Psychology and Child Development

College of Liberal Arts

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Reflections from Retiring Faculty

In her 30 years at Cal Poly, Professor Shawn Burn has worked tirelessly to support the Psychology and Child Development Department.

Shawn Burn
Shawn Burn

Burn has taught many classes including introductory psychology, research methods, social psychology, environmental psychology, behavior in organizations, group dynamics, global women’s and gender studies, and applied social psychology. She has conducted and published research on a variety of topics, with a focus on the psychology of environmental sustainability and the psychology of gender. Many of her publications have student coauthors. Her most recent research publications include an article on the psychology of sexual harassment and a chapter providing a roadmap to the application of bystander intervention theory and research. One of her four books, "Women Across Cultures: A Global Perspective," is in its fourth edition and is used in classrooms internationally. Her most recent book, "Unhealthy Helping," is a self-help and therapy tool designed to empower people to find that giving and helping “sweet spot” where their help is truly helpful, and their giving is healthy for others, their relationships, and for them. She authors a popular "Psychology Today" blog called Presence of Mind, and she serves as a media expert and organizational consultant on psychological topics. She received both the College of Liberal Arts’ Scholarship and Teaching awards, and the President’s Community Service Award. Her distinguished career at Cal Poly reflects her commitment to students’ learning and growth and to a psychology that serves social justice and the public interest.

We asked Burn a few questions about teaching, inspiration and the field of psychology:  

What has been your favorite class to teach and why?

SB: My favorite course to teach is probably social psychology. Most students find the content interesting and useful both personally and professionally. Also, because it’s such a dynamic field of study with so many applications, I never get bored with it.

Are there any scholars or individuals that have inspired you?

SB: The writings of Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), the “founder” of applied social psychology, certainly inspired me. He promoted “action research” and promoted the application of psychological theory and research to all kinds of human problems. This is what my work is all about! Lewin was also one of the first psychologists to emphasize that human behavior is a function of the interplay between the person and the situation. I am also inspired by the work of psychologists devoted to social justice in its various forms. For example, I’m a fan of Muzafer Sherif, Janice Shibley Hyde, Derald Wing Sue and Alice Eagly. I’m also inspired by people that act and organize to right social wrongs—without them, there would be no positive social change.

What has kept you enthused about your teaching career? What advice would you give a new faculty member or someone considering going into teaching?

SB: For me, teaching is a way to be of service, and it’s given my life meaning and purpose. I love showing people how to use psychology to improve their lives, their groups and organizations, and society. I have also loved supporting and mentoring individual students.

Our newer faculty certainly don’t need much in the way of advice because they were fabulous from day one at Cal Poly! But generally speaking, I’d say that student engagement is one key. You have to be interesting, humorous and dynamic. You need to know your stuff, and you have to “sell” the material so that students see its relevance. Another key is good, consistent structure. Students need clear guidelines about assignments, what you expect them to write down, what you want them to know, and how their grades are determined. They need well-constructed tests, fair grading, and prompt grading feedback so they know where they stand. But they also need caring and kindness. Students have academic and personal issues and turn to professors for support. You have to be ready for that and familiar with university and community resources so that you can advise. New teachers should also be prepared to say “no” when students try to pressure them for special treatment that isn’t really justified and would be unfair to other students.

What do you think will change in the field of psychology in the next five or ten years?

SB: I think more holistic understandings of human behavior are gaining ground and that’s a good thing. For example, I think a more nuanced understanding about the interaction of genes and environment (epigenetics), and brain plasticity and experience/environment is likely. Intersectionality, the idea that a person’s experience is affected by the interaction of multiple social categories such as gender, race, class, gender identity, culture, and sexual orientation, is catching on as well as the problems with gender binarism. I also think that an emphasis on diversity and inclusion will make psychology relevant to more people and useful for promoting social justice. I’m hoping that the newfound emphasis on replication and open science (led by Brian Nosek (Psychology, '95)) isn’t just a passing phase. Psychological science needs to be objective and verifiable for us to have confidence in research findings.

What is one thing you wish your students knew about you?

SB: I doubt my students want to know much more about me! I self-disclose when I think it will be helpful to them. Generally speaking, I want them to know that despite trauma, being economically or educationally disadvantaged, discouraged by others, or physical or psychological health issues, you can get an education, live a good life and achieve your goals. If I did it, then you can too!

Besides work, what are your passions?

SB: Cooking, nature, animals and politics.

What’s the best advice you didn’t take?

SB: To slow down, take better care of myself, and be nicer to myself. I am inclined to be very goal-driven and to put others and duty ahead of my health and pleasure. While that has served me and others well, it’s also come with some costs. Balance is everything.


Read more from the 2019 Newsletter

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