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Social psych prof. to leave as course popularity surges

CLPS assistant professor Fiery Cushman will leave Brown to join Harvard’s faculty in the fall

Three hundred sixty-six students pack into Salomon 101 two days a week to hear who Marcy Huang ’16 calls “the most engaging lecturer” she’s ever had. But that lecturer — Fiery Cushman, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, who has taught CLPS0700: “Social Psychology” for the past three springs — will be leaving Brown at the end of the semester for a position at Harvard. 

Over the past three years, enrollment in the course has nearly doubled, from 178 in the fall of 2010 — the year before Cushman began teaching the course — to 366 this semester.

“He was a fantastic addition to our department,” said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, said of Cushman. “That’s usually a problem because fantastic people all around get offers from other places.”


A social decision

After Cushman gave a talk at Harvard in September, faculty members there expressed interest in interviewing him to fill one of two open positions for social psychologists, Cushman said.

“Brown is … a perfect home for my research, but there’s a lot of opportunities at Harvard,” Cushman said.

Cushman attended Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student, also conducting research there as a postdoctoral fellow.

Harvard “knows him intimately, and they know exactly what he offers,” Malle said.

But being an alum did not play a role in his decision, Cushman said. Instead, the decision came down to family matters. “This is what academics call the two-body problem,” Cushman said, noting that his wife currently works in Boston.

At Harvard, Cushman said he plans to teach the same social psychology course he does at Brown, adding that his course was modeled “to a large extent on what colleagues at Harvard had done.”

Cushman said he will miss his colleagues in the CLPS department and the graduate and undergraduate students he has worked with “tremendously.”

“Brown has a much more intimate community than … most other Ivy schools do,” Cushman added. “You feel like you’re coming home when you’re coming to work, and I’ll miss that as well.”


Rising popularity

In 2007, an internal review began that led to the formation of the CLPS department in 2010, combining the Department of Psychology with the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences.

“As part of this integration, administration realized social psychology was extremely important,” Malle said. As a result, two faculty positions were created — one for Malle, who was hired first, and one for Cushman.

Between 1995 and 2007, the average enrollment in Social Psychology was 88 students, Malle said.

Marcy Huang’s sister Monica Huang ’10 took Social Psychology during the fall of 2006 with Joachim Krueger, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. At the time, “I wouldn’t have said that the class was unusually popular, but … there were a lot of non-psychology concentrators who took the class,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

This average increased to 155 students between 2008 and 2010.

No social psychology course was offered in 2011, but the number of enrollees increased significantly in 2012 — the first year Cushman taught the course — to 280, Malle said.

Marcy said Social Psychology has been her “favorite class” so far at Brown. She took the class in the spring of 2013 when it had to be capped at 300 students.

“More people actually wanted to take it (in 2013), but they didn’t have enough TAs,” wrote Adam Morris ’15, a spring 2013 teaching assistant for the course, in an email to The Herald. This year, to accommodate the surplus of students interested in taking the course, the number of undergraduate TAs increased from four to eight. These undergrads supplement the four graduate TAs.

Cushman said he does not know why the class size has increased so significantly, adding that many factors influence a course’s popularity.

One of these factors may be word of mouth. Students really enjoy the course and then tell others about it, Malle said.

“It is one of those trendy classes that pretty much everyone shops or takes at some point,” Marcy said.

“Every lecture feels like a TED Talk,” Morris wrote, adding that he thinks most of the class’s increase in popularity is due to Cushman.

In early March, Cushman received a Teaching and Advising Award — an award given by the Academics and Administrative Affairs committee of the Undergraduate Council of Students. The undergraduate student body nominates the recipients.

“The recognition … is extremely touching,” Cushman wrote in an email to The Herald. “It is especially meaningful to get that feedback from students themselves.”

The focus on the role of cultural evolution and dual practice models, as well as his emphasis on experiments is what makes his course “distinctive,” Cushman said.

Cushman "never loses sight of the big picture,” Morris wrote, adding that he “has the explicit goal of understanding what makes humanity amazing, and he really hits that goal over and over again.”

Jason Roth ’17 said Cushman is a “dynamic force” who combines practical and theoretical concepts.


‘The age of the mind’

But the course’s increasing popularity may also be due to growing interest in the field of social psychology itself.

“Historically, social psychology has been experiencing a surge for the last 20 years,” Malle said.

The number of PhD applicants who indicated a specific interest in social psychology has risen from 40 to 90 students over the past five years, Malle said. “It has the largest number of applicants in any area our department covers,” he added.

Morris wrote that he was interested in becoming a TA because he wanted to take Social Psychology again. He also works in Cushman’s moral psychology lab and plans on obtaining a PhD in moral psychology.

“There’s an increase in awareness and appreciation in social psychology,” Cushman said, adding that we are entering “the age of the mind.”


A relatable field

Cushman became interested in social psychology because he said he thinks it “holds the key” to answering the question of what makes human cognition different from non-human cognition.

Humans "have conversations and completely transformed the world, and non-human animals continue running around naked,” he said. “It’s got to be something in our brains and I think social psychology … has the promise to unlock our understanding of what the difference is.”

Social Psychology “is such a fun class to teach,” Cushman said. “It’s the part of psychology that everyone can relate to.”

While other aspects of psychology are “equally as interesting,” Cushman said it takes less time for students to see why social psychology is relevant to them.

The course dives into topics such as morality, love, conflict, self-esteem and willpower, Cushman said.

“If you sat down at the Ratty, all conversation topics are issues in social psychology,” he said.  “I think that’s more true in social psychology than any other discipline on campus.”



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