Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Erin Smith

Erin Smith

Dr. Erin Smith is an associate professor of psychology and director of research for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior at California Baptist University. Dr. Smith finished her doctorate degree in University of California, Riverside, where she studied developmental psychology. She began teaching at CBU after finishing her doctorate degree in the fall of 2011.

A few months ago, she was featured in this article by CBU about coping with anxiety amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. In the article, she shares her insights when it comes to managing her anxiety and how the Coronavirus has affected her mentally. Early in the semester, Smith also wrote a blog titled: “Tackling Anxiety With Gratitude,” which aims to help students manage their own anxiety during this global pandemic.

In this Q&A, Smith shares how she began teaching at CBU, her motivations, what she likes about teaching, the challenges of teaching before and during the pandemic, and how the Coronavirus pandemic changed her life as a professor and a parent.

What made you decide to teach at CBU?

As an undergraduate at a small, Christian university, I decided I was done with education and wanted to just go get a job and move on with my life. (Today, my students who know me are shocked to learn that, in my mind, I was just going to go get a job at Enterprise-rent-a-car. Why there? I got on some hiring site email list, and they always seemed to be hiring. I figured, “I can do that.” With the thought of not really believing there was something more purposeful I could/should strive toward). And yet, God had other plans for me. A faculty member I respected encouraged me to consider graduate school. Because of my respect for him, and in the context of my lack of alternative plans (other than working the desk at a car rental agency), I decided to apply. I was ultimately accepted into the PhD program in Developmental Psychology at UCR. At UCR, I spent the first three years really thinking that I would pursue a career at a research university. Even as I thought about more teaching-oriented positions, I was pretty resistant to the idea of Christian higher education. Ironically, my time at college was pretty empty, spiritually, because I just wasn’t invested in knowing Jesus. As I look back, I realize that I assumed that I would get all the spiritual food that I would need by just being a part of a Christian community. To be clear, there are incredible benefits of Christian communities (like CBU!), but they are also not a substitute for a personal relationship with Christ. At the time, I blamed Christian higher education on my stagnant, obligation-filled “relationship” with Christ. When I started re-orienting myself to the idea of potentially pursuing a career in academia, Christian higher education was not high on my list. And yet, again, God had other plans for me. Through involvement in my church community (that totally changed my understanding of who God is and what He wants for my life!) and some psychological and theological challenges at key points in my career development, I realized that Christian higher education might be the exact place that I was supposed to be. There were a number of things that attracted me specifically to CBU, including the diversity of the student body, the serious integration of faith and discipline, and the support for faculty work (teaching, research, service).

What motivates you to teach?

I love psychology, and it is a joy to share it with students. I love the “a-ha!” moments that come with students’ increased understanding and I take seriously my role of providing an example of working hard, wrestling with ambiguity, and thinking Christianly about science. Within the interactions of a typical semester, I have the opportunity to help students develop practical skills (e.g., how to write a professional email) and intellectual skills (e.g., critical thinking about research); it’s really exciting to be able to support students in such varied developmental processes.

What do you like about teaching?

There are quite a few things that I like. From a pedagogical perspective, I enjoy the challenge of working through the philosophical questions like: What is central to this content? What are the best methods of teaching this content? How can this content be presented in a way that develops students as people? And how will this orient the class to Christ? As an instructor, I tend to side on trying to cram too much in. Over the past decade of teaching, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how to not just deliver quantity of content, but to facilitate high-quality engagement with the content. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out what needs to be communicated (e.g., expectations of the course) and how to communicate that in a way that students leave my class different than they came in (different intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, etc.). I often pray in the beginning of my classes that the Lord will use the hour that my students and I have together to continue His good work in all of us, and that our time will be a part of how God can renew our minds and transform us into His likeness. I love that I have the opportunity to be a small part of students’ journeys as I, myself, have the opportunity to teach in a way that God can use to change me. It’s really awesome to think about teaching in this way.

I also love the opportunity to help students remember their curiosity. Sure, what’s on the test matters, but it’s so much more interesting to engage because of wonder about the world that God has created. By the time many students enter college, they have had their curiosity squelched; I enjoy the opportunity to invite them back to a childlike wonder in the context of intellectual rigor. I love hearing the questions that students have as they learn; thoughtful, engaging questions are the fuel of learning and the start of transformation.

How has the pandemic affected your personal life and your life as a professor? And what is the pandemic like for you as a professor?

