Beacons of Humanistic Psychology: Dr. Fred Wertz

Fordham University Admin Building - Beacons of Humanistic Psychology: Dr. Fred Wertz

Many of our humanistic psychologists in academia are working in departments where they are the only person holding these values. At times, the myriad of other faculty may seem to be hostile toward the humanistic paradigm and surviving seems more important than thriving. This interview—and hopefully others to follow—acknowledges a person who is acting as a sole humanistic beacon at his or her institution. Like a lighthouse on the rugged coast, Dr. Fred Wertz shows his students at Fordham University in New York, and maybe our readers, how to safely navigate the potentially hazardous waters of a psychology department in order to establish a safe port for humanistic psychology, now and into the future.

Interviewing Dr. Fred Wertz
This interview took place in August 2011 at the American Psychological Association Conference in Washington D.C. There, Richard Bargdill, one of the authors, asked Fred Wertz to share some of his life lessons about fitting into and thriving in a psychology department where he is a theoretical minority. Dr. Wertz’s initial response was: “It’s a really uphill battle, really, really difficult, and each school is different, and each person, with their own career, is different. With me, there are a lot of idiosyncratic aspects to what I’ve been able to do and just pure luck in many ways.” Over the course of our interview, Dr. Wertz was able to outline seven themes that might be helpful for humanistic psychologists to keep in mind as they join theoretically heterogeneous departments.

1.    Try to gain the respect and trust of your psychology colleagues.
Dr. Wertz’s first point is to take care of own career but also understand the general standards of your new department. Most departments require contributions in teaching, research, and service. He feels it is important to understand what the general expectations are for the institution and the specific requirements for the department. Dr. Wertz noted an importance in realizing that everyone’s career path is different, and in regard to his path, he stated: “I’m grateful for the position that I’m in and I’m really grateful to my colleagues for allowing me to do the things I’m doing…I think it’s really important to gain the trust and respect, maybe respect and trust: is the order, of your colleagues, your departmental colleagues…” He noted that the way he found to gain their respect was to “meet their highest academic standards.” When discussing meeting these standards, Dr. Wertz stated:

“The way you demonstrate that you meet their standards is through the process of course reappointment, tenure and then promotion, and I think that if you can advance within your department and academic rank to become a full professor then I think you have a lot of respect from your colleagues.”

In other words, if the gold standard for a full professor is to publish a book at your institution, this is something that one should consider pursuing. If someone applies to be a full professor without having met that standard, it is akin to looking for an exception or a pass. This does not add to the trust or respect for humanistic psychologists. This can be said for all levels of promotion: find out what the written and unwritten rules are for promotion and try to exceed them.

2.    Find a way to link in with the history and tradition of your department.
Dr. Wertz suggested that new faculty try to learn something about the history of their departments and what is valued there. After finding out about the values, the new professor might find a way to tie into that. While further discussing his initial acceptance into the program at Fordham University, Dr. Wertz noted that Fordham highly valued “eclecticism,” and was, at the time, searching for ways to continue broadening their program. So part of fitting into a department means finding out what that department values and in some way trying to contribute to that history. Dr. Wertz stated, “They [the faculty] could accept me, and even feel like I was contributing to the mission of the department in a really important way by broadening the spectrum of approaches that the faculty had.”

Additionally, “If there is a value of eclecticism…once the department is viewed as eclectic… humanistic psychology is a part of psychology, so if they can achieve their mission of having an eclectic department…then they can be proud to have you as a humanist…they could accept me and even feel like I was contributing to the value of the department in a really important way by broadening the spectrum of approaches that the faculty had.”

3.    Participate in university life and department service.
Many new faculty members may be tempted to avoid serving on committees—wanting to concentrate on teaching and publishing. Dr. Wertz remarked that service is often a very fertile area to get to know various faculty members in a more personal way and to begin to understand the way the institution, as a whole, operates. “An important thing is to participate a lot in the college university life and the department, be generous in service. Assume increasing responsibility in the department and in the university and proving yourself ultimately to be a good leader and a friend to the other faculty members,” said Wertz.

For example, if the university is suddenly emphasizing undergraduate research, then this might be an opportunity for a new professor to create a qualitative research class. This may have been resisted before, but since it directly relates to university goals, it is a way of helping one’s own career and promoting a key tenant of humanistic psychology. Recently, there have been a number of undergraduate research presentations at the Society for Humanistic Psychology’s annual conference. This is means that even undergraduate students have opportunities to do poster presentations, and they may also meet graduate students from humanistic psychology schools so that there is a pipeline to help the tradition be replenished.

Wertz suggests one opening that is frequently available is the qualitative research methodology portion of any research class. Wertz says “Qualitative methods are so popular now, and we are seeing them being accepted by the APA, particularly with the inclusion in Division 5.” Wertz says that if professors can get their students to participate in the construction of research papers as part of the class, and, if these papers “are passing peer reviews and enabling them to have presentations; if you are doing that at the undergraduate level; you’re incredibly competitive with anything anyone else is doing.” The professor has an opportunity here to really help mentor the student presenters. He or she can talk about professional conduct, speech, and behavior. There might be opportunities for the student to apply for travel grants. Having students excited about qualitative research can really build into a professional experience that students tend to love.

