November 1, 1996
When Abby Spencer (N '98) enrolled at Tulane, she had competing interests in psychology and biology. After she took Gary Dohanich's course Brain and Behavior, she had something else: a self-designed major in behavioral neuroscience. "I took his course first semester freshman year, and that's when I knew I wanted to do neuroscience," recalls Spencer, who designed the major with Dohanich as her adviser.
"He's such an amazing teacher. He's very straight forward, and he pushes you to think. He makes everyone--even if you're an English major--want to learn neuroscience." Spencer isn't the only one who thinks highly of Dohanich. An associate professor of psychology, Dohanich is the recipient of the 1996 Sheldon Hackney Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award, named in honor of former Tulane president and current chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Sheldon Hackney, is presented by the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) to recognize outstanding teaching by one of its own. The winner is selected by a committee of four faculty members and four students from Tulane and Newcomb colleges, based on nominations from students and faculty.
Dohanich currently teaches three courses: Brain and Behavior, a survey course on the physiological basis of behavior; Psychobiology, a 600-level course that expands on the first course with an added lab component; and Psychopharmacology, a 600-level course that deals with the actions of drugs on the brain and behavior. He has also involved a large number of undergraduates in his research, much of which focuses on the effects of hormones such as estrogen on behaviors such as reproduction and, more recently, learning and memory. A native of Scranton, Pa., Dohanich earned a bachelor's in psychology from Lehigh, a master's degree from Villanova, and a doctorate in zoology from Michigan State.
Prior to joining Tulane in 1985, he completed a three-year postdoctoral program in neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York. "I never really wanted to be a physician and I never really wanted to practice any kind of clinical medicine," he says. "But I was always interested in how the functioning of the brain-affected behaviors." That interest led Dohanich initially to favor the laboratory over the classroom. Even when he joined Tulane in 1985, he considered research--rather than teaching--his true calling. "I knew that to do research at the kind of university I wanted to be at, I would have to teach," he explains. "It was always sort of a means to the end."
At Tulane, however, that attitude began to change. "I got a lot of positive feedback from the students, and that meant a lot," he says. "The thing about teaching is it really is much more rewarding than research. Research is a very long, tedious process, and the rewards are few and far between. Usually you do a study, it takes six months and at the end you get some answer that's ambiguous; that's the norm. Then there's the constant pressure to find external funding. I guess I never thought about teaching or that I would be good at it; it just ended up being something that I had some natural ability at,that I never recognized." Dohanich's approach to teaching is so simple it sounds almost trite, but he believes very strongly in its validity.
"It's really two things," he says. "Be clear and be fair; that's what guides me. I try to be fair in grading students and in my general treatment of them. And when I'm teaching I try to be as clear as I can. I think from evaluations and the things people have told me, clarity is really where my strength comes in. I always try to keep focused on those two things." He also endorses a method of teaching often maligned in recent years--the old-fashioned lecture. "I think that there's a tremendous amount that can be learned in a lecture-type class," he says.
"Even if students take away just 10 or 15 or 20 percent, just by the volume of material presented, I think that they can really come away with a tremendous amount from a well-organized lecture. The key is organization. "Some of the students come through here and they say, 'I don't want to teach,'" Dohanich says. "I say, 'Well, you should try it, because you might actually like it and you might actually be good at it.' "
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