Teacher Feature: (So Much) More Than “Talking About Our Feelings” with Psychology Professor Erin Johnson

“Anything you want to know more about in psychology, there’s a class for that.”

three trees in the shape of heads showing the concept of psychological progression

Psychology impacts our everyday lives, even when we don’t realize it, and for those who have taken classes or are actively working towards Psychology degrees, the study of it can be incredibly fascinating and overwhelming due to the vast array of concepts, methodologies, disorders, etc. presented in the coursework.

Fortunately for all of us, there are educators out there who have a genuine passion, firm grasp, and understanding of psychology, and Coastline’s very own Psychology Professor, Erin Johnson, is one of them!

In this week’s teacher feature, Professor Johnson walks us through her journey from communications to teaching psychology and shares her wealth of knowledge about the cyclical and relatable nature of Lifespan Development (her favorite class to teach), the future of the psychology field, the importance of the study of psychology, and more!

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Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what began your journey to teaching psychology?

I’ve been teaching for about 15 years now, and I started teaching during my first master’s degree. I got a master’s degree from St. Louis University in Communications, so that’s where I first started. I love public speaking. I love communication as a whole as far as public relations, that kind of field, and that’s where I started to really enjoy teaching. Although, when I graduated, I did notice that there weren’t many public speaking jobs out there—not how it is now. Now, we recognize communication as its own discipline, but at the time when I graduated, right about the 2000 mark, there just weren’t a lot of communication positions for individuals.

I decided to go back and get my second masters in clinical psychology, and having that, along with communication, was a perfect match because it helped me to be able to speak in public. I had no problem—as far as teaching is concerned—standing up, and talking in front of individuals, and that’s where my career path kind of changed prior to teaching.

I was in the public relations field—I used to work for Johnson and Johnson—and I just decided I wanted something where I felt like my heart was racing and I was excited to go to work. I would always teach one class here and there as I was doing my public relations career, and I just decided to really make that leap. Right around 2013, I said I’m going to try to get a full-time position.

If you know anything about trying to get a full-time teaching position, it’s very difficult because people usually die out of those positions. The colleges don’t have enough funding to hire so many individuals, there are only a certain number of positions that are out there, and everyone’s vying for those same types of positions. It’s very, very difficult to try to get a full-time position. I did designate myself, I said “I'm going to give myself three years, if I don’t get hired in three years, I’ll go back to full-time working in public relations.” At the last minute, Coastline hired me.

illustration showing the lifespan evolution of a man from baby to senior

What is your favorite class to teach and why?

My favorite class has to be lifespan development. I think lifespan development is like a big circle. I like to tell students that we start off talking about being an infant and learning how to talk and learning how to walk, and then toward the end, when we make that big circle to becoming elderly individuals, you’ll see some of those same types of problems that people may have, the cognitive abilities may not be there, them not being able to walk as great, talk as great—it’s just a really big circle. I do love teaching that class because I feel like we can all relate. We’ve all obviously been born, and there’s always some area where you can kind of look at it and see, hey, I was going through these kinds of struggles when I was 25.

So, when you come across a class that can meet you at so many different levels, I think that it’s just such an interesting class. I think a lot of the time we as humans just probably take for granted all that we’ve learned, how to do certain types of things—those types of skills aren’t skills that just come to us, they are active skills that we learn. I think a lot of students get interested in lifespan development, and I love it because it’ll always touch in so many different places.

If you have a student who’s a parent, they may be looking at it through the eyes of “Oh yeah, my kid just did this”, “My kid just did that”, or “I’m also doing this, I’m also doing that”. Any student, whatever age the student is, there’ll be something in that class that’s going to be perfect for them because we go all the way from conception until death. So, somewhere in there, they’re going to fit in, and I feel like lifespan development is one of my favorite classes to teach.

a young female college professor works with two female students, one who is showing her something on a laptop

What are some common challenges that you see students face in your classes, and what do you think are the best ways for them to succeed?

I think one of the biggest challenges, especially for Psych 100 class, is students think we’re just going to talk about our feelings and we’re just going to talk about psychological disorders, but in taking Psych 100 there are so many different areas. We only talk about psychological disorders a very little bit. If you’re interested in that, I always tell my students there’s a class for that. Anything in psychology that you want to know more about, there’s a class for that. So, intro is just a little peak as far as those different courses are concerned.

I do think a lot of times students do struggle with the idea that it’s going to be an Intro to Psych class, but it’s going to cover so many different areas that maybe you didn’t think of as far as psychology is concerned, and not everyone gets an A. I think they’re possibly thinking, “Oh it’s an Intro to Psych class, it’s going to be easy. We’re just going to talk about our feelings.” I think they are kind of a little bit shocked as far as the idea is not just to check a box and say you did the assignment, but did you do the assignment correctly? And I think that’s probably where students struggle a little bit with the misconception that Intro to Psych is going to be an easy course.

I do feel like students do get an idea as far as what I’m expecting from them through the first assignments. So that first assignment is going to be a little rough, and then they kind of see, this is what she’s looking for, and usually, that second assignment or that third assignment is so much better.

I do try to give a lot of feedback, so students know what I’m looking for, because I don’t think it’s fair that by week six, or week eight, you still don’t know what I want you to do, and I’m still grading you. So, the substantive feedback that I like to give students, I’m hoping they are applying them to the further assignments, and they usually do.

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A lot of misinformation can be spread about psychology. Can you speak to the importance of the study of psychology to us as a society?

I remember when I decided to get my master’s in clinical psych and my grandmother said “What are you going to do with that? What exactly are you going to do, are you going to shrink people’s heads?” I said, no, I’m not going to shrink people’s heads, but I think there’s this misconception of what psychology is and what it’s not.