4.     Be a good colleague to your peers.
Dr. Wertz recommends getting to know what your colleagues are doing in their own research. Often times, members in the same department don’t even know what each other’s areas of research are. If you see an article on a website or journal that your colleague might be interested in—pass it along. If someone in another department is looking for a psychology expert, and it may be related to a colleague’s work, spend the time to connect the two passing ships. This type of “career good will” will make its way back to you. Dr. Wertz spoke of the necessity to be both “a good leader and a friend to the other faculty.” If other faculty understand you to be someone who is helpful and looking out for the interests of psychology as a whole, and not just your own part of it, then they begin to trust you as a leader. Dr. Wertz attributes some of this good will as playing a part in his own rise to chair in his department. In addition, this “helpful attitude” exhibits the values of being a humanistic psychologist and humanistic person in a tangible way that others will notice.

5.    Create joint projects with other faculty that might seem like you would be at odds with.
Too often, for Wertz, academia can feel like intelligent people caught up in their own cubicles and writing articles that only ten people in the world read. One way to circumvent this isolation is to create a project that a number of psychology faculty can work on together as a team. In addition, joint projects also tend to diminish any “antagonistic” sentiment about theoretical differences. Wertz said:

“Really getting to know what they’re doing and seeing connections between what they’re doing and what I’m doing and really being respectful of that, not trying to change what they’re doing….if you work on projects with them and with students where you make good contributions, projects that have nothing to do with humanistic psychology. You gain a lot of respect.”


One opportunity is for qualitative researchers to help students in quantitative methods classes to ask the right questions. This might give credibility to the professor and help to provide opportunities for more curricula that have a humanistic influence to them.

“So, the faculty sees the psychometrics students coming to work with me because I can serve their methods. If you want to develop a measuring instrument, the students don’t know where to get the questions. They are great at collecting data and getting the answers and analyzing the data and establishing the psychometric qualities of the instrument. But they don’t know where to get the questions. So, if I say there’s a rigorous scientific way of doing that too, if you do really great interviews, and get a bunch of descriptions from a number of people, and you break that down and study it—any form of qualitative analysis will do—it is much better than a panel of experts making it up out their head. And students see that that is a instrument in my tool box.”


This shows Dr. Wertz’s value of seeking respect and connections with his colleagues, but also, how he builds and connects in with students. A number of those students, once exposed to the richness and depth of qualitative inquiry, become interested in doing qualitative or mixed method designs for their dissertations. In this way, Wertz has been consistently drawing in students who are active, bright, and hard working.

6.    Hold high standards for your students. Don’t let shoddy work slip by.
Along with helping students involved other classes, Dr. Wertz stresses that it is necessary to hold high standards for student’s work. Since Humanistic Psychology has been frequently stereotyped as being too soft in its scientific rigor, colleagues will be watching to see if your students are putting out work that confirms this bias, or if it goes counter to it. Wertz suggests, “Uphold really good standards, if they see students doing stuff that they don’t think is that good, or you start getting reputation for being the easiest guy, where people will go to you if they can’t cut it working with other faculty….That’s really, really bad.”

The only way to improve the humanistic reputation is to have work coming out that has your seal of approval. If you are not willing to stand behind the work, don’t approve it. Dr. Wertz recommends that you be a tough critic of your students’ work, and then if another faculty wants to take on your student, at least, you can feel compelled to defend the student.  

“I want students to do something that clears my standards, that I can stand up for, that I can defend it, if necessary, and not let the students get through with flaky work.”


For Dr. Wertz, one can gather a real sense of the mentoring process: if you meet his standards and if someone wants to question the rigor of the work, Wertz has got your back.

7.    Be active at APA!
Dr. Wertz encourages the young faculty member, as well as students, to be involved in Division 32 and to present at our annual conference as well as the APA conference. Activity at the national level generates excitement and fun for students and brings recognition to one’s department. Dr. Wertz comes to APA every year, he tries to present at the APA conference or at the Division 32 Hospitality Suite at the convention. In addition, he hosts a “social hour for all our students and faculty from Fordham.” Since the APA is such a big convention, this social hour is one of the few times all students and faculty from his school see each other while they are at the APA conference. There, they can share some of the things that they’ve learned, and it is a social opportunity to create some memorable experiences in an informal setting. Dr. Wertz suggested that professional activity at a national level benefits the students because it demonstrates that psychological science is only helpful if the findings are disseminated to other professionals. Producing work that you are proud of and wanting to share with the community of psychologists is also one form of being a role model for the future generations of psychologists. It is also true that other faculty members in the department are likely to hear about the students’ experiences, and they will understand that you are providing opportunities for students to improve their career possibilities. Finally, involvement at conferences also helps spread the name of your institution around the United States and around the world.

In the second part of this piece, three graduate students of Dr. Wertz were interviewed. They were asked to describe what it was like to be one of his students and what leads him to be such successful mentor. That portion interview will be shared at a later date.

— Richard Bargdill and Trisha Nash

Read more stories by Richard Bargdill

Today’s guest co-contributor, Trisha Nash, is a doctoral student at the University of Memphis, who is currently on internship at Utah State University. She has been involved with Division 32 for about five years and is currently working with the membership committee and the Student Ambassadors.

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