An Appetite for Learning

By Mona Malacane

Who would take classes after achieving tenure, winning major grants, and earning the title of Distinguished Professor?

If you’ve taken T501 then you’ve heard her motto, “A PhD is a license to teach yourself.”

If you haven’t already guessed by now, I’m talking about the one and only Annie Lang. She practices what she preaches – that learning never stops –and if you can believe it, she enrolls in a course almost every semester. “The first time I took a class was when I was an assistant professor actually, and I took a class in Electrical Engineering on electrical circuits, circuit design, and I did that because at that time I was setting up my first psychophys lab and back then it wasn’t like how it is now, you couldn’t go buy a lab in a box. You had to buy equipment that was not made to do psychophysiology with and you literally had to solder it …  So I thought ‘well I just need to learn how to do this ’…  And I did.”

This semester, Annie is taking two courses: Dynamic Systems Theory (Q580, Cognitive Science) and Perception & Action (P651, Psychological & Brain Sciences). Initially, her plan was to only take Dynamic Systems but then she learned that Perception & Action, a rarely offered course, was being offered this semester and so of course she had to sign up for it as well. “Instead of just taking one which I probably could have handled without killing myself, I’m now taking two … It’s just like being a graduate student: I’m teaching one, taking two, and doing everything else professors have to do. So I’m actually busier probably than I’ve ever been in my whole life.”


She has also taken four semesters of Italian, Mathematical Psychology, two semesters of Calculus, a master gardening class … oh, and golf, just for the fun of it. But the most “meaningful” course Annie has ever taken is Developmental Psychology; a rather far cry from Electrical Engineering but necessary nonetheless because she had just won a grant that involved research on children and hadn’t taken a developmental course since grad school. She wasn’t expecting the course to have such a profound and lasting impact on her scholarship. “That’s where I first encountered Dynamic Systems approaches to Psychology … That’s when my paradigm first started rocking … And I still remember walking into Walt’s office about halfway through [the class] and I said, ‘well I’m in deep trouble. I think my paradigm is shifting.’”

[Please indulge me with this little detour from our interview which almost resulted in my death from laughter. Annie told me more about her professor for that course, Esther Thelen: “She was such a good teacher. She would always give you a question to write about the readings. And I would always do the reading and go ‘I don’t see what this question has anything to do with this reading’… which is of course what I do to students all the time … but I hadn’t had it done to me in a long time!”]

Being the tree-hugger that I am, I thoroughly enjoyed Annie’s analogy for the process of self-teaching/self-learning. She explained that when you’re teaching yourself, you don’t get “the whole tree.” “When you get a good class, it gives you the trunk and the big branches. And then after that you can always hang stuff.” But before you have the trunk and branches, you sometimes just have a bunch of knowledge to hang but no idea how to organize it.

Which kind of describes the entirety of graduate school when you think about it. We go to grad school because we have questions and stuff that we want to hang so we understand it better … So we find some good, solid trees and where to hang some of that stuff – also known as getting a PhD. But like Annie said, a PhD just gives you a license to teach yourself, so you’re constantly learning more about trees and collecting stuff that you want to hang and … wait a minute.

I see what you did there Annie... you're good.

I see what you did there Annie … you’re good.

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