughs] I haven’t got into trouble yet. Many professors have said to me, “I can’t choose songs for this generation anymore…” so the DJ for this course is actually my daughter! I ask her, “Okay, I’m covering happiness today. Which song should I play?” I’m also a member of the Snowflake meme page, so I get to hear what the culture is like and so on, and I steal from that. I have to really use their examples otherwise it’s psychologically too distant. Here’s what I learned: When I first started as an assistant professor, I was very stressed out about teaching at Yale, and I heard that Peter Salovey’s Intro to Psychology course was the most popular course at Yale. So I went to his class, and he was having migraine headaches, but he was still flawless and so entertaining. I was measuring with my watch, and on average, every six minutes he had either a joke or a demo or an anecdote. Something that would really reset the tension. That was the style I tried to use.

YH: You and Marvin Chun were hired by Yale at the same time. Have you ever worked with Chun? Is working at the same institution as your husband a pro or a con in your estimation?

WKA: There are a lot of pros, of course. When you gossip about your colleagues, you don’t have to explain too much. Your graduate students are basically your research life. It’s almost like being a family… There are ups and downs, of course. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t complain about your graduate family to other professors. They [the grad students] are your family members. But I can do that with my husband because I 100-percent trust that he won’t tell. He’s a great therapist for that. And also of course, career wise, whenever I have any issues… For this course alone, he’s now used to dealing with large courses after going through [Psychology and] the Good Life. Now a master of that, he’s been helpful in many ways like that. I’m learning as we speak.

YH: Your daughter also goes to Yale. What’s it like to have your entire family involved with this institution?

WKA: Yeah, yeah… I don’t know, this is the only family life I’ve ever had. I’ve attended some workshops that ask, Can women have everything, career and family? and I think the best answer I’ve heard is that yes you can — if you have the right husband. Being a mother, wife, and academic is just a ridiculous amount of work… I still have a second child, and I still have to cook and make breakfast for him in the morning and everything. It’s a lot of things to manage, but I think a happy life is a balanced life. I can be really sucked into preparing for the lectures and spending 50 hours a week working on that, but then I have to draw the line and say, OK, now I’m cooking. I love folding laundry. I watch Korean dramas and fold laundry and it’s just a mundane pleasure, very therapeutic. I can control this. My teaching philosophy, this is what I figured out… The teaching secret is you have to love the students. Then everything just follows. When you love someone, you want them to learn, not fail. She [my daughter] actually got into Yale first, before Marvin became the college dean, so we had to ask her permission. I went to university in Korea, and my father was the president of the university, so I had to live in the president’s house on campus. It was like living in an animal zoo.

YH: You went to college in Korea. How did you experience the transition to the American liberal arts system and American culture in general?

WKA: I left Korea because I couldn’t handle the sexism in the Korean culture, and I wanted a bit more individualism. That was not allowed back then. Women were supposed to be a certain way, and when I got my PhD and went back to see my professors, they made it clear to me that they’d just hired a female professor and one was enough in the department. It’s one thing to have sexism, it’s another thing to be able to say that explicitly. That was only 30 years ago. Every society has some sexism. They’re much better now, they have a lot of female professors there. But to me in this country, culture-wise, it’s my taste. Language was the biggest problem of course, and I still have to really practice. I rehearse my entire lecture out loud twice — I still have to do that. But what’s funny is, when I stand up, I say totally different things than what I had prepared anyway. Language is still a barrier, but it can actually work for me. It forces me to prepare. So my philosophy is that everybody’s weakness is their strength. And their strengths are also their weaknesses. It’s the framing effect, right? [Laughs]

YH: You’ve done research on reasoning, causal learning, and judgement. Do you think this type of psychology research can be used to understand political phenomena, such as fake news?

WKA: Yeah, I’m actually going to cover fake news in the course a bit later on… There are now some recent studies coming out on the fake news issue. I actually studied that area over the summer. That’s another motivation for teaching; it forces me to learn new topics. For my own research, one spin that I put in my career is that I decided to go into more applied work. The work I’m doing now is all about causal reasoning and categorization. The causal part is genes. We’re talking a lot about genetic profiling and considering, now that we know our genetic make-up, what’s going to be our concept of ourselves and other people? One study for instance… I manufactured a fake saliva test, and we told half of the subjects that they have the depression gene, and the other half that they don’t have the depression gene. And then we administered the standardized depression scales after they got the feedback. They were randomly assigned subjects, so there should be no difference in how depressed they were, right? But we found significant differences between the two groups. Within five minutes they believed they were more depressed than the other group. Theory wise, it’s very old. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotyping, etc., but now with genetic information, it’s going to become more and more prevalent. I have a graduate student who’s interested in genetic counseling, so she’s doing a study that’s the flip side of this. So if you found out that you don’t have the alcoholic gene, are you now going to drink more? Because you feel more invincible? But if it’s something you believe you can do something about it, obesity for instance, then they are more watchful about their food because they know that weight can be controlled. But when it comes to depression, people still don’t understand that you can actually manage your depression. People think it’s their fate so they give in. It’s very controversial.

Professor, Partner, Parent — An Interview with Woo-Kyoung Ahn was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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