Mungo professor of the year: Amit Almor

For top professor, it's always all about the students

This spring, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced all university courses online for the remainder of the semester, Amit Almor was teaching his Psychology 405 class online when someone hacked into one of his lectures.

“There was an interruption 18 minutes into my class,” says Almor, an associate professor of psychology and linguistics. “These microphone sounds start coming in, and all of a sudden this person bombs my class. They’re talking about me, and pretty quickly I started to realize what was happening.”

But what was happening was actually pretty cool. The University of South Carolina’s Office of the Provost was making a surprise announcement: Almor had just received the 2020 Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year award, the highest honor a faculty member can receive for their performance in the classroom.

“I’m not sure exactly how they did it, but I think my TA was in cahoots with them,” says Almor “It was very moving and exciting. But the most moving and exciting thing was the response of the students in the chats — they just exploded.”

For Almor, who has been at the university since 2003, the job always circles back to the students. While maintaining a robust research agenda in experimental psychology and publishing at a steady clip, he sees his role in the classroom as a responsibility, “a kind of a sacred obligation to serve.”

“If anything, teaching is almost more important than my research because it involves people,” he says. “I can make students’ lives better in a much more direct and influential way than I can through research.”

It’s why, for example, he devotes an entire class period to a sort of postgame discussion of the midterm — and encourages his students to explain their thinking: how they arrived at their answers and even why an answer Almor marked as incorrect might actually be valid.

“It turns an evaluation instrument into an active learning instrument,” he explains. “If they manage to persuade me that an answer that I thought was wrong actually has some reason to it, I applaud that and give them credit for that. I’m very happy to change the grade.

“In some ways, the grade is the least important thing to me. What’s important is the exercise. In cognitive psychology we call it active elaboration.”

And he’s not simply talking to the star students. As important as the material on the syllabus may be for those seeking entrance to a graduate program in psychology or a career in the field, Almor’s classroom approach is more inclusive and more democratic.

“Unless they end up working in my area, in 10 years most of my students will not retain a lot of specific knowledge from the courses that I teach,” he says. “What they will retain are self-confidence, a feeling of empowerment, and an ability to think about and approach problems in a way that they couldn’t before they entered my class.”

If anything, teaching is almost more important than my research because it involves people. I can make students’ lives better in a much more direct and influential way than I can through research.

Despite more than two decades in the classroom, Almor describes himself as an “intermediate teacher” — “because I am always trying to change and improve, and I think I can still do things better.” It’s a journey he began at Brown University, when he was given an assignment as a graduate teaching assistant in a statistics class.

“At first, I was upset about my bad luck because statistics meant more work, but after a few weeks of doing it I totally fell in love with it and I insisted on doing that for the rest of my time in graduate school,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to interact with the students and work with them in a way that felt meaningful.”

And while he was excited to teach graduate courses and higher-level undergraduate courses — and he continues to delight in working with and mentoring those students in his lab — as his career has progressed, his classroom philosophy has evolved.

“I realized that I’m really a public servant, and I can actually do more than just teach the material on the syllabus,” he says. “I can work with these young people and help them transform themselves into something more. That kind of blows my mind to think about, but I am really grateful for that.”

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