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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2005 > Faculty Profile: Rose Olver
Olver leads procession
Rose Olver leads the faculty procession during President Anthony W. Marx's inauguration.

Faculty Profile

Rose Olver, the L. Stanton Williams ’41 Professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies

In her 43 years of teaching at Amherst, Rose Olver has seen the college through some of its most significant changes. Indeed, she has been the pivot point for many of them. Appointed in 1962, she was Amherst’s first female tenure-track faculty member. In the next two decades she marked several more milestones, becoming the first woman to chair the Psychology Department, serving on the committees that guided the transition to coeducation, and chairing the committee that created the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.In 1993 Olver was named faculty marshal—a post she still holds, leading the faculty procession for every major college event—and in 1994 she was named the L. Stanton Williams ’41 Professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is considered a leading expert in the psychology of self, with a special research focus on the cognitive development of young children and the gendered development of men and women across their life span.

We asked Olver to talk about her approach to teaching and the ways in which the college has changed over the years. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Olver in front of chalkboard
Olver prepares for a class in the late 1960s.

On changes in Amherst:

I came as the “old new curriculum” was dying and the first “problems-of-inquiry curriculum” was coming into ascendance. New faculty were socialized by teaching with their senior colleagues and colleagues from different departments and disciplines, and I think, unfortunately, we’ve drifted away from that. We’ve lost the chance to learn from each other, something that some of us feel is the virtue of the liberal arts college. That is, you have the opportunity to talk to colleagues across disciplines. Maximizing that kind of contact really makes a virtue out of what otherwise could be a narrowing and constraining experience. My hope is that we’re now returning to it, due to the President’s Initiative Fund that Tony Marx is working on.”

The nature of the Amherst student body and faculty has changed, too. When I came, it was all very gentlemanly, and there was such a thing as a “gentleman’s ‘C’” that everyone thought was perfectly acceptable. I remember when we went coeducational, I got a call from the dean, who said, “Now, Rose, we have this statement of ‘gentlemanly conduct’ in the handbook.” It was something like “conduct befitting a gentleman is required at all times.”  And the dean said, “Women can follow that as conduct, too, can’t they?” I said that I didn’t really know, not having been raised as a gentleman!

On remaining enthusiastic after 43 years of teaching:

My husband, who left the academic world to go into politics, said, “How can you just teach the same thing, year after year?” The answer is, I’m not teaching the same thing. There have been some really wonderful changes within my discipline of psychology. The addition of gender opened up practically every known psychological principle to question. More recently, there have been two additional changes. One is an intensification of our knowledge of human biology and our ability to do noninvasive brain studies, [allowing us] to study the biological basis of psychological behaviors. At the same time, we have added the notion of diversity—psychologists studying class. This is something that psychologists didn’t do; sociologists did. And then there’s been the whole addition of women’s and gender studies, which is interdisciplinary. I’ve been teaching frequently with people who are in the humanities, and I have learned a tremendous amount about literary analysis. I’ve now informed some of my psychology courses with short stories and plays. 

So yes, doing anything for 40 years would be terribly dull, but I’m not doing the same thing. And it’s been exciting to be at an institution that has allowed me to grow along with the discipline.

On her approach to teaching:

I was trained in the give-the-lecture-and-then-engage-in-hand-to-hand-mental-combat-with-the-students approach—putting the students down, and so forth. My first Scrutiny reviews said things like, “We went away after the seminar and licked our wounds.” It suggests that I was a skilled swordsman. I no longer do that. I would be embarrassed beyond belief if students said that now about my classes.

Back in the early ’70s I taught courses with female faculty from Smith and Mount Holyoke, and they pointed out to me that I didn’t have to teach that way, that it was possible to teach in a much more discussion-built consensus, where everybody lays out an idea and everybody shapes it, rather than putting it out and defending it. So I have moved very much in that direction. I’m not always sure what we’re going to find out, and in fact I see things in a new way because of what the students have said.

What I’m about is challenging students’ views, no matter what their views are—even if I agree with them. The idea is to get them to know why they believe in them. When they say, “My family’s always felt this way; this is the way I think,” I say, “Well, you may end up thinking that way, but you’ll know why you think that way.” So I’m willing to play devil’s advocate, to switch from one persona to another. Of course, then they say, “What do you really believe?”

[Developmental psychologist] Eric Erikson talks about the achieved identity being one in which you have come to some crisis, examined the issues and then taken a stand. That’s different from the foreclosed identity, where someone says, “My parents have always done it.” It’s also very different from, “Well, I’m considering this, considering that, but I haven’t really made up my mind.” I’m looking for the achieved identity, which means you’ve had some sort of crisis and thought it through.

Not that one is going to always believe the same thing forever and ever. One of the things that I think students find it most difficult to realize is that they aren’t going to get it all together in their four years in college and go off and do the same thing the rest of their lives. I want them to know that there are many, many growth stages to go, that things are going to change. I tell them, “You’re going to be in relationships that are going to cause you to see things differently. The world is going to change, you’re going to become the older generation.” At that point they become very agitated.

On her future:

I’ve got a couple of colleagues who promised that when I get really funny in the classroom, they will come and lead me away and say, “Now it’s time to retire.” So I’ll just continue enjoying what I’m doing until then. 

Photos: Procession: Frank Ward; 1960s: Chip Wittemore