Many U of T professors boast of countless awards, but only a few are privileged enough to have their own fan clubs — one of them is psychology professor Dan Dolderman.
Chuckling uncontrollably, Dolderman said he “felt really flattered” after students informed him of the Facebook fan club’s existence four years ago.
Though primarily an environmental psychologist, Dolderman is best known for teaching PSY100, Intro to Psychology. PSY100 is taught in Convocation Hall and is one of the biggest classes in the University, catering to 1500 students per lecture.
“The large number of students is pretty challenging,” he said. “There are lots of people you don’t get to know at all…so I usually end up spending quite a bit of time after my classes — like, an hour to an hour and a half — just talking to people about different things.”
To hold his students’ interest, Dolderman weaves anecdotes through lectures and cracks jokes.
“I try to make [classes] fun so they’re genuinely enjoyable, but I also try to strike a balance by making things personally relevant…profound and deeply meaningful,” he explained.
Despite the class size, Dolderman, who started teaching the course in 2007 after joining the faculty in 2002, said that PSY100 is the psychology department’s “well-kept secret.”
“It’s actually really fun to teach. You get to really reflect on the most important and perspective-altering ideas that psychology has to offer because we cover a huge amount of terrain in a small amount of time,” he said.
According to his Leading the Way Youth Summit speaker’s profile, growing up in rural Ontario has given Dolderman an “enduring love for nature” that has motivated him to focus his research on environmental communication and behavioural changes.
“I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. I was trained as a social psychologist but I wanted to apply my knowledge to real-life situations. Environmental psychology’s multidisciplinary aspect allows me to contribute to the world in terms of my interests…like climate change and international development.”
Outside of class, he dedicates his time to working with initiatives such as the U of T Sustainability Office’s Rewire program, which aims to reduce total energy consumption through small behavioural changes. He has also lent his knowledge to Toronto’s City Council and organizations such as Free the Children as a consultant on topics ranging from psychology to youth development and volunteerism.
With his background in psychology, Dolderman is seeking ways to increase political activism in society; he hopes to achieve this with his new pet project, “Unstoppable Snowball.” The program, to be unveiled this winter, is a social networking experiment that “takes people’s existing motivations and provides them with ways to see how easily they can affect change.”
“We are close to passing our tipping points, and after that it would be really hard to turn things around. There is need for pretty massive social change, and without rigorous movements, it is never going to happen,” he stated. “There is a huge disconnect between caring and taking action, and I want to help people feel more comfortable reaching out to their peers,” he continued.
When asked about the most memorable moments of his teaching career, Dolderman replied that he cannot name only one.
“There are two different kinds of [moments] that are really memorable,” said the professor “Ones where everyone — even me — is laughing at something that’s happened in class or…ones when the room is entirely silent and you can feel people are completely with you. I can’t really explain it.”
To illustrate what he meant, Dolderman reminisced about a lecture he did in his cognitive psychology class last winter.
“There was one time in my class where we did a meditation designed to make people feel certain emotions like compassion. It was 15 minutes of guided exercise and at the end of it at least three-quarters of the class had tears in their eyes. Getting people in touch with things that they themselves [felt] really, really deeply – it was incredible. I’ll never forget that,” he said.
Having realized that he wanted to be an educator towards the end of his graduate studies in Waterloo, Dolderman said that he has never once second-guessed his decision.
“Teaching is basically my dream job, I really like people and…being [at] U of T is a really amazing opportunity to connect with brilliant people everyday.”