Faculty Spotlight: Nnamdi Pole, PhD

Nnamdi Pole, PhD, is a visiting scholar with the Wright Institute Counseling Psychology Program, on sabbatical from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He sat down to discuss his history with the Wright Institute, his teaching experience, and how the higher education field is doing at promoting diversity.

Dalton Green (DG): You've been affiliated with the Wright Institute for about two decades. How did you first become a part of the Wright Institute community?

Nnamdi Pole (NP): I was a psychotherapy researcher at UC Berkeley, working in the psychodynamic therapy lab, and my Master's thesis focused on a control mastery case. When attending a control mastery group meeting in San Francisco, I met Dr. Lynn O'Connor, who was and still is on the faculty at the Wright Institute Clinical Psychology Program. I had also known Dr. Milena Esherick from our time together as graduate students at UC Berkeley, and Dr. O'Connor helped me get reacquainted with her.

DG: What made the Wright Institute stand out to you?

NP: I've always felt that the Wright Institute was a great place to learn what clinical realities are about. I was also impressed by the quality of the students, and I feel that the students we have today are every bit as impressive as they were when I first came to the Wright Institute. Dr. Esherick reached out to me to see if I would teach a few weekends in the program, which I initially thought was ludicrous since I was teaching at Smith. It only took one Massachusetts winter for me to change my mind!

DG: You're currently on sabbatical from Smith College and are working as the Wright Institute's first-ever visiting scholar. What are you working on this term?

NP: I'm working on developing a way to quantify and measure the clinical outcomes that students achieve while in practicum, first and foremost for their own feedback. If you practice without feedback, you'll learn bad habits without realizing it. It doesn't always feel good to have your weaknesses emphasized, but it's important to be willing to accept constructive feedback and incorporate it into your work.

One way to do this is to have students nominate a single case from their work and collect feedback about the case from supervisors, patients, and the students themselves. This way, the students will have positive as well as constructive feedback, and will still be able to benefit from the valuable information that we're collecting.

I'll also be offering a lecture on culture and trauma as part of the Faculty Forum Series, and I've been teaching the Research Based Practice course alongside Dr. Kristin Dempsey.

DG: What has the process of teaching that course been like?

NP: I'm very invested in my teaching, and that is especially true with this course, which I've been teaching for several years now. Students seem to respond to my process, for which I am grateful. It's good to be teaching with Dr. Dempsey, who contributes a different voice to the course. She is very focused on real-world application and the brass tacks of how the concepts we're discussing are playing out in the field. I tend to be a little up in the clouds at some points, and Dr. Dempsey keeps us on the ground with how it actually happens. Dr. Esherick, who has been holding my feet to the fire in terms of keeping my syllabi up to date, has also been especially helpful in a managerial role.

My teaching is always very personal, and I always try to teach from the perspective of the experiences that I've lived through.

DG: How has the Research Based Practice course changed since you started teaching it in 2012?

NP: Recently, I've given the course a major update on readings so that the course materials remain current. This semester I've been able to lecture more about the history of the topic, which I greatly enjoy, while still being able to incorporate those more recent readings.

Of course, as with any class, the mechanics change over the years. We don't do as much formal instruction about writing and APA style as we used to, and we look more at real-world application of the premises that we discuss in class. For example, I showed a PBS Frontline special from the 90s that describes a once popular form of clinical intervention that has since been discredited by research, then tied it in with a current event regarding a Rutgers professor who recently used this intervention and found herself ultimately convicted of a crime and jailed. It's fun to see students surprised that the information in this old tape is still playing out in the news today.

DG: What do you like about spending time in California?

NP: The weather difference between here and Massachusetts is no small thing. I think the level of intellectual stimulation in the Bay Area is hard to beat. There's a certain quality of people, especially people who move here, who are in pursuit of high-level, world-changing ideas. Northern California has a bit of the New York pace with a more laid-back attitude - a work hard, play hard mentality. I really appreciate that, as I was born in New York.

DG: How do you feel that higher education is doing in terms of promoting diversity?

NP: I'm excited about the opportunities that higher education presents for promoting diversity and social justice in our broader society. One of the most compelling reasons to go away to a physical university is to encounter people who are different from you and who you would not encounter in your own hometown or in an online class. All of us should be able to agree that exchange with individuals different from ourselves has the potential to improve our understanding of the world - including more "trivial" things like differences in food, art, and other forms of culture.

As a person of color, I don't ever want to feel inferior just because my skin color is darker than the majority. I think campuses of higher education are settings where difference can be seen as an asset. At Smith College, I'm at a small, liberal arts, women's school that's predominately White and historically affluent. It's selective, and sees itself as progressive, so it tries its best to diversify, but like many other places it is learning that diversity is only the beginning. Inclusion is the harder task. One of the best phrases I've heard on this subject is that "diversity is inviting people to the party, but inclusion is asking them to dance." I think that Smith and many other institutions of higher learning are working on learning how to ask underrepresented members of our community to dance.

This is something special that we have to offer - people coming from all over to convene and study in one place - and we need to ensure that goes really well for everybody. At the end of college, a student should think, "I had a much better experience because I got to meet different types of people."


Learn more about the Wright Institute's Master of Counseling Psychology program.
Learn more about the Wright Institute's Doctor of Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program.