Power of Positive
Robert Lawson 2003 Kidder Faculty Award
by Jon Reidel, photograph by Jordan Silverman
The difficult combination of a painfully shy student and an oral class
presentation is producing meltdown. You can feel the entire class silently
urging on the young woman at the front of the room, but its no use.
Shes not going to make it and tears begin to flow. Its times
like these that demand professors like Robert Lawson.
The excrutiating moment is tempered by the intervention of the gentlemanly
Lawson, who just completed his 37th year as a professor of psychology
at UVM. He tells the student to relax and take a break. In the quiet of
the hallway outside of the classroom, he encourages her to take some deep
breaths and repeat to herself three times: You can do this.
Following her heart-to-heart with Lawson, the flustered student gathers
herself, walks back in the classroom, and manages to complete her presentation.
No one is more pleased than the professor, who is fighting back tears
It was very important to me that she finish, because I sensed that
the most important thing she was going to learn from the course was to
believe in herself, and that she has the capacities to deal with the many
challenges that confront all of us, Lawson says later. It
is said that what we teach is many times what we most need to learn,
and I think she taught herself, me, and everyone else in the class that
day that it is important to believe in oneself.
The encounter is a fitting illustration of the way Lawson has dealt with
students since arriving at UVM in the fall of 1966 at age 25. Students
use words like endearing, compassionate, and devoted when describing Lawson,
who introduces himself to all of his students, including each of those
in his 165-student lectures, with a handshake.
Lawsons ability to reach students on a personal level and help guide
them through difficult situations is one of the key reasons he was awarded
the 2003 George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award.
Whether youre amazed that Professor Lawson knows your name
and shakes your hand every day in a classroom of over 100 students, or
youre fascinated by the way he understands and cares about difficult
situations in your life, every student will be positively affected by
him, says former student Michelle Chicoine 00. Professor
Lawson is the type of person whom I strive to be like.
Years of teaching and advising have given Lawson the gift of identifying
those in need. When international students such as Stefan Luger arrive
at UVM, Lawson takes a personal interest in helping them adjust to their
new surroundings. The Austrian student arrived at UVM not knowing a soul,
and as Luger made his way to his first classes the campus was a mystery.
A tall person, well-dressed and handsome, crossed my way asking
whether I would need help, says Luger. I told that person
I was heading for Professor Lawsons class, and that I am not sure
where to find his classroom. That person then started smiling at me, reached
out with his hand for mine with the words: Well, I guess you just
found it. Hi, I am Robert Lawson, welcome to my class. I was astonished
and more than impressed by so much openness, friendliness, and warmth.
Once Lawson memorizes each students name and develops a rapport,
he introduces some concepts that he considers crucial to their development.
First and foremost, he encourages students to think logically and
We really need to use our mind and our hearts, Lawson says.
I think this speaks to a lot of students. He offers a variation
on Louis Pasteurs famous words that chance favors the informed
Chance favors the optimist, Lawson tells his students, because
the pessimist is unlikely to take a chance.
On the surface, the odds of Lawson earning a bachelors degree in
psychology from Monmouth College in 1961, much less a masters and
doctorate from the University of Delaware, appeared slim in the early
1950s. The dozens of academic and administrative appointments, as well
as the research awards and publications that followed, were even more
unlikely given that he would represent the first generation of his family
to attend college.
Though Lawsons parents didnt have the opportunity for higher
education, they placed a high value on learning. His father used to read
to the family as they ate breakfast in their modest home in The Bronx,
and it wasnt the box score from last nights Yankees game he
was reading. Lawson recalls listening to passages from John Lockes
Essay Concerning Human Understanding and from philosophers
René Descartes and John Stuart Mill as he ate his Cheerios.
parents encouraged me to get an education because they knew it was a ticket
to liberation, Lawson says. They told me that no one
could ever take that away from you. Lawsons mother,
an Irish immigrant from Belfast who celebrated her 97th birthday this
year, told her children to always work hard and wear a smile.
The lesson my mother taught me was that what you have isnt
important, but what you do with what you have is very important,
Lawson says. When times were tough shed always find a way
to make them better.
Lawson urges students to go to their parents with the really serious questions,
he cant help but be a fatherly presence himself. When Lawson senses
that a student is struggling with some aspect of life, he often takes
them aside to offer some little suggestions or tricks
that may help them. It may be something as small as recommending eating
better, sleeping more, partying less, or sitting in the front row of their
A professor as approachable as Lawson is often asked for guidance with
the difficult, fork-in-the-road choices that college students face. Lawson
recalls one student who was torn between pursuing a career in art and
the banking career his father was pushing. He told the young man, who
was on his way to Europe for a trip, to take 30 minutes to stop and look
at one of Michelangelos finest works before making a decision.
Thats the stuff of the heart. Lawson says. Thats
what keeps me going. Even if he decided to be a banker that would have
been okay, because he would have been at peace with himself. I tell students
to have faith in themselves to listen to that internal voice. Take
that walk in the park by yourself to find out who you are.