Meet Emma Grisham, the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience’s First Teaching Postdoc

Emma Grisham, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate.
Emma Grisham, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate.

Emma Grisham, Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, is the department’s first-ever “teaching postdoc.”

Working alongside Professor of the Practice of Psychology and Neuroscience Bridgette Hard, Grisham is developing expertise in the teaching of psychology.

Co-leading the mammoth Introductory to Psychology course (PSY 101), which enrolls close to 700 Duke students a year, as well as the Costanzo Teaching Fellows program, which mentors a cohort of undergraduate students each year to become effective teachers, confident leaders and peer-mentors.

Originally from Palm City, Florida, Grisham received her Ph.D. in Psychological Science with concentrations in Social Psychology and Quantitative Methods from the University of California, Irvine.

She conducts research on teaching and learning with focus on how different metaphors for teaching shape different expectations in the classroom, and how student experiences shape an important aspect of student wellbeing known as “psychological richness.”

Grisham focuses on the practice and science of teaching and is passionate about teaching psychology, training students and leveraging psychological research to advance pedagogy.

We spoke with Grisham to learn more about her research and experiences in a postdoc role that primarily involves teaching. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in your research?  

I’ve always been passionate about teaching, so it just made sense to apply my training as a researcher to explore ways to improve instruction and support the student experience, both within the classroom and the university context more broadly.

The focus of my doctoral research — mental health responses to collective traumatic events — is quite different from what I study now, but my background in social psychology and interest in psychological well-being are very relevant to the work I do now.

What interested you in joining Duke?

Duke is one of the only universities to offer a postdoc that primarily involves teaching and exceptionally engaging, high-quality teaching at that. Beyond that, my current position just felt like it was made for me. It allows me to devote my time to what I most enjoy doing: teaching psychology and mentoring students to be effective teachers of psychology — in collaboration with, and under the mentorship of, a truly inspiring teacher, Bridgette Hard. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to learn from the best and be a part of a program that is doing such innovative and impactful work in the teaching and learning space.  

Can you say more about how metaphors in teaching shape classroom expectations?

Metaphors provide a framework to guide our thinking about a given topic or idea, and teachers often think about their role in the classroom in metaphorical terms. Some teachers describe themselves as “coaches” with their students as the “athletes” or “team”, or as “gardeners” hoping to cultivate their students’ growth. When teachers use these different metaphors to describe their teaching philosophy to students, it can lead students to make different assumptions about the instructor and the course, like: how supportive and accommodating the instructor will be, how flexible the course policies will be, how much effort will be required to succeed and how much responsibility students have for their own learning in the course.

Grisham and students sitting around table
Grisham and students from the 22-23 cohort of Costanzo Teaching Fellows gather for an end-of-Fall celebratory brunch.

How does the concept of “psychological richness” apply in the everyday classroom? Is it applicable for all age groups, or does it apply to learners at different stages in development differently?

Psychological richness is a form of psychological wellbeing tied to experiencing complexity, variety and novelty, and so is particularly relevant to students’ experience learning new things and being mentally challenged in the classroom.

Research on psychological richness is still quite new so there are still many unexplored questions about its significance across developmental stages — but, if I were to speculate, I would guess that it might be most relevant to college students who, compared to K-12 students, are at their peak of their cognitive capabilities and have the freedom to explore such a variety of new disciplines and topics.

What is a “pro tip” for mentorship and teaching that you’ve learned over the years?

Take the time to get to know your students as whole people. Academics are always busy and, for efficiency’s sake, it can be tempting to ‘cut to the chase’ and lose that human element. In my experience, teaching and mentoring are much more effective, rewarding and fun for both me and my students when I save space for connection. College is such a transformative time for students and, for me, it’s a privilege to be part of that experience.

What do you like to do outside of your work?

I love to read — mostly fiction, explore new restaurants, go to local trivia nights with friends and spend as much time outdoors as possible.

What is something that you love about Durham?

It’s the epitome of a big-little place. It offers everything I want from a city like arts, culture and food, but without the stress of city life, and with lots of access to nature and a strong sense of community.