Deborah Stearns: For Maryland professor of the year, human sexuality courses engage beyond books


History Buzz

( JUANA ARIAS / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) – Psychology professor Deborah Stearns leads her Montgomery College students on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History. A community college education, Stearns believes, “should be the same as the first two years of college anywhere.”

Source: WaPo, 4-21-11

Students walked into Deborah Stearns’s classroom at Montgomery College one recent day to find the query WHAT IS LOVE? scrawled on the board and, beside it, a projected YouTube video of the ’90s hit club song of the same name.

They were in for an engaging afternoon. Stearns, 43, earned the honor Maryland Professor of the Year in November for a distinctive brand of teaching, alternately rigorous, inspirational and playful. And this was her signature course: human sexuality.

“We think, happiness, love,” she said, addressing a class of 16 community college students ranging in age from younger than 20 to older than 60. “But love is not always happiness. You could argue that love is really an addiction. That’s really cynical, isn’t it? . . . Shakespeare would not have written about this.”

Some people imagine community college as the fifth year of high school or as a colorless compendium of career training. But Stearns’s courses sound more like the offerings of a liberal arts school. Her success provides a reminder of the breadth of the community college mission, which encompasses everything from automotive technology and landscaping to philosophy and women’s studies.

“To me, this is just the first two years of college,” Stearns, a psychology professor, said. “It should be the same as the first two years of college anywhere.”

Stearns taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, and Georgetown and George Washington universities before joining Montgomery College, the largest community college in Maryland, in 2002.

She says she expects the same from her current students as from her past charges, and she teaches at the same rigorous pace. She jokes that the only measurable difference is price: Montgomery College charges $171 a credit — a small fraction of the tuition at her former workplaces.

“I still have the students I would get at University of Chicago or Georgetown, it’s just that they’re mixed in with a whole lot of other students,” she said.

Stearns grew up in a professor’s home: Her father, Peter Stearns, is provost of George Mason University and a widely published social historian. He was at the University of Chicago when she was born; the family moved to Rutgers, then to Carnegie Mellon. She recalls growing up “in my dad’s office.”

In undergraduate and graduate study at Penn, the younger Stearns cultivated an interest in social psychology, a field somewhat akin to her father’s; they co-wrote a 1994 paper on the history of emotion….READ MORE

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