I think the huge misconception is thinking that psychology as a field is just based on psychological disorders, and even if we were to say a nice chunk of it is based on psychological disorders, when you take an abnormal psychology course, or even an intro course, you do start to understand that some behaviors are considered to be disorder type of behaviors and some behaviors are just quirky.

When we’re talking about disordered behavior, that type of behavior has to impact their life in some type of way, there has to be some maladaptive piece that’s there. You can have individuals that drink a lot, more than maybe the average individual, and it’s still not maladaptive. They haven’t gotten a DUI, it hasn’t affected their families, but they’re just a heavy drinker.

We are so quick to jump to diagnosing people, ‘Oh, that person’s an alcoholic,’ or “Oh, that person is narcissistic’. Some people are just mean, some people are just inconsiderate. Some people are just rude. It does not mean they have a personality disorder. When you’re talking about narcissistic personality disorder, that is a very rigid sense of personality disorder. One of the hardest disorders to treat are personality disorders.

I do doubt that a person who can function in life and be able to do things on a day-to-day basis actually has narcissistic personality disorder. It’s just not that simple, the same way that we use colloquial terms like bipolar—“Oh, that person is acting so bipolar”— it doesn’t work that way for most individuals that have bipolar I or bipolar II, they are going to spend more time being depressed than they are through that manic phase.

So, while you think they’re able to cycle between, “Oh, I’m sad. Oh, I’m manic.” in two seconds, it doesn’t work like that. So, when you say, “They’re acting so bipolar”, not quite. I think that’s the missing piece that’s missing is that we use a lot of these different terms, and we are using them incorrectly based on the social piece of it.

I think that piece of it, where you have the layperson’s terminology mixed in with the scientific piece of psychology, I hope that as students come, they do say “No, that’s not correct”, and not in a snarky type of way. People have real personality quirks, and it doesn’t mean that they have been diagnosed or could even be diagnosed with a particular disorder.

Hand choosing happy smile face paper cut

What are your insights into the future of the psychological field as a whole?

I do believe that the social psychology piece of our discipline is really going to expand because of social media and all the other pieces that are out there. When I took social psych, and they would talk about the presence of an actual audience or an implied audience, I never really understood what an implied audience is. But now, when you see the idea of social media where people will post what they ate and people may like it or make a comment about it, that implied audience is actually really big. In a field like social psychology where we do have this idea that there’s this implied audience, I think social media is going to change that.

We’ve seen a couple of studies that have kind of started to study Twitter and those types of social media apps, and what does that look like causing a lot of distress for individuals? Because now you’re showing a picture of a person’s face that is edited and it doesn’t look like how that person really looks. Now you’re holding people to a standard that is not even a real standard. In my time, it was Twiggy. Twiggy was very skinny, she was a very thin model, but now we are holding individuals to a physical standard that’s not even real. Now we’re holding people to a standard that’s a fake body. To me, that challenging part of it is going to look extremely different. I’m very interested to see what that looks like.

I think we’ve always disparaged the social media side of things, but I think we’re now starting to understand that the implied audience can sometimes be even more aggressive than the actual audience because now people can hide behind screen names. So, when you see cyberbullying and you say, “Just close the computer” it’s not that easy a lot of the time. I think we’re finally starting to understand that social media and the implied presence of that digital audience is super important. I think that part of psychology would start to make ways, even if it is a cultural-based syndrome, even if maybe other cultures don’t have to necessarily worry about it because they can just close the computer. But I think in a sense that we will start to look at social media as a bigger picture and their presence as being a little bit more important than we have so far.

young people in a circle all on their cellphones

For students who are working towards a psychology degree, but are struggling, or maybe thinking about it but are nervous to go towards it, what would your advice or tips be?

I think my biggest advice, and I did this when I was in college—I took a couple of different personality tests like the Myers Briggs, and What Color is Your Parachute. Those types of tests are always really interesting to see what type of worker you are.

Years ago, I found out I’m not a very good group worker type of person. I don’t delegate very well, and I kind of work on my own better than I do in groups. The first couple of years when I was working in public relations, it sometimes is a group effort. It is, and it was very challenging because that delegation piece of that delegation skill I think was lacking.

When you find out what you’re good at, and what works with your personality, I think that’s going to be the biggest part. I went to law school for two years and I did well, but I remember my law advisor pulling me to the side and saying, “You’re just not competitive enough for law”. I was heartbroken, but she was right. I don’t care about winning or losing. I don’t have that tiger edge to say I want to win, and I want to beat this person. I’m not a very competitive person—I feel like we all can win, and it doesn’t work that way in a lot of fields.

Being in education, I think now I have particularly found my niche because I can kind of work on my own. My job never really gets boring, every 16 weeks things change. You have different students. I have a lot of academic freedom with my particular job. So, for students, I would say try that personality inventory—that should be your first step. Not only see what you’re good at but also see which professions work with your personality because it’s going to be super hard to try to fit into a particular position that your personality just doesn’t fit that way.

I also always tell students—don’t pick your major, let your major pick you. What are you actually good at? Look at your transcripts and see the grades that you’ve received because every class can’t be, “Oh it was just easy, that’s why I got an A.” No, you did well in that class, that’s why you got an A or B. So, I think that’s another piece as well.

My second piece of advice would be to look for different job descriptions of jobs that you would like and look at some of those skills or qualifications that you have to have and see if that is something that you would be interested in doing. If you say, “I want to be a clinical psychologist.” and you see that to be a clinical psychologist, you need a Ph.D. in psychology, you need to pass a licensure exam and you say, “I’m not very good at exams”. That may be something that may not be for you. So, I think those are the two big ones, look at the job you want and how it connects to your personality because that’s going to be a big one. How you fit personality-wise—that’s going to be a big piece of your job and seeing if it’s a job that you would actually like to do.

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