Saybrook Insights – Episode 30: Continuing higher ed study and research during a pandemic

By Saybrook University

President Nathan Long, Ed.D., speaks with faculty member Walker Ladd, Ph.D., about student research and coping skills, especially now in the age of COVID-19 and from a humanistic perspective.

Dr. Walker Ladd, Saybrook University faculty member in the Department of Research, offers listeners insights on the research process, humanistic philosophy, and how to stay focused on the goal at hand: completing that dissertation or thesis, especially in these very challenging times. On top of all of that goodness, we also learn some interesting tidbits about her family history!

Listen to the full episode below or read an abbreviated transcript of their conversation below.


Dr. Nathan Long: Today’s episode features faculty member Dr. Walker Ladd, a scholar serving students in the Department of Research. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dance from UCLA, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University, and her doctorate in psychology from Sofia University. Dr. Ladd’s research focuses on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, incorporating qualitative research approaches. Tell us more about the woman behind the amazing academic.

Dr. Walker Ladd: I started my professional life as a modern dancer and decided that I wanted to do more social change work. I went back to school and became a marriage and family therapist. Right around 2009, I had my son and my daughter, and I had also been through breast cancer. That was transformative. I learned a lot from that experience.

I’ve always been incredibly curious—a researcher at heart, wanting to know more about how things happen and why they happen and how people experience them. So I decided to get my doctorate. I knew that I didn’t want to be a practitioner any longer. I didn’t want to be a therapist. I wanted to do research. That’s when I found Sophia University and pursued my doctorate. Since then I’ve been teaching mostly in asynchronous online learning universities. A couple of years ago I reached out to you and said, “I really want to teach at Saybrook because it aligns with my personal paradigm.”

Dr. Long:  You had a sense about you that was entirely different than the standard boilerplate academic, the freshly minted individual coming out of grad school. I think you brought that to the table.

Dr. Ladd: Now at Saybrook, I’m happy to be teaching and creating curriculum in the Research Department. I teach hermeneutic phenomenology, narrative inquiry, autoethnography, and constructivist-grounded theory, all kinds of amazing methods, and I work with great people, mostly students. That’s what I love the most.

Dr. Long: As a faculty member, that’s music to my ears. I love it, and I think all of our faculty members care deeply about their students.

I have a couple burning questions for you around the students and kind of things that they can be doing during this time. You’ve been working in asynchronous online formats. From your perspective, were higher education faculty ready for the pandemic in terms of changing to online? What from your perspective as a faculty member have you been seeing “on the ground” even though you’re doing it online?

Dr. Ladd: It was a nice thing to be able to address the changes that were needed in such a short period of time. But I know that for colleagues of mine who were at brick-and-mortars, it’s been incredibly challenging. I think that one of the things that comes to mind, Nathan, is the perception of online learning might be changing in a good way. I have heard colleagues struggle, from established brick-and-mortars, who would never have thought of knowing how to work in an asynchronous online format. Doing so and seeing that, yes, you can teach incredible courses that are sound in curricular design and instructional design. I think that maybe the stigma, if there is still a stigma regarding online learning, is shifting because now we have traditional academics coming in and learning what we’ve known for a very long time. But I hope that there’s a mindfulness about the quick shift for students, particularly undergrad and graduate who go from the ritual and the routine of going to a brick-and-mortar and to then being at home.

My son is a freshman at the Berklee College of Music. He is learning alongside his faculty how to maintain music education in an online setting. I have another friend who is chair of a university department of music. He also is trying to figure out how we do the arts in an online setting. I actually think it’s really good. When we’re given limitations, we get really creative.

Dr. Long:  I can’t agree with you more. I was on the phone with a good friend. He’s a freelance musician in North Carolina. He’s trying to teach students virtually. To your point, it’s a challenge, but it’s also opening up new educational pathways, new neural pathways, new opportunities for growth in terms of how we engage with one another. We’re not saying don’t engage with people one on one in person, but this is something that I think we all believe has the potential to unleash a lot more than it has really been used for over the past 30 years in higher education.

Dr. Ladd: Hopefully, other educators are learning that they can go broadly into thinking about how to present material in an asynchronous format that’s cohesive and engaging and creative.

