Dr. Vitale's Multiple Personalities

By John Lee Dudley '95

“We always say we are a community,” says Elliot Professor of Psychology Dr. Jennifer Vitale. “In a community, that means you don’t have prescribed, specific roles.”

Dr. Jennifer Vitale is a generalist. “It means wearing multiple hats,” she says. “The idea is not, ‘Oh, that’s not my job; that’s your job.’ So, I do a lot of different things, because that is how this place is supposed to function. If you can do something, you do it.”

Vitale was recognized at Commencement this year with The Thomas Edward Crawley Award, which is given annually to a professor who is most distinguished for devoted service to the ideals of Hampden-Sydney College and to the education of its sons.

She has served the College well. During the past two years alone, she has been chair of the Psychology Department, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, and director of the Honors Program. She also served on the ad hoc committees for Western Culture Revision and for the Living and Learning Communities. She is currently the chair of the Human Research Review Committee, and she guides students from their times as freshman until they begin upper-level work as seniors.

Vitale graduated from Pomona College, a small, liberal arts college, and was drawn to working at a similar school. When she applied to work at Hampden-Sydney, she saw the opportunity to work closely with students and to have the autonomy to cultivate her own interests. Vitale finds that her personal area of interest, forensic psychology, appeals to many students at Hampden-Sydney, though she admits she has to get them past the Hollywood version of a “psychopath” before they can learn about real violent, anti-social behavior.Dr. Vitale at Hampden Sydney

“Often students will ask me about characters from a movie or a book, and I talk to them about how in fiction you don’t need psychological realism. That person wouldn’t exist in real life, and we get to talk about why. That classic trope of the ‘con-man with a heart of gold’—you don’t get that in real life. People who do that kind of manipulation don’t have hearts of gold.”

Even though students might not find the reality of forensic psychology as thrilling as what they get from Hollywood, Vitale hopes they will find an interest in the science of psychology, just as she has.

“I tell my students that psychology is the science of human behavior, and human behavior involves cognition, emotion, and affect; those motivate human behavior. Psychology is different from economics and sociology in that we are interested in the micro level, the individual level, rather than the system level. We are sort of caught between social science and natural science, but our methodology is definitely scientific. It is empirical. I try to get my students to understand that this is not about case studies and intuition. No, you have to show me with data.”

It is no surprise, then, that research is an integral part of Hampden-Sydney’s psychology curriculum. Every psychology major must complete an empirical project before he can graduate. Some students, particularly those interested in going to graduate school, must also complete independent-study research. This summer Drs. Daniel Mossler, Robert Herdegen, and Vitale all have students conducting research. (Dr. Daniel Weese is on sabbatical.)

Vitale urges, “We want to get our students starting research sooner. We have a lot of guys who want to go on to graduate school, and—I think this is true in all of the disciplines—if you’re not publishing as an undergrad, you can’t get into a Ph.D. program. We need our students to be starting research as sophomores so they can be going to conferences by the time they are juniors and seniors.”

She also says that those in the Psychology Department need to do a better job of explaining to students what psychology can do for them in terms of careers. “We used to have students come to us and say, ‘I don’t want to become a psychologist.’ And I would say, ‘Ninety percent of our majors don’t become psychologists.’ So, we have been trying to explain how to make the connections with broader education or coaching or advertising or law enforcement.”

In addition, as a psychologist, Dr. Vitale is acutely aware of the mental health issues facing Hampden-Sydney students today.

“Young men typically do not reach out for help with mental health issues. They do not want to recognize them. When you are talking about depression or anxiety, you have to pay extra attention to it on this kind of a campus because they probably are not seeking help on their own.”

She works with her students, as well as the general student body, to help them understand that psychotherapy is not just taking a pill or lying on a therapist’s couch talking about their feelings. There can be more to it.

“A lot of treatment is really straightforward, cognitive, behavioral stuff. I tell them to think of it in terms of learning a new sport or a new hobby. You develop a set of skills and you practice them. That is what psychotherapy can be. That takes some of the mystery out of it.”

As mental health issues gain more attention on college campuses, Vitale says she has seen a shift in attitudes among faculty.

“When I first came here I went to a faculty meeting, and we were talking about learning disabilities. The attitude among some of the faculty was, ‘They should just power through.’ Now there is much more acceptance and understanding that these are real things, real problems. A lot of our students have very bad anxiety problems and think that it’s not okay—not just for men, but for people generally. Faculty now are much more understanding of these problems and in helping our students work through these issues.”

Taking part in the community beyond the classroom has long been a regular part of being a professor at Hampden-Sydney, so recognizing one among the many is a difficult task. This year, Vitale illustrated how important it is to the College for faculty to be both outstanding scholars and educators as well as caring and compassionate people.