For hundreds of freshmen each year, college begins with a prank at the hands of Sara Hodges. Standing at the front of Columbia Hall's 510-seat auditorium, Professor Hodges introduces herself, then asks that her unwitting victims do the same. She watches her students' eyes widen with horror: the thought of sitting through more than 500 introductions inspires in them a collective groan that morphs, as the joke slowly sinks in, into a sigh of relief.
A fitting ploy from a social psychologist, Hodges's hoax is part of a broader effort to inject humor into this Mind and Society course, which covers serious topics, from depression to parenting. Describing its curriculum as "the greatest hits" of psychology, Hodges also navigates these students through training in science literacy, an especially important skill for those grappling with the complexities of college-level research for the first time. "My class is sometimes a surprise for students because they think psychology is going to be all about their feelings or how their mothers treated them," she says. "A lot of what I'm teaching is actually an introduction to how we do research."
Hodges has taught dozens of first-year psychology courses and freshman interest groups (FIGs) in her 19 years at the UO, making her the friendly face at the gateway to the university for thousands of new collegians. She tries to make the most of this role as both a teacher and mentor, drawing from her own love for the college experience as she nudges freshmen in her FIGs to explore Eugene's off-campus gems, such as student-rate concerts at the Hult Center.
The opportunities to learn beyond the classroom extend to Hodges's lab, where she carves out a critical role for more advanced undergraduates in her research on "empathic accuracy," or people's ability to infer the thoughts of others. After training her student assistants (in tasks ranging from videotaping study participants in conversation to coding these interactions for empathic accuracy), she helps strongly motivated students transform their research experiences into honors thesis projects.
As the primary advisor on many of these thesis committees, Hodges steers students past the final barrier of their undergraduate educations, completing journeys that began, for many of them, with their professor's signature prank.
"I think about the idea that [my class] is their first taste of college," Hodges says. "If it's going to be their first taste, I want it to be good."
Name: Sara D. Hodges
Education: BA '89, Rhodes College; PhD '95, University of Virginia
Teaching Experience: Joined the UO faculty in 1995.
Awards: The winner of the 2013 Thomas F. Herman Faculty Achievement Award for Distinguished Teaching, Hodges is a five-time recipient of the James F. and Shirley K. Rippey Fund Award for Teaching Innovation and a 2008 Williams Council Fellow.
Off-Campus: A musician and dancer, Hodges plays in a string quartet with friends and performed in the dance chorus of My Fair Lady at the 2004 Oregon Festival of American Music. She also enjoys cooking, a hobby she says is offset by time in the gym trying to negate the effects of her creations.
Last Word: "A great research study can take several years to complete and publish. The little hits of accomplishment I experience while teaching provide me with more immediate gratification, which complements research really well."
—By Ben DeJarnette