Rob Stephenson’s research interests center primarily around sexual and reproductive health, examining issues of sexual risk takingand the intersections among violence, minority stress, and sexual behavior, particularly among men who have sex with men. The influence of the community and the wider socio-cultural context on individual health is a particular interest of his, and he is currently conducting studies of community effects on maternal health, family planning, and domestic violence outcomes in sub-Saharan African and the US.
He was named Professor of the Year at Rollins in 2006 and also received the inaugural ASPH/Pfizer Early Career in Public Health Teaching Award from the Association of Schools of Public Health.
Why did you become a teacher?
While working for my Ph.D., I was offered an opportunity to earn some extra money by doing short-term training courses. So my first-ever experience of teaching was leading one- or two-week intensive courses overseas [from his home in England]. For example, I did some work in Luxembourg training European statisticians and training at the Ministry of Health in Nigeria. The people I trained were mid-career professionals who needed to learn a very discrete skill set. I really enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t until I came to Emory in 2004 that I actually started teaching college students. In my previous position I had done pure research, and I hadn’t considered teaching as an option. I find teaching—as compared with training—much more about a continuous learning mode and more about ideas and concepts that then lead to skills.
What impact did your experience as a trainer have on your approach to teaching students?
It’s made me focus on practical skills. I think it’s pointless to teach something that’s purely theoretical without then giving students examples of what they can actually do with the knowledge. Students need practical applications.
What people in your life have had a particularly strong influence on you?
There are several. I was reflecting recently about my parents, and it occurred to me that they never told me that I couldn’t do anything. They never told me—whatever I came up with—that it was impossible. I kind of grew up with this overinflated sense that I could do anything, which is not always a good thing! That’s been incredibly influential, because it’s led me to approach things without even thinking that I could actually fail. It was liberating without even knowing it was liberating.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Again, a lot of it comes down to helping students learn practical skills; I always advise students that there are 100 of you doing a master’s degree in public health. In two years’ time there will be 100 of you with an M.P.H. But you need an M.P.H. plus something else—other skills—and you need to demonstrate those skills. I think two hours of me standing and talking is incredibly boring, so I like a very interactive classroom. I use a lot of case studies, a lot of examples, a lot of applications. I tend to stay away from dry theory-based teaching. If I do have to teach theory I link it to a concrete example.
How do you engage your students?
My classes have similar assignments in which I randomize each student to a country. For their weekly assignment, they have to apply what I teach them in class to their country. I don’t do exams, because I’m not interested in testing their memory.
For example, I teach a class called Issues in Sexual and Reproductive Health. Every week we talk about a different sexual or reproductive health indicator. One week we may talk about birth spacing (the number of months between two consecutive births). I tell them what it means and how we calculate it. Then they have to write a short piece on birth spacing in their country and apply the indicators and methods I’ve taught them.
How has your approach to teaching evolved?
I’ve moved away from exams. I’ve moved away from group work, but I may move back, and I’ve tried to structure everything to be as practical and applied as possible while keeping in mind what jobs people are going to go into. I’m against asking students to write a 2,000-word assignment because no one is ever again going to ask for 2,000 words on anything unless you become an academic. So my assignments are 200-500 words, because that’s all you’ll do in a public health job.
What advice would you give to people just beginning a teaching career?
Teach what you’re passionate about and teach what you practice. That’s been a big learning curve for me. For example, in public health 30 percent of our time is spent teaching. The rest is research. Outside of my work here, I do a lot of volunteer work in HIV clinics as a counselor and tester. That informs my teaching. If you teach but don’t practice, I feel there’s a real disconnect. I can’t teach a sexual health class in a bubble if I’m not out there practicing as a counselor. So one piece of advice is to have a strong connection between your practice and your teaching. I’d feel like somewhat of a fraud teaching a course for which I’m not actively engaged in the research anymore or practicing in any way.
How would you like students to remember you after they’ve left Emory?
I’d like to be remembered for being passionate about what I teach and practice. I think that’s most important. What we do isn’t so much a job as a passion, and I’m very lucky to have something that I’m so happy to be doing every day. I also take on a lot of thesis students, and I’ve stayed friends with many of them afterwards. Many of them have said to me that they worked so hard because they didn’t want to disappoint me. They were doing it for themselves, too, but they felt that I put so much into the work and I was so interested in it, too, that they wanted to do their best for me. It’s nice to be remembered for that.