Myers, Roger C.
A clinical psychologist transforms psychology department from a bunch of clinicians into a research power-house of experimental psychologists
When, in 1956, Roger Myers became the head of U of T’s psychology department, no one could have predicted that this clinical psychologist with reserved, British manners, and an education as well as academic experience that was restricted to U of T (for an obit and account of his life, see Wright, 1987) would be the architect of an academic revolution that transformed a department from an emphasis on applied interests with little concern for research into a hothouse of published academic, experimental psychology. This departmental transformation was well underway by the early 1960s, and was complete by 1968, when Myers finished a 12-year term as psychology’s head and later chair.
Before the transformation, the psychology department had an applied focus, minimal research reputation, a lack of emphasis on graduating doctoral students (most of its students graduated with ABT’s—“all but thesis” submitted), and predominantly Canadian in composition and education (like Myers, almost all faculty members were UofT PhDs). It became a department that was the top Canadian department in terms of “visibility” (as measured by the citation index of published experimental psychological research) and even rivaled some top American departments in terms of research output. This transformation was mainly due to Roger’s hiring of “young Turks” who, as mostly junior academics and all with PhDs from universities other than UofT, had established their reputations by publishing experimental research in first rate journals.
The most emphatic example was in the field of learning. A prominently developing area of experimental psychology in the nineteen sixties was what used to be known as “verbal learning”, but which came to came to be called the area of “memory.” When Myers hired Endel Tulving and Ben Murdock, who held, respectively, PhDs from Harvard and Yale, the department emerged “on the map” not only in Canada, but, more importantly, in the USA as well as in other countries that were active in experimental psychology.
Toronto’s “Ebbinghaus Empire”(EE) became well known by the late nineteen sixties to virtually all experimental psychologists, but especially those who knew that Ebbinghaus, a 19th century German academic experimental psychologist, was the father of what used to be called verbal learning, but is known as experimental psychology’s most prominent area of research—memory. This interest group meets weekly to discuss research, has lasted to the present, and continues to exert a significant intellectual influence on what is now both basic and applied psychological research, world-wide. It is, by far, the longest-lived active interest group in the department. [The second oldest interest group is the somewhat less academically weighty and smaller lunchtime bridge group that was founded in 1968 and still meets occasionally (for a 2005 snapshot of this interest group, see http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/bridge_4.htm)].
To return to more serious matters, the memory researchers of the EE group continue to enhance the department’s “visibility”, as assessed by such quantitative measures as the citation index (CI). It is interesting to note that the CI was actually devised by Roger Myers as he went on his hiring Odyssey, and formally described by him later (Myers, 1970).. He was interested in making an objective index of academic performance as assessed by publications, and this also served his goal of promoting the reputation of the University of Toronto’s psychology department. Since then, of course, the CI has become widely used as an index of research eminence, as well as being used by departments in making decisions regarding individual research-based merit. Myers always stressed that CI was an index of perceived rather than real research eminence, recognizing that the latter is often established long after an individual’s death. However, while the CI may not be a reliable measure even of individual perceived research eminence (for example, one can get a lot of citations for what turns out to be an erroneous or misleading paper), it is likely to be a more reliable index when applied to a large department as a whole. And it was this perceived eminence or, to use Roger’s term, “visibility” that his leadership promoted.
It is also worth mentioning that one reason why the memory researchers of the department had such a high impact is that it was around this time that psychology underwent its “paradigm shift” (Segal & Lahman, 1973), away from the previous stimulus-response (S-R) learning-theory approach to the discipline, So the transformation from verbal learning to memory was tactically advantageous for boosting the department’s CI scores, and perhaps an unintended long-term consequence of Roger’s hiring procedures.
Still, in his hiring of his young stars-to-be Roger Myers did not confine himself to those memory researchers who hewed to the emerging cognitive paradigm, and impacted experimental psychology though the Ebbinghaus Empire.. One of these young S-R theorists was Abram Amsel, an experimental psychologist with a PhD from the University of Iowa “under” the supervision of the leading proponent of the S-R approach, Kenneth Spence. A 1948 PhD who joined the department in 1960, Amsel probably had the highest CI of all the “young Turks”. Amsel’s advice to me in 1968ing my first year in department) regarding “the latest fads”, among which he placed the cognitive approach, was “If you wait for long enough, it will go away.” So far, in 2010, there is no sign that psychologists have waited long enough.
But perhaps the most maverick (for a justification of this term, see http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/Papers/db/Bulletin.doc) young researcher that Roger hired was Daniel Berlyne. Berlyne, who was in the department from 1962 until his untimely death in 1976, and who conformed neither to the older S-R approach, nor to the newer “cognitive” paradigm. When Myers hired him in 1962, Berlyne had not “settled down”. He had worked for short periods in British, Swiss and US institutions without being able to land a tenure-stream position. Myers seized the opportunity to have this promising young researcher cease his “wanderings”. In this Myers proved completely successful. Berlyne stayed in the department until his untimely death in 1976, and had a greater impact on the department both in the research areas that he covered, as well as serving as a disinterested critic for younger colleagues in research areas other than his own (see http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/Papers/db/Disinterested%20critic.doc) than any of the other “young Turks”.
Roger Myers was a highly respected chair and colleague, regarded as having excellent management skills. His lasting and initially unlikely contribution was how he transformed the psychology department into an influential locus of experimental psychology that remains “visible” to this day in international psychological research.
Wright, Mary J. and Charles Roger Myers, A history of academic psychology in Caanada
Myers, C.R. (1970). Journal Citations and Scientific Eminence in Contemporary Psychology. American Psychologist, 25, 1041-1048.
Myers, C.R. (1973). Taped interview with Berlyne, transcribed in 1978 and extensively relied on in http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/furedy/Papers/db/Berlyne%20as%20an%20Examplar.doc.
Segal, E. M., and Lachman, R. (1972). Complex behavior or higher mental process: Is
there a paradigm shift? American Psychologist, 27, 45-55.
Wright, Mary J. (1987). C. Roger Myers ( 1906-1985). American Psychologist, 41, 1128.