VC professor ‘psyched’ for sabbatical projects

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

While you see your professors multiple times per week, it is rare to get to know their background in depth.

Professor of Psychology Dr. Randolph Cornelius, currently on sabbatical, devotes the majority of his research to the study of human emotions and emotional expression, and he is particularly interested in the social and communicative function of tears. His other favored research topics include close relationships, conceptions of emotion in American popular culture and scientists’ religious beliefs.

Cornelius attended the University of Florida for his undergraduate studies and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for his master’s and doctoral degrees. Though his primary department is psychology, he also teaches in the American Studies and Environmental Studies Programs. More recently, he has crossed disciplines to teach dual-department classes with another professor in philosophy.

The Miscellany News: How long have you been a professor at Vassar, and is this the first educational institution you’ve been established at for a long time?

Randolph Cornelius: This January I will have been here for 36 years, and this is my first and only job outside of graduate school. When I came here, I was married to someone who had a post-doctorate in the Biology Department, and I had actually interviewed for a job the year before knowing that she was coming here. I ended up not getting that job because they hired someone else who left after a year.

In December ’81, I was shopping at Adams and ran into the department chair, and he asked me if I was still looking for a job. I was, and told him so, so he asked if I would like to come and teach a few courses at Vassar in the spring; I said yes. That meant I had less than a month to prepare for these two classes I had to teach: Methods and Statistics. The next year I was hired again for a temporary position, and I taught more courses then as well. It was after this time that a tenure track position opened up, and I applied for and got it. Six years later, after I had become an assistant professor, I applied for a full professor tenure position and got that as well. It was a long process because after each of these steps you have to assemble all your materials before being evaluated, but I can’t imagine being at any other job.

The Misc: What’s the most valuable aspect of teaching you’ve experienced thus far?

RC: It’s amazing to be in a place where I get to interact with so many smart, promising, sharp people and have incredibly interesting classes to teach. I have great colleagues, it’s just a wonderful place. Vassar’s so different from so many places.

I was never prepared to be a teacher, since graduate school never teaches you anything about teaching. The main focus was research, so that was what I was trained in, so I didn’t really feel prepared to be a teacher.

When I came to Vassar, I was thrown into the classroom right away, and that wasn’t something I was ready for. Now I’m friends with about five members of that first research methods class, so something turned out well. One of the wonderful things about Vassar is that students keep in touch with you after you’ve left.

The Misc: Was there a formative experience that inspired you to the field of teaching? What was it that moved you into the specific subset of social psychology you now do the majority of your research and teaching in?

RC: I went to graduate school because, as an undergraduate, I had a couple of great teachers and a couple of really, really bad teachers. These two [really good teachers I had] were in psychology and were my mentors. I was an undergraduate and took their classes because they invited me to.

In grad school I did research with pigeons and humans and their reactions; I became interested in fear because my mother, while I was an undergraduate, got into a car accident and developed a phobia of seat belts. From that moment to her death she never wore her seatbelt, and it intrigued me that an emotion could be so strong—a conditioning process could be so strong—it would change a person’s life forever.

I wanted to go to graduate school because I loved the research process and loved what I was studying. I went to research with someone studying fear but realized he was interested in many things apart from fear, so I ended up adopting his work. My mentor challenged me to read some of Darwin’s work in relation to my research, and from that point on I started studying crying and other emotions like anger.

I recognized at this time that emotions occur always in the context of other people; emotions are about relationships. That got me studying the social psychology literature, and when I was hired at Vassar, I saw a social psychologist was needed. In graduate school, I had studied personality psychology, but the year I graduated, the personality and social psychology departments merged. So I was able to call myself a social psychologist.

Five or six years ago, the department needed someone to teach Individual Differences in Personality. I had never taught this at Vassar, but I loved teaching it so much I teach it every year now. Some students marvel at how different I am when I’m teaching different courses, and a couple years ago I had a student in two of my classes ask me how I was able to make a 180-degree turn when I’m teaching different subjects. My response was that it’s all a matter of perspective.

