Scholl’s promotion ends internal tenure drought

The faculty’s recent appointment of psychology professor Brian Scholl to a tenured post marks the first time the department has promoted an internal candidate to a senior position in more than a decade.

Scholl, whose research focuses on visual cognition, received tenure fairly early in his Yale career, about five years after he arrived at the University. Several students said Scholl — whose tenure was approved by the full faculty during the week before spring break — stood out for his accessibility and passion for his subject.

Now that he has received tenure, Scholl said there is “a good chance” he will remain at Yale for at least a few years. Drawn by the caliber of his colleagues, Scholl only applied for an assistant professorship at Yale after he completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Scholl said that in a discipline that is increasingly specialized, Yale psychology and cognitive science professors still have a relatively broad view of their field.

“Really nobody in psychology or cognitive science misses the forest for the trees,” Scholl said.

But Scholl said the department’s historically low rate of internal tenure meant he was not especially hopeful about his chance of receiving tenure at the University.

“I was not expecting to get tenure here until about five minutes ago,” he joked.

The last junior professor to be tenured by the department was Mahzarin Banaji, who was tenured in the mid-1990s but left Yale for Harvard in 2002. Before that, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey received tenure in the department in 1992, and there were no internal promotions to tenure in the 1980s, Salovey said.

“There are other departments like psychology that do not tenure much from within,” Salovey said. “It’s not unique, but it’s unusual.”

Psychology chair Kelly Brownell said the department made it a high priority to retain Scholl, who was also seeking out other offers outside the University when the process of promoting him to tenure began at Yale.

Salovey said Scholl stands out as both a cutting-edge researcher and an excellent teacher. Brownell said Scholl is also a “good departmental citizen” on top of his research and teaching contributions.

“I’m very excited at the prospect of having Brian on our faculty for many years,” Brownell said.

As the head of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory, some of Scholl’s research focuses on “inattentional blindness,” which occurs when individuals do not consciously recognize information that is in front of them.

Scholl won a Yale College teaching prize in 2005 and a mentoring award from the Graduate School in 2003. He was recently awarded the American Psychological Association’s award for early career contribution to psychology, which Salovey said is the highest prize a young psychology professor can win.

For several years at Yale, Scholl has taught “Introduction to Cognitive Science,” the prerequisite for the cognitive science major. For Eric Bank ’08, the course pushed him toward the decision to be a cognitive science major.

“I think that the reason that his lectures are so engaging despite the fact that they’re very large is that his mannerisms are very much like someone who’s talking with you, rather than talking to you,” Bank said.

One freshman who took the class based on the recommendation of her hosts at Bulldog Days said she thought Scholl’s style was often more like a performance than a lecture, which she thought detracted from the material.

But Josh Goodstein ’07, another student who was enrolled in the class, said Scholl’s enthusiasm for the material was appealing to him.

“It’s infectious,” he said. “His lectures are so much fun that you just really want to be there.”

Maya Shankar ’07 said her work as a research assistant in Scholl’s laboratory inspired her to consider going to graduate school to study visual cognition. She said she particularly appreciated Scholl’s willingness to give undergraduates independent research projects, rather than tacking them onto a graduate student’s work.

“Now we all feel as though we are engaging in research just like the grad students that we work with,” Shankar said. “I think that’s a great perspective for us all to have as we head off to grad school.”

Scholl said receiving tenure will give him the chance to begin work on some longer-term projects, but he is also excited about continuing to work on ongoing projects. Although he did not expect to be tenured, Scholl said, he tried to be fully involved in the academic community.

“I never expected to stay here, but I always acted as if I would be staying,” he said.

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