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Dr. Zoe Dennison: Head of Psychology, University of the Fraser Valley


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2013/08/03

1. What positions have you held?  What positions do you currently hold?

Currently, I am the head of the psychology department at University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).  For many years, I was the chair of the academic appeals process and also for a few years the manager of the online campus.  In academe, I have been a faculty member, a sessional instructor, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student.

2. How was your youth?  How did you come to this point in your academics? 

That’s a hard question to answer. My ‘youth’ was quite varied, good and bad, often weird and woolly….certainly I had no plan to become a professor!

When I was in high school, I skipped out as much as I could. My parents didn’t think much of the school system, so they were always willing to write me whatever notes were required. In my immediate family, reading and thinking were important but going to school or following the ‘rules’ were not. However, my father always said I should go to university.  His description of what university would be like was quite romantic as it turned out.   Few people in my family went to university or college, so my aunties looked at me with great suspicion when I did finally go.

After high school, I got a job in a bank. All the staff were women, many who had been there for 30 years or more, but all the managers were men (it was the ‘80s).  After I’d worked for a few months, I looked around and thought, “I can’t do this for thirty years, it’ll kill me.”  I quit my job, travelled a bit, and eventually applied to the University of Victoria. Again, no real plan, but I had some friends there and I was too timid to go where I knew nobody. I’d moved many times before that, so when I got to Victoria, I looked around and thought, “Yea, I could stay here for a year.”

I decided to take a Computer Science major. It was quite different then compared to computers today. There were no ‘personal’ computers, we all worked on individual terminals that accessed a very large computer called the ‘mainframe’. We learned programming languages like Pascal, and usually first year students got the midnight shift down in the basement. I lasted about a year and a half.  I used to ask a lot of questions in class, for example, ‘what are the programs for?’, ‘how will people be able to use them’, ‘can we make computers easier to use?’ The instructors and my fellow students came to hate my interruptions and questions, and I felt like the target of the Orwellian ‘2 minute hate’.  Of course, I wasn’t too fond of those folks either, so it seemed like a good idea to move on.

Now I had ruled out banking, waitressing, and computer science. I was taking a number of other courses, so I decided to interview my professors about their professions.  Dr. Frank Spellacy, who taught brain and behaviour, was helpful and interesting (and he and his wife took me to lunch). The study of the brain fascinated me, so I decided to try psychology. I was behind a bit, so I had to take a lot of psychology courses at once (I never did take introductory psychology). I caught up and entered the honours program, mostly because the honours seminar was led one of my favourite professors, Dr. Gordon Hobson. In turn, he found me an excellent advisor, Dr. Otfried Spreen, in clinical neuropsychology. I had no idea how lucky I was.

A few months into my honours, Dr. Hobson asked me, “You’re applying to grad school, right?” “Sure I am”, I replied, and then had to ask around to find out what ‘grad school’ was. I was convinced none of the schools would take me, so I applied to quite a few across Canada. Pretty much all of them accepted me, I got an NSERC scholarship, and decided on UWO, again with no well thought out planning and because of some bad advice!

Frankly, I was just doing what was interesting at the time and taking opportunities as they arose. I was certainly a poor student in my first two years of university, skipping any classes I found boring and spending most of my evenings dancing at blues clubs. I recognize papers written the day before the due date easily, as I wrote many papers that way myself. I have a firsthand appreciation for the possibility that students who are doing badly in classes simply have more interesting things they prefer to do and, most importantly, that it could change. Over the years, I’ve seen more than one student who has done just that, turned things around to find something they love, and watching those students graduate and go on is particularly thrilling to me.

3. How did you gain interest in psychology?  Where did you acquire your education?

My father (influenced by Hemingway and Postman) used to encourage my brother and me to develop a ‘Bullshit Detector’. Psychology is built around exactly that kind of tool, which I realized once I started taking research methods and statistics courses. I felt right at home.

4. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?

My main graduate research at UWO was studying learning and plasticity in rats with a model not used much now called ‘kindling’ (it is still used a bit as a model for epilepsy). I also did some research on anti-epileptic drugs that block excitatory amino acid receptors and also on neural grafting.  At Mount Allison University, I worked on studying memory using a water maze.