Dr. Long: The burning question I have for you as a faculty member is how can students remain mindful and motivated about their doctoral master’s thesis studies during these challenging times? I was just talking to an individual the other day. She’s lost her job. She’s got several kids. She’s trying to manage how to get to the grocery store, and then trying to figure out how to write her 20-page paper due next week. I know as faculty, you’ve all been brainstorming about ways to manage and support our students now, especially given not just COVID-19 but the economic crisis that is upon us. Any thoughts you have in what you all have been thinking about as faculty and yourself individually?

Dr. Ladd: The main concept that I share is the idea that students need to maintain some sort of relationship with that topic. We’re drawn to our education. From a humanistic perspective, it’s part of our soul’s code to be pulled in that direction and a truly extraordinary experience, unlike many others, that we might manifest for ourselves.

One tip that I’ve used myself and shared with students is to consider that today, this very day, someone is beginning their journey in the topic area that you are interested in exploring. This was helpful to me when I was doing my dissertation to think at that moment, “OK, today somebody is starting their journey and struggling through this experience that I wanted to address.” That kept me going, and it’s one way of maintaining a relationship with the topic. Someone today is starting this journey, and I’m going to be able to do research and scholarship that will address and help that person answer some of the problems that exist in gaps in the literature.

So much of the research that I see students in our program interested in has to do with changing paradigms radically in social norms—cultural context, social context, historical context, psychologically. Yet the reminder that we’re in this for an altruistic motivation is to connect with the topic. I think that students can connect with their topic in different ways at different points in their scholarship. At the very beginning, I work with students who are fresh into research in our fundamentals course. Starting a doctoral program can feel like you’re being selfish, or this is the last thing you I should be doing. And I would suggest that it shouldn’t be the last thing that we do. It should be integrated into what we’re already doing, and it probably already is. Most students are coming from a practitioner base where they’re out in the field doing their work, and they already know what needs to be addressed in their topic area, so connecting with what they’re already doing is another way.

Dr. Long: I was having this conversation with a noted tech innovations scholar yesterday. She hit it right as you did in that now isn’t the time to take your foot off the gas. There isn’t a time more than now for people to be doing this social change research—it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives. If we have any delays in that type of effort and work going forward, we’re only delaying human progress.

I am really struck by how you phrased that, and I think it’s just really a powerful statement to students. I  resonated with what you were saying there. I was in graduate school during 9/11. I was just coming into the first formal year of doc study and was looking at getting a lot done that year. But I really thought, “I don’t know that I can do this.” I knew so many people affected by 9/11. You’re just running through that laundry list of emotions, and I’ll never forget a faculty member calling me and saying, “Now is not the time to stop. Now is the time to keep going. This is when we collectively need you and your colleagues to carry on with work.” So you are following a long line of wise sages, Dr. Ladd, with that statement.

Dr. Ladd: From a humanistic perspective, my hope is that students who are feeling that it’s a little self-involved to focus on that 20-page paper to remember our roots. There’s a fundamental human experience of growth that regardless of nature or nurture, genetics or environment, that all human beings have this strength. That growth is part of our fundamental being, and that growth is where sometimes we might go in the wrong direction, literally. We grow up. In humanistic psychology and philosophy, we also understand that people grow down. It is through these critical existential moments of crises where we grow down. We grow roots into our core, into our ancestors. We reach both back in history and forward in terms of innovation. There’s a lot to be said about not necessarily putting the pressure on growing up, but of growing down.

I hope that students know that they don’t have to do a doctorate or a master’s beautifully. If anything, it’s very messy, and the messier the better. It will unhinge you from who thought you were, and that takes a certain messiness. So it’s not about going upward always. It’s about growing broad and growing down.

Dr. Long: I appreciate that perspective. As we look to students who are coming into doc programs, a lot of times they come in with notions of how doc study should be. It’s fun. You’re engaging with your peers and colleagues around really deep and effective conversations, which are all true. But the other piece of it is the research, the diving into the messy parts. And it’s not that it’s misery. For some, it might be. Growth comes through some pain through those moments where you’re deep in the explorative facets of your research, whatever that may be.

