When your father and uncle are academics, you get a bird’s eye view of the profession. “You get to think about whatever you find interesting, then talk to the smartest people on the planet about those things. That’s kind of hard to beat,” says Professor Danny Oppenheimer.
With his bachelor of arts from Rice and a Ph.D. from Stanford, Oppenheimer landed his first job at Princeton, which he held for eight years. While he acknowledges that the job was fabulous, he admits that New Jersey never felt like home.
“The offer at Anderson allowed me to return to a place with a higher quality of living, while maintaining an excellent career trajectory,” he says. “Plus, Diddy Reese is pretty close...”
His love of teaching is extensive. “I really enjoy the challenge of taking a complex topic and figuring out a way to present and explain it so that it makes sense to students who haven't seen it before,” he says. “There is nothing quite so rewarding as when a lesson plan you've developed works the way you'd envisioned, and you get to observe the students master the material.”
Oppenheimer also found that a key to enjoying teaching (and being successful) is blurring the lines that separate the classroom and the real world.
“You don't teach a student, you teach a person. And, when you get to know those people, you realize that they're fun and interesting and generally people you look forward to getting to interact with,” he explains. “Each class is different — the students have different backgrounds, interests and personalities. So, no matter how many times you teach the same material, it always feels new, and it's always a novel challenge.”
Oppenheimer’s primary study is cognition — how people think and how that affects their behavior. He focuses on judgment and decision making, but also dabbles in memory, language, reasoning, categorization and social perception.
“I don't know exactly why I stumbled into decision making as a topic. I guess when I first started learning about it, there was so much that was counterintuitive which piqued my interest.
“A lot of my research has addressed metacognition — how we think about thinking,” he says. “How do we respond when something feels hard to understand or easy to understand? While on the surface this seems like a small question, it turns out that this feeling of fluency or disfluency affects nearly everything we do. And, since all tasks can be thought of on a difficult to easy continuum, this experience of metacognitive fluency or disfluency is ubiquitous. From picking stocks, to being honest with our doctors, to evaluating job candidates, to effectively studying for exams, fluency affects so much of our lives, and it largely does so outside of our awareness.
Oppenheimer reveals that some of his closest friends are former students, but none yet have been able to beat him at racquetball or Dance Dance Revolution — and there’s the challenge.
For more on Danny and his research, head to his Anderson webpage.