Some say it takes courage and skill to tackle “taboo” subjects such as race, power, sexuality and gender, let alone teach it.
Up the ante with a pioneering research approach that focuses on the cognitive processes of prejudice and stereotyping – or, what’s actually happening in the brain when one categorizes social beings based on race and gender – in a lab filled with both graduate and undergraduate students, and it’s understandable why Cheryl Dickter, assistant professor of psychology, is the 2014 winner of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award.
The honor is bestowed each Charter Day to a younger faculty member at the university who has demonstrated, through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society.
“I know the previous faculty who have received the Thomas Jefferson award, and they have been key members of the William & Mary community,” said Dickter. “We have a lot of great instructors on campus and in the Psychology department, so this award is truly humbling. I’m grateful to my colleagues who nominated me and very honored to receive this award.”
In fact, Dickter’s commitment to teaching, scholarship and mentoring of students was so highly regarded by her colleagues that they nominated her twice before for the award.
In this year’s nomination letter, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department Janice Zeman highlighted Dickter’s dedication, enthusiasm and passion for her work with students in the classroom as well as her work in the Social Cognition Lab in William & Mary's Integrated Science Center and as an advisor and co-director for the WMSURE Program, which supports academically distinguished students from underrepresented groups and challenging backgrounds.
“Without fail, each semester her course evaluations are among the top in the department,” Zeman wrote. “Her students note that they ‘love coming to class,’ and that ‘William & Mary needs more professors like Professor Dickter.’ The letters from current students and alumni are a testament to her outstanding dedication and commitment to teaching.”
Arwa BenOmran ’11 said Dickter taught with such excitement that after a taking a required psychology course she was “riveted … the feeling left me excited to delve further into the study of psychology.”
Several nomination letters from currents students and alumni further confirmed Dickter’s close rapport with her students.
“From day one it was clear that Professor Dickter genuinely cares for her students; this was evident in the way she regularly encouraged students to openly express their opinions and ask questions,” said BenOrmran.
Furthermore, she said, Dickter’s unique teaching style and unwavering ability to connect with students made a difference in the way she experienced college for myriad reasons.
“Dickter’s confidence in me means so much and has inspired my interest in applying the study of psychology and law towards social justice,” said BenOrmran. “I will be attending law school next year, and my study of the legal professional will be informed by my experiences with Professor Dickter, both in and out of the classroom.”
Beyond her work with students as a teacher, Dickter also encourages student research. During her time at W&M, she has mentored eight master’s thesis students, 12 undergraduate thesis students and more than 40 undergraduate independent research students in the Social Cognition Lab.
Honors research student Linda Zou ’12 said Dickter’s commitment to helping students learn the process of scientific inquiry and development to become accomplished researchers is invaluable.
“Dr. Dickter both nurtures her students’ research abilities, and encourages them to explore their own individual research ideas … Working with her is a very productive and collaborative experience, as she never assumes a purely managerial role,” said Zou.
Dickter confirms that she makes it a point to involve her students at every stage of the research process, from designing studies, creating materials and running participants, to analyzing data and presenting research. Because of this, students get to experience the world of research in ways most undergraduates never do. What’s even more remarkable is under Dickter’s supervision W&M students are co-authors on 16 papers that have been published or are currently under review.
“Clearly, Professor Dickter is a dedicated and ardent supporter of student research,” said Zeman. “Her mentorship goes well beyond what is typically the case at her junior faculty status.”
In addition to teaching a variety of courses – some which are cross-listed between departments – supervising student researchers and conducting her own research, most recently Dickter joined the University Teaching Project (UTP) that aims to address the growing number of students who are neuro-diverse. Through the Neurodiversity initiative Dickter and her colleagues have been working to increase awareness and encourage people to embrace the cognitive differences in individuals, such as those who self-identify as being on the Autism spectrum. She and her colleagues, Josh Burk, Janice Zeman, and Karin Wulf, have recently begun conducting research on autistic behaviors and the cognitive processes related to autism in college students, most recently supported by a joint EVMS-W&M grant.
A native of New York, Dickter’s self-proclaimed teaching philosophy is to “be tough, but also to get students excited about psychology,” she said.
When asked what she likes most about working at William & Mary, Dickter replied without any hesitation.
“Definitely the students,” she said.