The Misc: I understand you’re on sabbatical right now. What is it you’re doing with this time, or what is it you plan on doing in the meantime before you return to teaching next semester? RC:

I felt I needed to take this sabbatical now; teaching’s very intense. I throw myself into the classroom […] You’re very vulnerable in the classroom as a teacher because you open yourself up—it’s very personal for me. It can be emotionally exhausting, and I needed to have a little more time to myself as I’ve gotten older. I needed more time to write up my research, since I’m working on four projects at once right now. Just this month I agreed to help someone write a paper for publication.

Sabbaticals are really wonderful because you get time to think, which is often something that is hard to do. When you’re teaching all the time and grading papers and going to committee meetings, it takes it all out of you. On sabbatical you can think through all the problems you’re working on. I’ve made so much progress.

Over the summer I spent almost all my working time on a presentation with Clara Ashley, [which] I presented at the International Society for Research in Emotion’s (IRSE) Conference this past July.

That’s another thing that’s really important to professors. When I got to the conference, the morning it started, I met all these people from all over the world that I know from past conferences. I sent a message to Kathy [my wife] about how “I was in my tribe again.” It was a very energizing experience; it’s really fun to bring a student or someone whom you’ve mentored because it shows what scientists do, this massive part of life.

For right now, I’m involved with four major projects. I’m writing an article on the presentation I gave this summer at IRSE about the methodology involved in studying tears. My students and I (in 1999) started developing [a] method [for] erasing tears from faces in Photoshop, and we wanted to study how aware people are when looking at faces with tears on them.

I’m looking at and working on how works in psychology become part of the canon in psychology.

I wrote a book in 1996 called “The Science of Emotion,” and I’m working now on updating that.

I’m also writing a book on emotions and human nature. Specifically, it’s the process of trying to figure out what human nature means. I was deep into literature regarding early human origins, and I wondered what life was like during the Pleistocene. I was an anthropologist in my undergraduate studies, and this is kind of like going home.

The Misc: Are you working with students now as well? What is it like balancing personal research with students’ research and responding to the needs of the Vassar community?

RC: I’m working with students right now from last year who are doing projects. I have four or five students who are working with me.

Sabbaticals are sometimes busier than teaching, but you still have time to sit [and] immerse yourself in a project.

The Misc: Is there a favorite class or discipline you enjoy teaching the most? Have you ever been challenged to teach a class in combination with subjects not familiar to you?

RC: I love teaching all my courses, though some courses stand out as very special. I love teaching Research Methods [in Social Psychology] because that prepares students to be scientists and includes what science is all about. I treat my students as colleagues in that class and do research with them.

One of [the] special things about Vassar over the years is [the] opportunity to teach with people in other disciplines. I can participate in the American Studies Program, and I’m one of the founders of the Environmental Studies Program here. Teaching with people outside of my typical discipline is so mind-expanding and such an amazing experience.

The Misc: What’s the most challenging aspect of teaching?

RC: I connect pretty well with students, but sometimes it is a challenge because I’m a naturally reticent person. Part of it is just keeping up; there’s so much in the discipline you want to convey to students and the knowledge base grows every year, it’s an issue of trying to fit things in.

You try something different if goals in [the] classroom [are] not met. I always make this joke when something atypical comes up: “Alright class, it’s time for some creative pedagogy.” At that point, I like to break students up into groups, have students do a debate, something like that. You really just have to keep trying. After a while, you take it as a given that things in class won’t go your way.

The Misc: Has there been a particular observation you’ve noticed in your years of teaching you wouldn’t expect?

RC: I think that happens relatively often. Students will ask questions I’ve never thought about before. I’ve taught classes at other places, filling in for people or helping people out, so I don’t know if it’s peculiar to Vassar, but Vassar students are just great at coming up with amazing insights. It’s great to be challenged in that way.

I can’t imagine having any other job than being professor at Vassar. It’s the best job anyone can have—it’s the best job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the only job I’ve ever had.

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