I have three kids under 7 (a third grader, a kindergartner, and a pull-everything-out-of-the-cabinets-in-the-blink-of-an-eye toddler). My husband and I both work full time outside the home. The pandemic has made what is already hard about a dual-working family with young kids hard even harder. In the past few years, I have really worked to create specific habits that promote mental health, wellness, and appropriate balance/perspective in my life (e.g., daily devotionals, regular exercise, healthy eating with just the right number of cookies). The pandemic has made everything harder (even figuring out how to grocery shop, which we used to do as a whole family!). And yet, because of these habits and the community I have invested in, I am doing okay. Some days are really hard, and I find myself growing weary, but I have many good reasons to be thankful and persevere.

I recognize that my specific stressors are not shared by many of my students, but I try to remember how my anxiety feels as I engage with students. By mindfully surrendering my anxiety to Christ, I ask that He uses it to soften my heart to hear what my students might be saying between their words. Students might not come right out and say “I am falling apart,” but sometimes that’s exactly what they mean. This past semester, I have tried to create space for casual conversation and space for support, partly to help students connect with me and the class, and partly to provide opportunities for students to speak and for me to listen.

I have really tried to lean into the benefits of a live, synchronous format (they do exist—not everything is bad!), and I’ve doubled down on my efforts for clarity, consistency, and intentional connection.

How has the coronavirus pandemic and remote learning affected your teaching style?

When I teach, I bring my whole self to the classroom. Perhaps it’s because psychology is the science of people, or perhaps it’s how I’m wired, but I can’t check my experiences and perspectives at the door. As such, I think I am attuned to the fact that students on the other side of my computer monitor are real people with real challenges. What feels difficult and impossible to them might be different than what feels difficult and impossible to me, but I really try to create an emotional climate that allows students to bring their whole selves into their work as students, just as I do as a professor.

The online, synchronous format has some limits in terms of interactions (especially for larger classes). This has actually highlighted the kind of interaction I’ve always taken for granted in the classroom. Rather than just noting these difficulties and moving on, the change to remote learning has reinvigorated my penchant for problem-solving. I find myself constantly mulling over ideas to do things better or different. I decided at the beginning of the semester that if I am going to spend my career asking students to do difficult things, then I, too, need to be willing to do difficult things. That’s what I try to do in every single class! My hard things are different than my students’ (or even another faculty member), but I can set the example for my students of what striving and effort and graceful failure to success and achievement might look like.

I’m a scientist. I run experiments and test hypotheses. I do hard things. I work for the Lord. Because these things are true, I’m going to try new things in my classes, and I’m going to do old things in new ways to see what works and what doesn’t. I read about what others are doing, and I learn from them. I’m not sure this is anything new in my teaching style, but I’m hyperaware of these things in this moment.

How do you keep students motivated even with remote learning?

One very practical thing I do was an idea from Dr. Murcray: I post a weekly check-in video for each of my classes. The goal of this video is two-fold: (1) to orient students to the week. It tells them what is coming up this week and what they should be working on/reading/preparing for in the future, and (2) to tell students something about me/ask them a question. I keep these videos short (5-10 minutes), but I try to set it up as an invitation for relationship. I publish these each week at the beginning of the week as a way of checking in with my students and reminding them that virtual does not mean without connection.

Also, at the beginning of the semester, I organized some CBSS faculty members to record a brief 5-minute video to speak directly to students’ needs currently. These videos deal with topics like self-care from a social work perspective, what it means to be made in the Image of God, Christ’s response to anxiety, and the practice of gratitude. I post one of these videos (with a discussion board for optional processing of the content) each week. I love that students can hear from faculty other than me, and that they can get exposure to practical, meaningful tips from the social sciences and theology to help them navigate this moment successfully.

Research consistently points to the power of relationships (liking someone and feeling like they love and support you). I try to create opportunities for relationships, for students to feel heard and known. This is something I’m always working on (I’m a non-therapist in a department of clinicians who are intuitive, caring, and kind – it’s a wonderful group to be with, but a hard standard to live up to!), but I think it’s particularly meaningful during remote learning.

Despite the challenges of remote teaching, how do you keep yourself motivated?

Re-establishing a routine with some flexibility and excellent communication with my partner have been key to keep myself motivated. My morning cycle starts early. I usually don’t want to get out of bed, but I do. Before my kids are awake, I work out and study Scripture (I’m reading through Proverbs this year). By the time the energy from these activities has waned, I’m on my second cup of coffee, which gets me through to my first class. Then, talking about psychology to students who want to learn…man. What better motivation is there?!

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