The subjects covered in Carolyn West's class might make you squirm.
Rape and sexual assault. Domestic violence. Race. Sexual deviance. The topics that bring discomfort and fear to many form the basis of West's celebrated teaching and research career. For addressing sensitive subjects in the classroom with authenticity, respect and a healthy dose of fun, West earned the 2013 UW Tacoma Distinguished Teaching Award.
A psychology professor at UW Tacoma since 1997, West has built a reputation around the county as a leading researcher, lecturer and consultant on the subjects of domestic violence and sexual assault. On campus, students and colleagues know her as a challenging, engaging teacher who encourages and inspires her students.
She “pushed and challenged me well outside my comfort zone,” one student says in a nomination letter. “Very few professors are willing to take on sensitive or taboo topics honestly and with respect. (West) is one of the few.”
West didn’t always want to be a college professor, but psychology has always been in her blood. As a child, she read about psychology in an encyclopedia and decided she wanted to become a therapist. At age 12 she checked out her first library book, a 1970s examination of domestic violence, and began to develop an interest in the subject.
After studying to become a therapist, she found she disliked working in a practice and began to examine other options as she sought a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She accepted a job as a teaching assistant and discovered a hidden talent in the classroom.
“I fell in love with teaching,” she says. “It’s a way to touch so many more lives. You can work with one person and they go tell others, and your impact is expanded. One little bit of knowledge you give people can help so many others.”
Soon after joining the UW Tacoma faculty, West applied herself to scholarship on the subject of battered women. Her work led to a book, Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black and Blue in 2003, and dozens of academic publications, conference presentations and lectures around the country. From 2005-2008, she was honored as the first holder of the University of Washington's Bartley-Dobb Professorship for the Study of Violence. But the true value of her scholarship, she says, isn’t measured in grants and articles. Her primary goal is to apply her research to real-life problems.
For example, West has developed culturally sensitive training material for domestic violence and sexual assault advocates, and participated in congressional briefings in Washington, D.C., to educate elected officials about domestic violence. On the UW Tacoma campus, she used funds from her endowed professorship to help establish the Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) training program. West, who helped train the R.A.D. course leaders, gives class credit to students who participate in the training.
West uses the same hands-on approach in her classes. Students learn about human sexuality, family violence, sexual deviance and sex crimes and violence in an open, forthright manner, pushed to understand difficult subjects in new ways.
“Her classes … not only promote thoughtful openness to a broad range of students’ questions, but also apply creative instructional methods ensuring students are comfortable with the often difficult and sensitive subject matter presented,” another student nominator said.
"Teaching is like a form of performance art that allows me, with the participation of students, to move between lecture, discussion, video and group activities," West said.
One of those activities is a mock rape trial, where students play the roles of victim, perpetrator, judge, jury, lawyers and witnesses. The student jury hears scripted arguments and votes on whether there is enough evidence to convict before watching a video that depicts what really happened in the trial. The exercise is a creative way to teach about rape myths and laws and the role of the criminal legal system.
“I want to make students more comfortable while helping them understand how these issues are linked to our larger culture,” she says. “I think it’s important to give students real-life experiences they couldn’t get elsewhere.”
The approach works. Students are lining up to take her classes or complete research projects or internships with her. She’s conducted more than 30 undergraduate research projects, independent studies and internships and taken students to conferences across to country to present their work and learn from other scholars.
One of her proudest moments, she says, was in 2010 when the university added a bachelor of arts in psychology to its growing list of programs. Previously, psychology had been a subject offered as part of other degree programs. It’s now one of the fastest-growing majors on campus.
“At one time, I was the only full-time psychology teacher in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program,” West says. “To see it grow to this point has been wonderful.”