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Faculty Focus: Maddrey Professor of Psychology Retires After 34 Years

by Morgan Orangi '13
Ruth Ault
“I’m grateful for the colleagues and students who have become a special part of my life.” -Ault

If you've seen Davidson College students sitting in observation booths at the Davidson-Cornelius Child Development Center or taking notes at the Davidson Day School, chances are they were taking a class with Maddrey Professor of Psychology Ruth Ault.

Up until her fall 2013 retirement, Ault perfected her core courses in the field of child development. By taking advantage of community resources, she helped students learn about children by applying what they read in their textbooks.

For instance, a student interested in risky playground behavior observed Davidson Day School recess and then conducted an experiment to find out whether wearing wristbands that the teacher hole punched for good, safe behavior would increase it.

"When it comes to research, I encouraged students to follow their personal interests," Ault said. "I see immense value in conducting research on any subject, because the process of studying something in-depth enables students to gain practical skills for post-graduate life."

An avid reader in her spare time, Ault also exemplified psychological theories and concepts by incorporating literature into her courses. Beginning with her course on gender identity, she assigned memoirs, short stories, and poems that involved a character explicitly developing their gender identity.

She often taught with comic strips and her personal favorite–mystery novels. A murder mystery she assigned to her capstone seminar "displayed a clinical psychologist consulting on a murder case and outlined the ethical dilemmas that he had to face," she said. "The story also provided students with a snapshot of what one might encounter as a clinical psychologist."

Connection and Collaboration

Ault noted that her teaching style evolved dramatically over the decades, becoming less lecture-driven and more discussion-based. While completing her undergraduate education at Pomona College, she learned how not to teach from a professor who focused on memorization rather than content.

She reflected, "When it came to my own teaching, I remember thinking ‘what's the most important thing for a student to leave college knowing?'"

After receiving her master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from UCLA and teaching courses on child development at the University of Utah for seven years, Ault decided that she belonged at a small liberal arts college and arrived at Davidson in the fall of 1979.

"The notion that different fields are connected to each other and professors' courses aren't narrowly defined appealed to me," she explained. "Because I was the only child development psychology professor, I could easily shift my areas of interest within that topic."

Ault said that the Davidson administration was supportive of her goals both on campus and in her professional career. The institution's travel support and sabbatical policies allowed her to attend conferences and write a book titled "Children's Cognitive Development," which has been translated into Portuguese.

Ault felt especially supported during the past two decades for her work with the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, a division within the American Psychological Association. Lightened duties on campus allowed her to serve as the section editor for the organization's journal "Teaching of Psychology," then as treasurer, and currently as the director of their Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology.

"In many senses, Davidson enabled me to have a very broad pool of collaborators for the good of teaching because of the strong relationships I've built through professional organizations," she said.

However, Ault's fondest memories are of the people at Davidson that she has worked with and gotten to know throughout the years. Co-teaching courses and sharing supervision of CIS majors allowed her to work closely with individual students and with professors in various departments.

Paving the Way for Women

In one such collaboration, Ault joined forces with Professor of English Elizabeth Mills to create the course "Gender Identity."

"I learned the most teaching that course because it exposed me to new material and challenged me in a wonderful way," she said. It combined her background in child development with her interest in gender issues.

When Ault first arrived at Davidson, the male to female ratio by trustee mandate was 66:33. After she became chair of the admissions committee and liaison to the board, the ratio shifted to 60:40 and inched its way toward the current balance.

Ault fondly remembers the day when she and other female faculty members popped champagne in new female restrooms added to Chambers during the 2003 renovation. She said, "It was a sign of campus becoming more accommodating towards women and something worth celebrating."

Additionally, Ault is proud to be one of a handful of female professors who have received the Thomas Jefferson award from Davidson, which honors a faculty member who by personal influence, teaching, writing and scholarship promotes the high ideals of Thomas Jefferson. "I was so honored to receive this award and be associated with people who I really admire," she said.

Considering her extracurricular involvement off campus, Ault has no worries about keeping herself occupied in retirement. She will continue to serve as the director of the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology and a member of the Board of Directors for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Much of her time will be dedicated to a program called Davidson Learns, which brings Davidson College faculty and courses to Davidson residents. Ault doesn't plan to jump back into teaching anytime soon, but helps find professors for the program. In her spare time she'll plunge back into mystery novels.

"I look forward to traveling to new places and relaxing without thoughts about what I need to do in the back of my mind, but I'll truly miss the people here," Ault said. "The people are what make Davidson so special."