BEST TEACHER: Lydia Woodyatt

Having won a Faculty and Vice Chancellor’s award for Teaching Excellence, it comes as no surprise that Dr Lydia Woodyatt has been nominated as one of Flinders University’s Best Teachers by readers of Empire Times. Jess Nicole chats to Lydia about her background in theology, her involvement with first years, and life as an academic.

Dr Lydia Woodyatt is a lecturer from the School of Psychology as well as the Director of First Year Studies in Psychology at Flinders University.

When asked about her background, perhaps the most surprising fact is that Lydia’s first degree is not Psychology. Lydia studied her first degree in theology in Queensland. Lydia’s final year of studies focused on becoming a minister in a church. Given that “being a 22 year old female minister is not the peak of employment opportunities”, Lydia worked initially at “random jobs” in places such as OSCH (Outside School Hours Care), strawberry picking, and finally at a psychology clinic, working on case management, marketing, and helping synthesis psychological research for GP newsletters. A year after graduation Lydia moved to Adelaide, taking a job in a church. One year in, Lydia recognised that she wanted to be back studying since she missed the learning, and being part of an academic community. Working in a church that was located in an area with substantial economic and social disadvantage was sometimes challenging and all-encompassing, so she wanted a space that was her own. Uni was that space. While continuing to work, she did a Graduate Diploma in Psychology at Flinders, and then Honours in Social Psychology over two years, before snapping up a funded PhD examining self-forgiveness in the context of restorative justice. When offered a part-time teaching position at the university, Lydia resigned from her role in the church and decided academia was for her. On reflection of her journey from her previous career to teaching psychology at Flinders University, Lydia says “what you develop in one place can completely open up an opportunity to do something else.” She says her seven years in ministry helped develop skills that have been vital to what she’s been doing ever since, teaching and supporting Flinders Students.

Lydia’s role as Director of First Year Studies (Psychology) involves making sure psychology students have everything they need to succeed at university and monitoring that success in terms of transitioning into second year. Lydia took on her role as director in light of her interest in first year disengagement and non-completion of topics. Lydia says in order to combat this issue one has to “take a whole system approach to thinking about what a student needs…thinking about not just this little topic on its own and in isolation, but how does it fit in the context of what the student is doing in their whole course and in their life.”

Lydia is also behind the Psychology peer-mentoring program which endeavours to increase success of first year students, while also developing the work readiness of third year students. The peer mentoring is curriculum embedded in that it is in a foundation topic in first year, and also in a capstone topic in third year psychology, which helps to make the program sustainable and accessible to all students. Those in first year experience being mentees and then later, in their third year, they will provide mentorship for new first years. This year is the first year that the program has been fully integrated into the third year curriculum, with 124 mentors and 515 first year students as mentees involved.

Lydia says that “most people are missing something that they need to succeed through uni and you’ve got to get it along the way…every student needs up skilling in some way, whether it’s personal…or academic.” She describes her “light bulb moment” as when herself and Dr Anna Moffat, also from the School of Psychology, ran an optional workshop on essay writing for first years in second semester, and the room they had booked overflowed with students. Lydia explains that there are many skills that students don’t even realise they are lacking until they reach second and third year, when they get feedback: “first year is made to be a bit simpler so people can master some basic skills, but in that, people can think they’re okay until they’re not okay. It’s important to know that whenever you reach that point, there is help available.” In recent years, Lydia has replaced the smaller and numerous tutorial classes that were originally in place, with larger workshops. These larger workshops are all taught by Lydia now so that first year students can have face-to-face contact with one academic staff member throughout all of first year, and teaching is consistent across classes. “In increasing the class sizes, however, a student’s anonymity is increased and the chance of them knowing anyone or being known themselves is reduced” Lydia explains. “The peer-mentoring program was introduced as a way of offsetting this as well as providing personal contact and a network of support at a more intimate level.”

When asked about the best quality a student can have through university, Lydia uses the term ‘stickability’. Stickability is a word she uses to describe sticking with it when things get tough, and being driven by one’s own curiosity and interest in learning. She says stickability is reflected in the students who are “almost a little bit happy with being imperfect in order to keeping learning and growing.” Lydia reports that the worst part of her job is trying to get the balance right in her workload: “I like thinking and breathing and sleeping and eating and doing things other than work [but] these things sometimes get squeezed out”. Lydia also mentions the bureaucratic difficulties that naturally come from working for a large organisation, and the emotional roller coaster ride of being a researcher as other challenges. She explains that being a researcher involves success and failure, so you have to learn to regulate your emotions. There are times when getting work done and getting published “feels really fantastic” and there are the low periods, when “studies don’t work, grants that you’ve put lots of time into get knocked back and there are papers you think are good get shredded.” Lydia’s research is focused on social psychology, particularly responses to committing transgressions including self-forgiveness, defensiveness, shame and self-punishment amongst a range of other topics centred on justice, emotions, and morality.

Teaching is a nice balance to being a researcher: “research provides the intellectual stimulation, the challenge of problem solving, the reward of exploring an idea in depth, the fun of collaborating with others and coming up with neat experiments, but in teaching you feel like you’re having this practical, helpful impact on someone’s life…it’s really easy to help a student, it’s really hard to publish unpublishable data.”

Lydia reports that she wants teaching to be like a conversation. “I teach referencing and how to write an assignment and these are not the topics that necessarily thrill my life but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring or unengaging.” To Lydia, it’s about trying to make the subject relevant to students, finding how to reach each student who is listening and promoting their engagement. Along with teaching and working with research students at a collaborative level, Lydia also enjoys the autonomy, intellectual freedom and flexibility that comes with her university role. “It’s fantastic. It’s never boring – there’s always something more interesting you can look at.”

In her downtime, Lydia likes to socialise, cook, read, and binge watch television shows. “I just finished watching Pretty Little Liars. I got to the point where I binge watched it over two weeks, all four seasons, and by the end of season two I hated the show. I watched so much that I made myself sick on it. But I had to finish it. Not sure what that says about my personality.” P.S. She doesn’t recommend this as good example of quality TV or a useful way to spend your time.

Words by Jess Nicole