Star Turn

March 12, 1999

A Havard psychology professor, master of mirth and all-round high-flier shares his coloured lecture notes with Jon Marcus.

By the end of his weekly two-hour lecture on adult learning and professional development, Robert Kegan's notes look like multi-coloured hieroglyphics. That is because he is not only teaching this class - he is also studying it. "Every time I teach, I get a new idea, so I scribble it down," says Dr Kegan, a pioneer in the comparatively new field of adult transformational learning that contradicts traditional psychological theory by suggesting that adults continue their mental development past adolescence. As Dr Kegan puts it, he is trying to find out "whether we continue to grow after adolescence or just gain weight".

This sort of humorous approach has given him a reputation as the stand-up comic of his faculty at Harvard University, where his course in adult development regularly boasts the biggest enrolment in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Dr Kegan says he is simply bringing to his work the experience of growing up in a family of storytellers. He is also bringing to his class the fruits of his research into post-adolescent psychological development. "We are learning from our research that the richest environment is an ingenious combination of support and challenge," Dr Kegan says.

"When people find their lives too challenging, with insufficient support, they disengage, and that keeps them from growing. And when life is too comfortable, they deprive themselves of the challenges that tempt us into further growth."

In class, he says: "I try to create a setting that will itself be both especially supportive and especially challenging."

Part of the support is Dr Kegan's engaging manner, which alternates anecdotes, jokes, riddles and a seemingly unending supply of aphorisms that inject a sense of perspective into complex topics. "What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a mobster?" he will ask, for instance. "Answer: an offer you can't understand." Or, paraphrasing Woody Allen: "I was thrown out of college for cheating. It was a metaphysics exam, and I looked into the soul of the student sitting next to me."

In Dr Kegan's office, books fill the shelves and overflow on to the floor and there are papers piled high on every surface, reflecting his roles not only as a teacher and researcher, but also as a licensed psychologist, a practising therapist and co-director of a joint programme with the Harvard Medical School to reform medical education.

Ernest Hemingway's short stories stand alongside psychology texts, the Bible, books by Philip Roth, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor and his own latest work, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Harvard University Press). Dr Kegan's life has been equally eclectic. While an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he studied philosophy, literature and theology. As a result, he says, his is a philosophy-laden psychology. A father of two, Dr Kegan is also a pilot who flies small planes; a poker player and an avid baseball fan.

The synergy between Dr Kegan's teaching and research is unusual in a system where university professors often consider their teaching duties as a distraction. "I've actually heard faculty - not necessarily at Harvard - talk about teaching as a kind of dues-paying that you have to do in order to have the privilege of being a professor," he says. "To me the great glory and privilege of my professional life is that I get to participate in both."

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