Teacher of the Week- Professor Julie Fitness

What makes Julie Fitness, Psychology’s Head of Department, tick? Love, betrayal, forgiveness and TinPan Orange. Read on…..

A bit about your background, Julie?

Staff Portraits, Psychology
Staff Portraits, Psychology

I am a social psychologist who graduated in 1991 from the University of Canterbury, NZ, with a PhD on love, hate, anger and jealousy in marriage. Since then I have maintained a strong interest in the causes and consequences of emotions in close relationships, and have also carried out some research on anger in the workplace. My earlier work on difficult and painful emotions such as anger, hurt and hate in close relationships led inevitably to research on betrayal and forgiveness, and I am particularly interested in how relationship partners and family members respond to one another’s ‘bad’ behaviour and how they decide to punish it.

I have been very lucky at Macquarie to have been able to teach units that are closely related to my areas of research interest. I have also supervised a large number of Honours, DPsych and PhD students on a wide range of social psychological topics including the features and functions of emotions within close relationship contexts.

What are your main teaching commitments?

I currently teach the 3rd year “People” unit entitled “The Psychology of Human Relationships”. I also give guest lectures to first year psychology on evolutionary psychological approaches to aggression and altruism.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a university teacher?

The lack of time students have these days to engage fully in their studies with passion and enthusiasm. I don’t blame them for it, I can see how time-poor they are. However, I find it increasingly challenging to find ways of encouraging student engagement and deep learning, especially as lecture attendance decreases, tutorials become crowded, and students are increasingly anxious about their future prospects. Who has time to read anymore? I wish I could convince them that these are the best days of their lives.. but I guess all old people say that.

What has helped you improve your teaching most and why?

Feedback from students has helped to improve my teaching (anonymous feedback is not always ego-boosting but it is invariably useful). When several hundred students make similar observations about what is working well and what is not so effective, it is important to make changes and to re-evaluate. I have also sought feedback from peers about various aspects of my teaching, and have participated in teaching-related research projects that have been extremely helpful to my understanding of how students learn and what gets in the way of that learning.

What’s been your most memorable moment in teaching? 

In a class I was teaching several years ago on the psychology of emotion, students were required to keep emotion diaries, recording details of emotional events as they experienced them throughout the semester. In the final tutorial students were invited to discuss their emotional experiences in light of psychological theory and research we had covered in the unit. A student noted that half-way through the semester she had read through her diary and was struck by the multiple incidents of anger she had recorded. She decided she “didn’t want to be that angry person anymore” so drew upon her new-found understanding of the links between thoughts and feelings to change the way she interpreted other people’s behaviours. By the end of semester she was, by her own admission, a much less angry person and as a bonus, a much happier one. This is a memorable moment for me because the student had achieved both an intellectual understanding of the psychology of emotion and a personal experience of control over her own emotional life. This exemplifies what I believe is the most important aspect of learning – that whatever you’re learning needs to matter, and both the head and the heart need to be engaged.

Who is your favourite music band? Why?

Today it is Fleet Foxes, tomorrow it may be TinPan Orange. Or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. There is no accounting for taste!

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