James Olson

James Olson

College of Arts and Sciences
Department of Psychology
Psychology Program

I attended public schools in San Bernardino and Santa Barbara, California from 1951 to high school graduation in 1964. Both my parents were proud of their high school diplomas. From my earliest memories, I wanted to become a teacher, and later, more specifically, a high school teacher. So I became the first in my family to attend college. The cost of public higher education in California was inexpensive, and I was able to support my educational goal on my own. I worked a morning janitorial job and attended Santa Barbara City College for two years, then transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I received my B.A. degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I was named the “Outstanding Student in Psychology” in 1969. At UC Santa Barbara I spent two years (1967 to 1969) working on a project teaching language to chimpanzees headed by Dr. David Premack. 

Scientific America "teaching language to an ape"

To teach high school in California required one to attend a year of post-graduate courses aimed at teacher certification. As a first generation college student, with no models, I knew little about teaching credentials, much less graduate degrees, fellowships, and so forth. At least two of my professors, Drs. Premack and Michael Gazzaniga, approached me and encouraged me to apply to graduate school to work on my “Ph.D.” instead of teacher certification. Dr. Gazaniga encouraged me to apply at Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles. I applied to each and UCLA offered me financial assistance in terms of a Teaching Assistantship (TA). I enrolled at UCLA in fall 1969—I was teaching already, and better, teaching college students!

The language was a written language such that each of over 130 different plastic shapes (tokens) symbolized a word (verbs, adjectives, and nouns). Two female chimps were involved in this project, Sarah and Gussie. They were my first students! A picture of Sara is on the cover of Scientific American. I was there in the beginning. I made all the plastic tokens and the magnetic slate they adhered to for communicating. Sarah and Gussie did not like to write left-to-right sentence strings (the syntax) as we do in English, preferring top-to-bottom instead. This was clearly my first lesson learned—do not impose my cultural history on another with a different history. If Sarah and Gussie like to write top-down, why not? You may enjoy this 2017 article about my reunion with Sarah a few years ago: https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000108

I needed to supplement my TA income at UCLA as my family had begun. I wrapped up the MA degree and began teaching “Introductory Psychology” at Santa Monica College. Then I got on at Pasadena City College. I was teaching three “learning labs” at UCLA, plus two classes each at Santa Monica and Pasadena. I was pretty busy, to say the least, but I was teaching—teaching college students—on my own, and loving it!

The University of Texas System began developing the University of Texas Permian Basin in the early 1970s. I applied largely because it advertised itself as an innovator in teaching. I was offered the position as Lecturer and accepted immediately. I was one of UT Permian Basin’s “Founding Faculty” when it opened its doors for classes in fall of 1973. I completed my dissertation and was awarded the Ph.D. in 1974. Effective teaching at UT Permian Basin has always been a most important responsibility at UT Permian Basin.1973 founding faculty at UTPB

The core of my teaching activities naturally revolves around my students. I believe that any student who enrolls in any course I teach is competent and capable of succeeding in my course. Actually, my first “how to teach well” mentor was Dr. Premack, as he showed me how to engage with Sarah and Gussie. Dr. Premack taught me to use what he called the “errorless” method to teach Sarah and Gussie a lexicon and syntax. By errorless, I mean positive reinforcement such that the chimps could correct any error and thereby earn a reward; they couldn’t fail. There was never scolding and never a disapproving word or gesture; that was the pedagogical system employed. I could not have been more proud to have been an integral part of Dr. Premack’s pedagogical program.

Olson image from newspaperAlthough teaching language to chimpanzees really laid the foundation of how I think and work with my students, it was Dr. Joel Greenspoon at UT Permian Basin who hired me and who reinforced everything I’d learned from Dr. Premack. Dr. Greenspoon taught me how to teach “people.” Dr. Greenspoon modeled for me a love and dedication for teaching, and frankly, it was magnetic. Teaching and learning were all we talked about over coffee. Dr. Greenspoon would spend all the time in the world with any student interested in learning more—one-on-one. Dr. Greenspoon was also a superb model of how to provide positive reinforcement. He never said anything that could be taken as punitive, condescending, or degrading. I’d like to say I’m a lot like Dr. Greenspoon in my emphasis on rapid and positive feedback, which leads to significant confidence building and improved learning outcomes.

