Professor Profile: Jan Duchek
As you enter Associate Professor of Psychology Jan Duchek’s office, the framed teaching certificate on the wall displays a list of grades:
Elementary Agriculture: 99%
Orthography and Writing: 94%
If this sounds like an odd certificate for a university professor to receive, it’s because this is a first-grade teaching certificate. And it wasn’t presented to Duchek but rather to her grandmother in 1918.
“It reminds me that I come from a generation of teachers,” Duchek said. “Think about it, this was a woman back in 1918. Women didn’t go to college back in 1918, and there’s my dear grandmother who went to college and got her teacher’s certificate in the state of Iowa.”
Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Duchek began teaching at Washington University in 1985. However, her encounters with St. Louis date back much earlier. She completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL), where she met her husband Dave Balota, who also teaches psychology at Wash. U.
“It’s a common story,” Duchek said. “When you are young and you are in school and you’re pursuing these educational goals, you meet people with similar sorts of goals so you end up together.”
“I don’t know if Dave would agree, but I think it has worked remarkably well,” Duchek joked about teaching and collaborating on research with her husband. “It makes your work very efficient because you are always with that person. Rather than having a meeting the next day about something, you can just mention it to your partner over dinner or doing the dishes.”
Duchek left Missouri after graduating from UMSL to complete her Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina. During her time in graduate school, Duchek developed an interest in aging and Alzheimer’s disease, which became the basis of her dissertation.
After graduating and being hired by Wash. U., Duchek moved with her family to St. Louis. Two years into her career at the University, she and her husband moved with their daughter to the Netherlands after her husband was invited as a visiting scholar at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
“I will never forget when my parents came over to visit us for a week when we were over in the Netherlands,” Professor Duchek said. “We went to a restaurant and our daughter Angela would ask my parents what they wanted for dinner and spoke Dutch to the waiter, and the waiter would speak back to her. Oh my gosh. My parents thought she was a genius.”
Even after studying psychology and cognitive development for many years, Duchek was still amazed by her five-year-old daughter’s ability to learn a new language.
“We already knew that this was how children pick up language,” Duchek said, referring to her daughter’s quickly learned language skills. “So we already knew it was going to happen, but even though intellectually we knew that, still seeing it in action was absolutely amazing.”
Duchek spent her time raising her daughter and teaching at Leiden University while in the Netherlands. Since returning to the States, Duchek has continued her research on aging and began teaching developmental psychology.
“The nature of children is inherently interesting to people,” Duchek said.
To spice up her classes a bit, Duchek brings in the children of her colleagues or teaching assistants as models of child development.
“Students just love it. They would much rather do that than listen to me,” Duchek said with a laugh.
A few years ago, her TA brought his five-year-old daughter and her friend to class. Duchek asked the two kids to help demonstrate Jean Piaget’s conservation of liquid task. For this task, two identical glasses with equal amounts of water are set in front of a child. One of the glasses of liquid is then poured into a taller, thinner glass and the kids are asked to compare the liquid quantities.
“The child who does not yet have an idea of conservation will tell you ‘Oh, the tall glass has more.’” Duchek explained. “Then, you pour it back into the original glass and the kid will tell you, ‘Oh, those are the same.’ There is something very special when you see a kid in front of you doing it. The students really enjoy that.”
Junior Phuong Le took Developmental Psychology with Duchek last semester and said it was one of her most enjoyable classes.
“Professor Duchek is really funny and knows how to engage her students,” Le said. “You don’t want to miss her lectures.”
Duchek feels that teaching is both gratifying and touching at times. Some of her students have even sent her “thank you” emails after being accepted into medical school.
“Those moments are absolutely amazing,” Duchek said.