Dr. Ladd: It’s funny that you brought up the idea that it can be misery. I think there’s a particular distinction, and I try to remind my students that doing this work is not something that happened to you. It’s not a diagnosis. It’s something that you choose to do, and that can be difficult to reckon with. Who would choose to agree that they don’t know enough about a topic? Who would choose to have their ego explored and dissected in certain ways? Well, people who are dedicated to their topic. People who want to do research and create projects and capstones and who want to make a difference in their world and in themselves. I truly believe that this work is sacred in some ways because it unearths us, and we lean into it.

I think there’s some specific things that you can do throughout the process. For example, leaning into the literature early on. Get to know the ancestors in your topic area who have studied your work before you. What did they say and how did they say it so that you are initiated into this field of knowledge that you care about so deeply. Then midway, I try to figure out what method am I going to use—quantitative or qualitative. If I do qualitative, my goodness, I’ve got so many choices. Then sit with the idea that you’re figuring out what the topic needs to address and leaning into very small things. One of the things that students might do at that midway point is to memorize your research question. Know it by heart. Know it and be able to say this is something you could do at any point during the day. And know your problem statement. Just putting our research on the mental continuum, pulling the neurons and the cognitive abilities there is doing research.

One of the things that I’m hearing from my students is how hard it is to concentrate. They were already stressed with full lives of work and family and other experiences. I’ve had many students that try to read something and realize they didn’t understand one part of it. That’s an appropriate response that the brain is doing to significant life changes. So what could students do when the brain can’t absorb a research article on epistemology. You can just think about and meditate on your research. Even though the repetition of it, of being able to say what is my research question, what is my problem statement is staying engaged with your topic and staying engaged with your work.

Dr. Long: Really great way to put that, Walker. And it leads me to my last question for you on the research piece. Can you talk to me for a minute about just what is humanistic scholarship or research for the uninitiated? I think there are many different viewpoints around what it is, what it means, and would love to hear your perspective.

Dr. Ladd: That’s a bit of a tough one because it means so many different things to different people. I think that in very broad terms it comes from the inside out, and being a humanist drives what you do and informs what you do. Every human being has an innate potential. Humanistic psychology is founded in this idea of growth and that through relationship with others we grow, that our growth potential is always there.

We know that humanistic psychology has taken many different paths and become beautiful manifestations in both positive and existential psychology. I believe that everyone I encounter has potential to do this work without a doubt. Now getting there is filled with some trials and tribulations, but I wouldn’t say that you’re humanistic. There is such a thing as humanistic research. I think that the researcher might come from that paradigm.

Dr. Long: That makes a lot of sense.

Dr. Ladd: That has some relationship to pragmatic paradigm or pragmatic philosophy and my tradition as a transpersonal psychologist within William James and the idea of embracing a full realm of human experiences. That’s where I see the students at Saybrook interested. The experience of being human is a full spectrum, and we just don’t believe that it should be limited or codified or defined or reduced into constructs that society tells us. Because we come from this place—and this is very much Colin Rogers’ idea of fundamental growth regardless of what our past has been—we really can be change agents, and I think it’s the culmination of knowing that you have the ability to motivate change and the ability to not tell others what that change should be.

I’ll take my field—my area of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and perinatal psychiatry. I’m not going to tell someone experiencing that what they should do, but I am going to motivate the field to understand what that person’s experience is as part of the truth. This is why I do qualitative research—the idea that I value as part of the answer and part of the essence of what that experience is. Is this an objective experience of the woman herself who has a mood or anxiety disorder? It’s encompassing holistic appreciation and reverence, and there’s a sense of humility to it.

I remember my mentor of my doctoral program interviewing someone interested in the program, and he asked, “If someone were to say that they believed in ghosts, who am I to say that there isn’t such a thing?” And just this beautiful pause of silence after it. His ability as someone who was in a position of power and knowledge to say to this other human being, “If what you say is true, I’m not going to tell you it’s not. I’m not going to crush that. I’m not going to destroy that inner flame that you have that’s pushing you even if it’s something that the regular society would say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

I tell my students this story. My grandmother was a published psychic. She invented, with her sister, a machine called the Signwriter, which was a Smith Corona electric typewriter connected to a Ouija board. I kid you not. That’s a perfect example, that experience of channeling and bringing that material in was real. So I think that what we can do is understand and accept that we don’t know everything but that we are charged with the ability to grow and to help others grow.

Dr. Long: And with that, Dr. Ladd, I’m looking forward to more opportunities talking and engaging with you and our fellow faculty members in the future.

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