In 1976, I received the Amoco Award for Excellence in Teaching, given annually to one faculty member at each campus of The University of Texas System in recognition of "Outstanding Teaching Performance at the Undergraduate level." This was the second year this award had existed at UT Permian. In 1978 I received my Texas license as “Psychologist” and was instrumental in the development of UT Permian’s Counseling Center. I also served as Chair of Psychology, following which I served as Director of the Division of Behavioral Sciences.

I have co-authored three books: Basic Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences (1981, Holt, Rinehart and Winston); Breaking and Entering: An Ethnographic Analysis of Burglary (Sage Publications, 1991); and Burglars and Burglary (Wadsworth Publishers, 2004). My 1991 book was co-authored with an undergraduate psychology major, Ms. D’Aunn Avary, and was nominated for the Wright Mills Book Award, bestowed by the Society for the Study of Social Problems. My research on residential burglars was covered by the Time Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, including an invitation to the Today Show. In 1990, I received the President's Award for Excellence in Research at UT Permian Basin.

james olson headshotThroughout my academic career at UT Permian Basin I have intermittently been asked to serve as Chair of the Department of Psychology. I recently stepped down from my fifth stint as Chair in 2019. In 1994, I was appointed Dean of the newly formed College of Arts and Sciences and served until 2004. Subsequently I served as Director of Faculty Development for two years. Currently I am Professor of Psychology and hold the R.V. Cardozier endowed Professorship. I teach both undergraduate and master’s level psychology courses. As an early adopter of internet educational technology and the online classroom in 1995, I have developed and taught courses in both the traditional classroom format and the online format. In 2011, I was named Piper Professor, one of ten such awards given to college instructors nominated from throughout the State. In 2012 A year later I received the University of Texas Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award established by UT System “to recognize faculty who demonstrate commitment to teaching and sustained capability to deliver excellence to the undergraduate teaching experience.”

All of my professors at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA stressed the “science” in psychology. Dr. Gazzaniza’s popular introductory text is appropriately titled, Psychological Science. I share this love of science, the foundation of psychology, and want our students to become critical thinkers and competent in the areas necessary for the conduct of psychological research and production of psychological knowledge. In addition to quality teaching, UT Permian Basin is committed to hiring instructors who share in the acquisition of knowledge through publications and creative works. In addition to publishing the three books mentioned above, I have eight book chapters, and has published in a variety of journals, some of which are: I have Perception and Psychophysics; Pharmacology; Biochemistry and Behavior; Journal of Drug Education; The Behavior Analyst; Journal of Crime and Justice; Review of General Psychology; and College Student Journal. I have also been awarded external grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and several private foundations. My research interests are broad. Among other things, I am currently working “caring” behaviors demonstrated by effective instructors, and “snarky” things instructors say and the impact such words have on the students they say them to.

olson surfingIn my personal life I have always loved surfing. I attended high school in Santa Barbara, and lived a half mile from the beach. I have surfed the Pacific coast from Mexico to Oregon, as well as Florida, Texas, and Hawaii. I can’t think of anything more pleasant than bobbing in the Pacific ocean at sunset on my surfboard, waiting for a wave. 

olson surfing 2

Time doesn’t matter. This is the epitome of freedom and joy! The two photos below are of me when I was 17 years old at a famous surf spot called Rincon, just south of Santa Barbara. In one I’m “hanging ten.” The year was 1963. Photos of surfing were rare, as we didn’t have cell-phones then! My other major interest is collecting, repairing, and operating 1950’s era Lionel toy trains. When not swimming or running my trains, I enjoy reading and walking my dog. With my wife Cindy, we enjoy visiting our two daughters and son and being an active part of their lives.