My animal research ended when I moved back to B.C. to work at the University College of the Fraser Valley in 1993. The focus at UCFV (now UFV) was on teaching, so I had little time to do research.

A few years ago I took a short sabbatical to work on changing first year psychology instruction to increase success in some groups of first year students such as mature students, students from applied areas such as social work, and First Nations students. I used what I learned in developing my own teaching of introductory psychology and in creating a peer tutor program.

My current interests are in the area of the psychology of music, specifically health related outcomes for hand drumming and singing. However, I have not made much progress since I became department head and further work will likely have to wait until I am finished!

5. If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?

Not much right now, being head of psychology uses all my available neurons.

6. Since you began studying psychology, what do you consider the controversial topics?  How do you examine the controversial topics?

What do you mean by controversial?…

7. …Self-Defined controversy in your field…

Psychology is by its nature controversial.

Any subfield of psychology challenges what ‘everybody knows’, from research methods (“Correlation is not causation”) to memory to development to social psychology and so on.

If you learn to think using the tools of psychology, you will be often on the other side of marketing in all its forms, including governments, newspapers, parents, teachers…

There are many classic studies, which we go through in introductory psychology, that illustrate this point over and over.

8. …In hindsight, do they seem controversial?

My guess is that at the time, they knew they were doing something controversial, challenging ‘what everybody knows’.

9. How would you describe your philosophical frameworks inside and outside of Psychology? 

Well, that ‘Bullshit Detector’ has come in handy.

I wouldn’t say I have a specific philosophical framework anymore, but I do believe in personal responsibility and in fair processes.

10. How have your philosophical frameworks evolved?

My parents raised us as Objectivists, which is based on the writing of Ayn Rand.   I sometimes call myself a ‘Recovered Objectivist’.  If you look at the basic principles of reasoning in Objectivism, critical thinking and personal responsibility stand out, and I have retained those. I also retain a preference for minimal government. However, I do also believe in collective actions, like taxes to pay for education and health care, which would have me thrown out of the Objectivist meeting. If they had meetings…

Until I moved to the Fraser Valley, I didn’t realize how significant being raised without religion was to my philosophy and reasoning abilities. Now that I live amongst many folks raised with religious points of view, it is strange to have to declare myself an ‘atheist’, as other places I lived that was the dominant perspective.

11. If you had unlimited funding and unrestricted freedom, what would you enjoy researching?

I don’t want unrestricted freedom to research any question, it’s a nasty idea!  Ethics boards sometimes seem a bit overly restrictive but as acting ethically isn’t intuitive, you need others to look at your ideas and question your methods. Ethics are foundational to psychology research.

12. For students looking for fame, fortune, and/or utility (personal and/or social), what advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students in Psychology?

Tolerate ambiguity.

13. Whom do you consider your biggest influences?  Could you recommend any seminal or important books/articles by them?

In my early years, I was influenced by Ayn Rand, Isaac Asimov and Oscar Wilde. At grad school, I was influenced by Doreen Kimura.  Her approach to thinking about function and brain structures was exceptionally instructive to me.  She made a number of important observations about the quality of the data and what could be drawn from it given the limitations of the methodology of that time.

Case Vanderwolf was also a greatly influential professor in grad school.  If you asked Case a question about neurophysiology or brain and behaviour, his answer was usually, “Hmmm, I don’t know.”  Then he’d pause, and then tell you all the relevant research that had been done, and how it was done, and he’d demonstrate how you went about thinking about the question, and what kind of questions still needed to be asked. After this, he’d still conclude, “I don’t know”.

I recommend to all my assessment students that they read Paul Meehl’s ‘Why I don’t attend case conferences’It’s fairly old and somewhat acerbic, but it’s a good example that you can be trained in psychology and cognitive biases, but still fail to employ them.  It’s a cautionary tale, useful reading.

I also recommend Janet Shibley Hyde’s ‘The Gender Similarities Hypotheses’ and Deborah Cameron’s ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus’, both are excellent demonstrations of critical thinking.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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