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The Power of Positive Professing

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 it’s no use. She’s not going to make it and tears begin to flow. It’s 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 himself.

“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.

Lawson’s 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 you’re amazed that Professor Lawson knows your name and shakes your hand every day in a classroom of over 100 students, or you’re 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 Lawson’s 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 student’s 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 act compassionately.”

“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 Pasteur’s famous words that “chance favors the informed mind.”

“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 bachelor’s degree in psychology from Monmouth College in 1961, much less a master’s 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 Lawson’s parents didn’t 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 wasn’t the box score from last night’s Yankees game he was reading. Lawson recalls listening to passages from John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” and from philosophers René Descartes and John Stuart Mill as he ate his Cheerios.

“My 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.’” Lawson’s 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 isn’t important, but what you do with what you have is very important,” Lawson says. “When times were tough she’d always find a way to make them better.”

Though Lawson urges students to go to their parents with the really serious questions, he can’t 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 classes.

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 Michelangelo’s finest works before making a decision.

“That’s the stuff of the heart.” Lawson says. “That’s 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.”