March 12, 2003

Psychology 101: Over 60.000 Served

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With the advent of US News and World Report’s school ranking system, colleges have recently tried to raise their rankings in any way possible, including decreasing their class sizes. Cornell’s Psychology 101: The Frontiers of Psychological Inquiry (Psych 101), taught by Dr. James B. Maas Ph.D. ’66, defies this ever increasing norm.

Over the forty years that he has taught the course at Cornell, Maas’ class has expanded from about 200 students taught in a now defunct Goldwin Smith lecture hall to 1600 students in the school’s concert space, Bailey Auditorium.

During those forty years, Maas credits himself with having taught over 60,000 Cornell undergraduates. Because of the sheer numbers, Maas excitedly explains the phenomenon that “wherever I go, there is a student that I taught.”

Maas has shown great dedication in his teaching of the class. He has not once taken a sabbatical during the fall semester, when the class is taught.

The class and its teacher have received national attention. It was once profiled by ABC’s 20/20 and The New York Times. Maas himself has appeared on numerous television programs such as The Today Show, Good Morning America and This Morning.

Maas credits much of his course’s popularity to word-of-mouth and his media-focused lectures.

The course received an average ranking of 4.7 out 5 from students who have taken the course and many students agree with Maas’ analysis of the class’ popularity.

“I definitely feel like I am at a show and not in class,” said Kevin Keller ’05 who took the class in the fall of 2001.

Maas realizes that to keep 1600 students attentive he has to stretch their imaginations.

To bring the material to life, Maas fills lectures with multi-media presentations. Maas’ lectures often contain practical applications of text book psychology. For a lecture on schizophrenia, Maas shows slides of artwork created by artists who battled the disease, explaining how having to cope with the disorder affects their paintings.

“It’s not a show but it is entertaining, because education should be able to make the material come alive,” Keller said.

A couple of times during the semester, Maas also hosts guest lecturers. Examples include one lecturer who claims to have ESP and another by the author of the text book used in the class, David Myers. Maas also has a deal with Myers to use his textbook on the condition that he will respond to students’ e-mails throughout the semester.

Maas said that this has been an excellent working relationship.

Rather than rehash the points of the textbook, Maas “lets the textbook take care of the facts,” and concentrates his lectures on “topics that apply to life.”

“It’s an eye-opening experience because it helps you discover why you are the way you are,” said Brendan Kolnick ’05.

Units that Maas covers in the class include social interaction, brain and behavior, perception, pop psychology, and Maas’ specialty — sleep. He also tries to teach students to be skeptical, or how to get “their bullshit detectors up.”

In addition to multi-media lectures, Maas maintains a friendly open-door policy. During the fall semester, he typically answers 80 e-mails a night. Maas also arrives at Bailey an hour before the 10:10 start time of class, and usually lingers around for another hour after class.

He openly invites students to come up to him and talk with him. For those who are uncomfortable or unable to talk before or after class, Maas maintains walk-in hours.

He prides himself upon learning between 200 and 300 names each semester, many of which he retains.

Pysch 101 is nothing short of a logistical nightmare. Maas and his army of graduate and undergraduate assistants must prepare exams two weeks in advance in order to get them printed on time.

Those same teaching assistants are available twelve hours a day, five days a week.

Although the class is not required, even for psychology majors, Maas says that “Psychology is a basic foundation for most disciplines.”

Therefore, Maas tries to show students outside the discipline, such as English majors, how psychology can apply to their academic interests. Maas aims to “show the connection between psychology and literature or … to get someone who is not interested in psychology interested.”

The class’ popularity cannot be credited to its relative ease. It’s not an easy A; the median grade for the class is the Arts and Science norm of B+.

Maas contests the common misperception that Psych 101 is a “gut” course.

“It is quite rigorous, [but] if you do what I assign and come to all the lectures, you will do well,” said Maas.

Psych 101 will undergo a major transformation next fall, when it moves from Bailey Auditorium to the much smaller and newly renovated Statler Auditorium. The class will be forced to drop from 1600 to approximately 700 although this drastic reduction will only be temporary.

The class will return to its normal proportions in the fall of 2005 when Bailey reopens.

In the mean time, Maas is looking forward to the opportunity to teach a class half its usual size.

“I will be able to have more personal interaction, and I really look forward to that,” he said.

95 percent of the class next year will be freshmen, with 650 reserved spots, as opposed to the traditional 25 percent. The remaining spots will be given to upperclassmen in rank of seniority allowing graduating seniors who missed out in prior years their final opportunity to take the class.

In preparation for the new Statler Auditorium, Maas has digitized over 2000 35mm slides for Powerpoint presentations–something he was unable to deliver in Bailey.

Another change that the class will undergo next year is the inclusion of 35 second year pre-med students at Cornell’s Weill Medical College in Qatar. The students will join the class via a time delayed satellite feed.

Maas, who will be 65 this August, has no plans to retire anytime soon. He still enjoys teaching and finds that “the material keeps getting better.”

Archived article by Michael Margolis