Ask Dr. Julie Madden if she’s student-centric and you’ll get no argument from her.
“Absolutely. I mean, we’re here for them.”
Madden, an associate lecturer in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Psychology, remembers what it was like to be a student—particularly an undergraduate. The student experience gave her a feeling of community that she brings to the classroom as a faculty member.
“My experiences are different. Not everybody started out not knowing what they wanted to do. I was a person who was interested in a lot of things but didn’t know what direction to go,” said Madden, who joined the UTC faculty in 2019.
“I came to college from a different route. I was training to be a professional ballet dancer. I had no aspirations of going to college at all, but I ended up breaking my ankle and realizing that my body was fragile.
“I needed to do something else, so I started out at a community college—which I don’t think gets enough love.”
She said her time at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, was a fantastic place to start figuring herself out.
“What I really loved about taking classes at a community college was it did feel like a community,” she explained. “There were people who kind of came through, but a group of students went from class to class and gave you a feeling of that cohort experience.”
Madden dabbled in art history but admittedly didn’t have connections in the art world. She took courses in nursing but realized it wasn’t the right fit.
She took psychology courses as part of her general education curriculum, though, “and then it hit me one day,” she recalled. “You enjoy this. Why not do something with this?”
After receiving an associate degree from Cabrillo College, she continued her undergraduate journey at the University of California, Santa Cruz—where she had more self-discovery moments.
“When I got to university and started taking my upper-division classes, I realized that there are fields called psycholinguistics, where you look at how people utilize language,” she said, “and so much in cognitive psychology is applicable to so many domains of the human experience, right? Cognition relates to learning and memory. Cognition relates to how we develop different kinds of skills, perceive the world, how we allocate our attention—and attention is the foundation for essentially everything that we’re able to do.
“It just opened up this whole world of psychology to me and I found it absolutely fascinating.”
UC Santa Cruz is a Research 1 university—a reference to the highest level of research activity as designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education—and she said being at an R1 institution has a different mentality. For her, she missed the feeling of community. “That’s really where I learned best,” she said.
The experience was pivotal in her future career direction.
She continued studying psycholinguistics at Florida State University, receiving master’s (2015) and doctoral (2019) degrees. Madden then had a decision to make.
“Once I finished my graduate degree, I was debating, ‘Do I go into an R1 institution or do I look at teaching schools that are more about getting students not just into research but into the community and into different ways of utilizing their psychology degree,’” she explained. “That’s why I chose to come to UTC, because it is a teaching school.
“I want to create an experience for my students more reflective of my most positive experiences. I’m taking this generation of student-centered experiences I had and infusing them into what I do here—and I find it so rewarding.”
Like many other non-tenure-track faculty members, Madden prefers the teaching aspect of higher education, placing higher weight on classroom and community service rather than the stressors of research, writing grants and getting published. She said she feels her varied path and experiences are critical in mentoring students.
“I enjoy our students. They all come from such diverse backgrounds and everyone has a different story. Everyone is a wonderfully unique individual who can bring something to the classroom,” she said, “so I try to create these communities of learning within my classroom.”
Associate Professor Kristen Jennings Black works down the hall from Madden in the Department of Psychology wing of the 540 McCallie Building.
Black said you can’t help but notice the connection Madden has with her students.
“I always hear laughter coming from her office when she has student meetings. It seems like she really has a good rapport with them,” she said. “Every time I hear students talking about Julie, it’s always, ‘You have to take cognitive psychology with Dr. Madden,’ or, ‘You have to take positive psychology with Dr. Madden; she’s the best.’
“You’ll find Julie’s a very authentic person, so she’s her true self—and I think the students love that in her; she just feels like a real person. She doesn’t feel like someone trying to be polished and putting on a show.”
Ironically, had Madden’s original career plan come to fruition, she would have been a ballet dancer—which would have meant being polished and putting on a show.
“I had been so fixated that ballet was going to be my path that I hadn’t considered what else I would do,” Madden said of the broken left ankle between her junior and senior year in high school.
Who knew a literal break would turn into a figurative break, leading her to psychology and a teaching career?
“I like being in the classroom and I love psychology,” she said, calling it “really, really fulfilling” to be a part of a student’s self-discovery moment.
“I don’t really know how to explain it, but it is very fulfilling and very rewarding,” Madden said. “It’s not like you brag about it. I don’t go to my friends and say, ‘I helped 16 students find their calling today.’
“It’s just personal and it feels like it’s that intrinsic motivator that you’re good at what you’re doing and that you are helping people.”