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Teachable Moments with Robert Fessler, Ph.D.

Fessler

The Point
Winter 2013

The year was 1969. Robert Fessler, Ph.D. was completing his doctorate in psychology at Duquesne University and working at a Pittsburgh hospital.

“I remember visiting my Ph.D. advisor, who asked how I was doing. I explained that I loved my work but I would really rather be teaching. And in one of those wonderful coincidences, his office phone rang, he picked it up, and it was the department chair at Point Park - a former teacher of mine – saying,  ‘we are in a bind. Someone just quit, do you know anyone who wants to teach?’ My advisor said, Robert Fessler happens to be standing right here. And my former teacher said, ‘I know him! Send him down.

“So basically, I walked into a full-time teaching job and I’ve been here ever since,” recalls Fessler, who says that “in 1969, the campus was expanding and many faculty were hired.” Just a few years later, however, “the bottom fell out when Point Park’s financial crisis hit.” Fessler taught psychology courses while traveling extensively. He also taught several times in the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program. “That experience changed my approach to teaching psychology. For example, everything I had been teaching about child development went out the window once I experienced other cultures,” he says.

When Point Park established the Global Cultural Studies program, Fessler began teaching some of those courses as well, in addition to courses such as Abnormal Psychology. For example, he teaches a regional studies course that focuses on India. Last year, Fessler also took on the administrative role of acting dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Teaching remains his top priority, he says. “I aim to teach in a way that connects with the entire range of students [and their differing abilities]. We have the full spectrum of students here at Point Park. I never teach only to the top, or the middle, but rather strive to connect with all of my students.”

Psychology alumnus Nick Williams, Ph.D., a program director at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, is one of those former students. “I had the great fortune to take classes with Dr. Robert Fessler, who aside from being an intelligent and fascinating guy, portrayed psychology as something both mysterious and exciting,” he says.

Fessler says that he often describes his work as “teaching in the trenches.”

“In a way, it’s easy to teach at a place such as Harvard. Those students’ lives are already ‘set,’ says Fessler. “But it’s fascinating to teach at Point Park. We have so many very bright kids -- among them many who are first-generation college students. We teach actors, dancers, journalists and engineers. And in the basic courses, they might all be in the same class.

“When you have to reach a student from a poor Pittsburgh neighborhood and a young dancer from Cherry Hill, N.J. --now that’s real teaching!”

Text by Cheryl Valyo
Photo by Martha Rial

The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University