During a seminar at Stanford University, APS Past President Gordon Bower “began asking extraordinarily insightful and blunt questions,” recalls APS Fellow Stephen M. Kosslyn, Founding Dean and Chief Academic Officer of the School of Arts and Sciences, Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute. “He was very quick on the uptake, very confident, and unusually assertive. At one point he interrupted the speaker … [but] another student came to the rescue, with a trenchant rejoinder to Gordon’s broadside. In fact, before Gordon was completely finished, the other grad student cut him off, and explained that there was another finding he was ignoring. Gordon listened carefully, head cocked to one side, nodded,” and agreed with the student’s remarks.
Many of Bower’s former students and collaborators note these two complimentary traits in their letters of support nominating him for the APS Mentor Award: He is challenging yet supportive, demanding yet understanding, candid yet caring. He possesses that rare mix of qualities that has endeared him to so many of his mentees, including several who did not officially work in his lab but whom he nevertheless took under his wing.
“Gordon was not my actual advisor during graduate school … but over the next several decades Gordon would come to play an important ‘mentor’ role in my life,” recalls APS Past President Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology and Professor of Law and Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine. “His role grew so large that when I’m now asked which scientists were particularly important to my own career development, I invariably mention Gordon.”
Professional advancement is not the only area in which Bower, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Stanford University, has been generous. He is mindful of his students’ personal needs as well.
Former student and APS Fellow Elizabeth Marsh, professor and associate chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, recalls being nervous when Bower called her to his office one day. She relaxed once she realized the meeting was not about her research.
“He wanted to give me his scooter! Gordon knew that I did not drive, and he was concerned about my walking and biking home in the dark,” Marsh says. “It was one of the sweetest moments of my graduate school career.”
As encouraging and kind as Bower is, he is equally exacting and critical. He pushes his students to fine-tune their ideas and conduct rigorous research, working with them as equals in whose work he is personally invested. This means that “egos can be left by the door,” writes APS Fellow David A. Rosenbaum, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California, Riverside. “Ribbing and good-natured teasing can go on, bespeaking trust. It’s your hypotheses and their predictions that are on the line, not your worth at every turn.”
Others expressed similar sentiments: Bower can be strict, but he never makes it personal. Through his critiques, he aims to help his students “tear the weak [ideas] to shreds in the search for a gem,” APS Fellow Lawrence W. Barsalou, University of Glasgow, explains. When they find that gem, Bower does all he can to help them polish and subsequently present it. Several letter writers emphasized how much it meant to them to have Bower attend their Psychonomic Society talks.
Rosenbaum recounts: “Gordon always went to all of his former students’ talks at Psychonomics. Even if you hadn’t seen or spoken to Gordon for a while, he would be there at your presentation, smiling and nodding no matter what, though he would also feel free to ask one of his zinger questions in the discussion period, always with a twinkle in his eye. He’d still want you to be able to think about the work critically.”
Many of Bower’s former students emphasize that he holds himself and his work to the same high standards. “Part of the mentoring went beyond assisting me in improving,” APS Fellow Alan M. Lesgold, Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, remembers. “Gordon modeled the importance of peer critique as well, asking for comments on his own writing and asking for suggestions about articles being reviewed for journals. That second-level mentoring may explain why so many of Gordon’s students have gone on to have decent research careers.”
In the end, perhaps APS Past President Walter Mischel, who described Bower at the beginning of an “Inside the Psychologist’s Studio” studio interview with him at the 21st APS Annual Convention, put it best: “For most distinguished psychologists, there’s usually a phrase or two, or three maybe — at most a paragraph — if you try to capture what they’re about [and] what their work is about. Most of us get characterized with a few simple phrases. It’s impossible with Gordon. Even three paragraphs, four paragraphs, aren’t going to capture either the person or the scientist. There’s a complexity to this guy that really is not reducible to the usual pigeonholes.”