A candid conversation with Jon Adler about working in psychotherapy, sharing a passion for theater, and helping college students to make sense of who they are.
Every aspect of Jon’s office is intentional. It’s a welcoming space, carefully arranged not only to be a conversation space, but to help guide the themes of conversation. The Magritte on the wall, of an artist viewing an egg and painting a bird, he chose especially for this job. Other pieces are just for him; the sleeping stone swan was sculpted by his grandfather, and the painting by his grandmother makes him happy.
He grew up in Newton, where he was intensely involved in his high school’s theater program. Between then and now, he was a Psychology major (and theater minor) at Bates, then lived in Chicago for seven years to get his doctorate. Here, he’s our Assistant Professor of Psychology and also runs the Reading and Seeing Theater co-curricular. He lives in Brookline with his husband and their dog. They’re also working on adding a baby to the family.
FRANKLY: What is the focus of your AHS foundation course?
ADLER: We look at the multifaceted concept of identity from three different perspectives: psychological perspectives, postmodern philosophical perspectives, and neurobiological perspectives.
The primary focus is on the study of identity. But secretly, I also think the course is about epistemology, and having students learn that the questions that you ask influence the answers that you get.
Part of my teaching philosophy is not only being aware of the content, but realizing how the content came to be in the first place. Realizing that people had to ask certain questions to arrive at the answers that you’re learning.
FRANKLY: Can you tell me a bit about your research?
ADLER: My research program in general is aimed at trying to identify the most productive ways (for mental health) that we can make sense of the difficult things that happen to us.
My collaborators and I try to identify themes in people’s stories that are ultimately predictive of positive mental health in the wake of major life events. We get these rich, qualitative stories, and then we use established coding systems for identifying themes in people’s narratives.
Narratives are very powerful in how they impact our mental health. And unlike other things, like our genetically informed personality traits, our stories are totally in our control. So while you might not be able to change the fact that your brain is wired towards anxiety, you can change the story that you tell about your experiences– and that change will make a difference.
FRANKLY: You also work as a therapist, right?
ADLER: I’m trained as a clinical psychologist, so all throughout graduate school, in addition to research, I was learning how to do therapy. I did a residency program: I worked at the big inner-city veterans’ hospital in Chicago, mostly doing therapy with vets back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then, to be licensed, you have to get a certain amount of postdoctoral supervised hours, so I worked for two years at the counseling center at Wellesley, seeing Wellesley students for therapy.
FRANKLY: Do you apply your research to your practice?
ADLER: I don’t think of myself as a narrative therapist. But I do think that narrative is a useful metaphor for therapy. No matter what the problem is that you’re working on or the techniques that you’re using to treat that problem, what you’re doing fundamentally is helping people change their stories.
FRANKLY: You’re also into theater– is that connected to your interest in people’s stories?
ADLER: They’re separate and they’re not. I did not start college thinking I was going to be a psych major. I thought I was going to be an English major. I took a freshman seminar course that was about representations of mental illness in literature.
I took it because of the literature part, but I got really interested in the psychology part. So I took some more psych classes, and I realized that it was really the people behind the stories that I was interested in.
Theater is about putting those stories back into life. And that’s one of those things that’s always drawn me to theater.
I’m always interested in the experience of the actor, helping the actor embody someone else’s story. I’ve done acting, but I’m not a very good actor and I don’t really like acting. I’m a much better director. And that’s more like the therapist. I’m there to help oversee a process and help it move smoothly from point A to point B. With a director, you have the vision; with a therapist you’re trying to open up the client and figure out their vision.
FRANKLY: How did you come to Olin?
ADLER: When it came time for me to go on the academic job market, the vast majority of the jobs that I applied to were looking for something very specific: ‘a clinical psychologist who does research on psychotherapy process’. And then there was this ad for ‘assistant professor of arts, humanities, and social sciences’ [AHS], and I just thought, well, that’s the broadest thing I’ve ever seen!
I remember so vividly my phone interview; I remember saying that the way they described the job seemed like a get out of jail free card. It was like, oh my gosh, you mean I can teach what I’m really excited about teaching and not have to teach the same thing every year for the rest of my life?
And then, like any number of students that I’ve heard, when I came to campus for my interview, I realized that it was immediately my first choice. I was surprised and thrilled when I got the offer. There was no debate, it was so clear.
FRANKLY: What was it about coming to campus that hooked you?
ADLER: It was the irrepressible excitement of everyone that I met about what they were doing. I interviewed with a variety of faculty both within and outside of AHS, and everyone was super excited about what they were doing; I had lunch with a bunch of students, everyone was super excited about what they were doing.
That is definitely one of the best things about this place, that everyone continues to be so excited. There are real pros and cons to me being here, as a psychologist, but there’s nothing that compares to that level of excitement.
FRANKLY: What is your favorite part of being at Olin?
ADLER: I think my favorite thing about being at Olin is that everyone here is passionate. The other piece is that freedom and flexibility that Olin provides really everyone, but I think especially the faculty, to take risks, to experiment, to follow your passion and not feel hemmed in. I don’t think that exists anywhere else.
FRANKLY: What’s a major difficulty that you face because you’re at Olin?
ADLER: Olin students are interested in AHS, but we are often their last priority. And I’m not sure that that’s wrong; they’re here to study engineering, so that should be their first priority.
In the classroom, the students are amazing. [They] are up for discussion, curious, excited about playing with ideas. But a lot of the work of learning happens in between the class sessions, and that doesn’t happen as much. And that’s hard.
FRANKLY: What do you think is the value of AHS to an Olin student?
ADLER: I think Olin students can learn different ways of asking questions: there are many ways to investigate the world, and engineering, like all disciplines, has its blind spots. I think AHS helps remind students about those blind spots and ideally gives them a different language for asking questions.
When people ask me, why are you a psychologist, why do you study identity, my answer is always, because it’s the most important thing. And I don’t mean that glibly; I really think there is nothing more important than identity. Anything you do as a person gets filtered through your sense of self. Engineering doesn’t exist outside of the engineer. So if you’re doing cancer research or building a robot, there’s still a you. And I want to understand that as deeply and complexly as possible.
We choose our work because it’s meaningful to us in some way. It’s a way of us taking who we are and extending it to impact the world. I want to understand where that drive comes from within the individual. How do they make sense of what they’re doing in the world?
My research really is on that latter question; I really do not study the objective world. I study the subjective way people make meaning out of their world. And that is because while the Real World is important and we have to know everything we can about it, we live in our little ‘r’ realities. Those realities shape the way we interact with Reality.