Amherst Magazine

My Life: Catherine Sanderson, Associate Professor of Psychology

The Opposite of Lazy

Interview by Ania Wieckowski ’03

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Catherine Sanderson graduated from Stanford University in 1990 and went on to Princeton, where she received her Ph.D. in psychology in 1997. Her research focuses on health psychology, close relationships and sports psychology. In particular, she studies college-age students to find out how they perceive—and misperceive—social norms. She not only chairs the psychology department; she also teaches aerobics, serves on the local school committee and is the mother of three young children.

On choosing Amherst over a research university

Honestly, it was entirely accidental. When I finished my dissertation, I applied to large research universities, and at the last minute I sent out applications to a few small colleges, just to sort of hedge my bets. Two days before the interview at Amherst, I decided that it was really a waste of everyone’s time, because I would never take the job. But my dissertation adviser yelled at me for some 30 minutes—“You will go, and you will be pleasant, and it would be really rude not to. And you never know.” So I went, and I had a wonderful visit.

On thinness

In our research at Princeton, we found that undergraduate women absolutely misperceive how much other undergraduate women weigh, how much they eat and how much they exercise. The more different these women felt from other women, the more signs of eating disorders they had. And so now at Amherst, I’ve been working with undergraduate honors students to extend that study in a number of ways. One of my thesis students looked at differences between misperceptions of Amherst women versus Smith women—in other words, what the presence of men in an environment can do. Another thesis student looked at differences in norms perception among different groups within Amherst: thin athletes, like cross-country runners; regular athletes, like lacrosse players; and non-athletes in groups, like a cappella singers. Typically, I try to publish thesis work. It’s been very rewarding and great fun collaborating with these students.

On preventing eating disorders

I’ve been working with Denise McGoldrick, [director of health education], and others at Health Services to think about “matching” messages—personally relevant promotional materials. Part of the problem is that some matching doesn’t work as you would expect. For example, to prevent eating disorders, college health centers used to bring in women who had once suffered from an eating disorder and were recovered. But these women looked pretty, thin, happy—and the students would end up questioning whether having an eating disorder was actually that big a deal. In fact, that kind of dorm presentation is not effective at decreasing rates of eating disorders, and there is some suspicion that it increases rates of eating disorders. That’s why we really need research: to be able to understand the consequences of matching messages. They’re not always what you would think.

On the “dumb jock” stereotype

There are many stories. Sadly, there are a number of students who have come and talked to me after they’ve graduated about having had an eating disorder during college. More positively, I’ve talked to a number of student athletes about my research looking at the hazards of the “dumb jock” stereotype. I really emphasize that nobody’s admitted to Amherst who does not have the ability to succeed. A number of those students have said that message was very important for them to hear. It helped them to know that they really should be taking classes seriously, that they should be studying—and that if they did, they could do very well.

On finding time for it all

I have a lot of energy—I drink a lot of coffee! Seriously, though, I actually find it very easy to do things that I care passionately about. I’m very bad at doing things I don’t care passionately about. So I like teaching very much, but I hate grading. I care passionately about public education; that explains my desire to serve on the school board.

On downtime

You know, I really don’t ever want to take a break. I remember being in graduate school, working on my dissertation and going out with my friends to a movie, and sitting in the movie thinking, I wish it would be over so I could go back to work on my dissertation. I derive a tremendous amount of pleasure from writing and from working on issues around public education, and it truly feels pleasurable to me. It does not feel like a chore. Grading feels like a chore, but the rest of it feels delightful. I wish I had more time to spend on all of it, but I do what I can.

On being called a supermom

I think it’s wrong. I think that all women who try to combine having kids and having a career are struggling. I think it is hard—very hard—and I think it is made a lot easier when you have a supportive spouse. I have a spouse who works at home one day a week—which still means he’s working, but if I’m running late, he can be there when the school bus comes. You can’t be a “supermom” alone.

On always saying yes

I have trouble saying no. Austin Sarat [the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor] has developed this new program called the Faculty Fellows Program, in which there’s a faculty adviser assigned to each of the first-year dorms to inspire intellectual engagement outside of the classroom—to bring in talks, that kind of thing. It’s a great idea, and by the end of a lunch with Austin, I just couldn’t say no. So I take on a lot. My husband sort of jokes and likes to say that, yes, Catherine likes to make sure that there’s one too many balls in the air; if everything’s going okay, she picks up another one.

Wieckowski is a writer based in Boston. She interviewed Joel Upton, professor of art and the history of art, for the Spring 2008 Amherst magazine.

Photo by Frank Ward