A man who drives a tank of his pet tropical fish across the country is a man who knows his values. Robert Youmans, a 32-year-old assistant psychology professor, moved to Los Angeles from Chicago over the summer to start teaching at CSUN. His fish came with him.
A faint blue glow from the tank illuminates his office, and visitors can watch a school of fish dart around the water.
“I thought, ‘I’ll bring em to LA,’ – they’ll keep me company,” he said with a big smile. “They have personalities- they all act differently.”
Assuming his fish have personalities points out Youman’s extensive knowledge and education in psychology. He holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and he teaches a class about experimental psychology.
Youmans was born in Fort Wayne, Ind. and moved often as a kid, spending time in St. Louis, Boca Raton, Fla. and Fisher, Ind. before settling in Raleigh, N.C. Youmans completed a bachelor’s degree at North Carolina State University, where he graduated with a degree in psychology.
Youmans studied mechanical engineering for three years before deciding to switch to psychology.
“I was not happy with engineering,” he said. “I always felt like my creativity was being stifled.”
Youmans described an epiphany about his growing dissatisfaction with engineering when a recently graduated friend landed an engineering job at a factory that made peanut butter crackers. His friend’s job was to redesign a metal drum that distributed peanut butter onto the crackers.
He was not encouraged by the monotonous and dull description of his friend’s job, so it prompted him to turn towards psychology.
“I turned a corner – and I realized I was really liking my psychology classes,” he said.
After his graduation, he moved to Paris, using money he saved through out his undergrad years.
“My parents had moved to Europe and I really wanted to learn French,” he said. “I think I wanted an adventure.”
Youmans studied the French language at the Sorbonne, the historic University of Paris. After he ran out of money, Youmans landed a job at a London public relations firm, where he worked as a ghostwriter, a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, letters or reports, which are officially credited to another person.
“London is a really cool place to live,” he said.
Youmans lived in Camden town, an old Irish section of the city where he saw bands such as Blur and Oasis play their first shows. He decided to return to the United States for graduate school, and he was accepted into Wake Forest University, a private liberal arts university in Winston Salem, N.C.
“I was very unclear about getting in,” he said. “I had some serious hurdles to get over, but I got in.”
Not only was Youmans accepted into the program, but he was granted a full scholarship.
Youmans realized in high school that he wanted to be a teacher.
“I’ve been lucky to have a string of really good teachers,” he said.
He originally wanted to be a high school teacher, but was told by his unhappy high school teachers to pursue another grade level.
“I love my class,” he said. “I feel like the class is hard, but they (the students) still like it. If you can pull that off, you’re an awesome professor.”
After graduate school, Youmans moved to Chicago to attend a Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was here that Youmans deeply immersed himself in his teaching assistant positions, and completed a study about the effect of the distribution of chocolate on student’s evaluations of professors.
He co-authored the study with his close friend, Dr. Benjamin Jee, who is now a research scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois. Their study, “Fudging the Numbers: Distributing Chocolate Influences Student Evaluations of an Undergraduate Course,” is expected to be published in a fall edition of the journal Teaching of Psychology.
“Rob is one of those rare people that I can talk to about anything,” Jee said. “He truly cares about his friends, family and his work. He puts a lot of effort into teaching and mentoring students.”
This semester has been Youmans’ first semester at CSUN, as he moved here over the summer from Chicago.
“I like CSUN a lot,” he said. “I was initially worried about being in over my head, but I feel like I am well-prepared for this job. I’ve gotten a lot of support. The faculty here has been super.”
Youmans currently teaches Psychology 321, Experimental Psychology. A senior psychology major who wished to remain anonymous, said, “He engages us. You can’t hide in his class. He will systematically get you. His class is more demanding than some, but in a way it lets you achieve your goals. He makes learning hard stuff more enjoyable.”
No one in his class would release their names bcause psychology students prefer to remain anonymous because it could skew results, opinions or data of projects that they’re working on or contributing to.
Youmans carries a refreshing and enthusiastic approach to teaching that some older professors might lack.
“He gets you motivated, he keeps you on your feet – and oh – he’s hot!” said another psychology major who wished to remain anonymous.
“He’s dynamic, and since he’s relatively new, he’s more enthusiastic,” said another junior psychology major. “He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
Youmans is engaged to a woman he has known for eight years. A friend introduced them in Raleigh before Youmans went to graduate school in Chicago, and they eventually lived in Chicago together. She works as an immigration lawyer in Manhattan, and though the two are many miles apart, they see each other twice a month.
“We’re good at distance,” he said. “We’re like the Huxtables – a doctor and a lawyer.”
Youmans enjoys reading, writing, playing the guitar and building cars. He recently finished building a 1964 Shelby Cobra from scratch with his father. A miniature replica of the car is parked on his desk, the bucket seats serving as a business card holder.
He enjoys living in LA, but misses some things about Chicago.
“I love the people, and I also like the city,” he said. “They have this great downtown. The people do truly seem well-rounded – but I really like living here too.”
As a self-described “nature person,” Youmans explained that one thing he loves about California is the varying landscape.
“The whole landscape of California is so drastically different,” he said. “I look out my window, and I can see mountains and palm trees. There’s also tons to do, and there’s really good food here, all of the regional cuisine.”
Youmans and Jee, who wrote the “Fudging the Numbers” study, have been receiving a lot of attention from the media. The study found that students who received chocolate before completing an evaluation of the teacher consistently gave the teacher better ratings than those who hadn’t received chocolate. Youmans has been interviewed by The Daily News, campus newspapers from Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern and Penn State, and several other news sources.
“It’s fun to be able to talk about science when people are so science averse,” he said. “How often do people care about you? I’m lucky, because I get to work with tons of great students and faculty, and this is just great. It’s fun. It’s the icing on the cake.”
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