Psychology professors rock to a different tune

Nick Baker

Six instructors appreciate the distraction their band provides

It’s 3 p.m. on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in Kent Hall. With the exception of a few faculty members and graduate students roaming the halls, the building appears largely vacant.

John Updegraff, assistant professor of psychology who studies health behavior change, sits at his computer in his third-floor office. On a circular table behind him sits a bowl of fun-size candy bars.

There is a passing knock on the frame of the open door to Updegraff’s office and in waltzes John Dunlosky, professor of psychology and specialist in student learning.

Reaching into the bowl, Dunlosky rationalizes aloud that it is far healthier to eat a “fun-size” candy bar than a full-size one. As he pops a miniature Snickers in his mouth, he laughs and acknowledges that between this bowl and the bowl in the second-floor office of his wife Katherine Rawson, assistant professor of psychology who studies text comprehension and metacognition, he eats more than a full bar’s worth every day.

Dunlosky suggests it’s time for the two to head to the second floor conference room for their meeting, where Rawson, along with Joel Hughes, assistant professor of psychology, whose field is cardiovascular psychophysiology; and Mary Beth Spitznagel, a neuropsychologist and clinician based at Summa Health Care System in Akron and Kent State adjunct, are awaiting their arrival.

The would-be sixth member of this meeting, Patrick Palmieri, adjunct assistant professor in psycology and specialist in trauma-related psychopathology and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, is somewhere in the sky between Kent and Chicago. He is off to two psychology-related conferences.

At first glance, it would be reasonable to assume this conference-table gathering of professors from different areas of psychology must relate to some groundbreaking new study on par with Bobo the inflatable clown or Pavlov’s dogs.

But they are not there to present any breakthroughs in research or discuss matters of modern psychology; they are here to discuss music. These six professors make up the all-psychologist band known as Wire Mother.

Wire Mother’s origins go back to 2004, when Dunlosky, Updegraff and Hughes were new at Kent State. Dunlosky explains the seeds were sown in the midst of a lofty psychological discussion.

“Four of us came here the same year, four years ago,” Dunlosky explains. “And over beers at the 11th Frame, I was bemoaning how I left a band where I came from. I was like …”

“Having band withdrawal?” Rawson suggests from across the conference table.

“Yeah, band withdrawal,” Dunlosky agrees. “And I think it was John (Updegraff) who said, ‘Hey, I play the guitar,’ which was cool; we could get together and mess around, but of course, the first thing you think is -“

“We need a drummer,” Updegraff says, cutting in. “Joel here was sitting there and said, ‘Hey, I play the drums.'”

Over some more brews and a lot of brainstorming, they came up with the idea of being a band of psychologists who sing about, well, psychology.

“Originally, we thought we were gonna have psychology-themed music,” says Hughes, as he explains the band’s psychological foundations. “And then we dumped that idea immediately when (we realized) there’s only like two or three ‘Psycho Killer’-type songs. Suddenly, we became able to play whatever instead of keeping to a theme.”

While the band did not stick solely to the musical stylings of psychosis for long, they did decide after a few practices to retain some ties to the field, and dubbed their group “Wire Mother.”

The namesake comes from a famous experiment conducted by Harry Harlow, in which monkeys were raised with two “mothers:” one made of cloth which provided physical comfort and the other made of metal wire which provided food. The former was the young monkeys’ preference.

They explain that the band began expanding their repertoire to what is now about a 30-song cover arsenal, mixed with a handful of original tunes. They started with Dunlosky and Updegraff splitting duties on the bass and guitar and Hughes on the drums, while Palmieri, the fourth original member, played keyboards and the occasional tenor saxophone.

“And then they decided they needed some real talent,” Rawson adds, jumping into the conversation.

Dunlosky pauses, clears his throat and expresses a similar sentiment.

“Look, it was very obvious we needed people to sing,” Dunlosky says. “And that’s when Katherine started.”

Rawson then took over duties as one of four lead singers, along with some part-time bass assignments. With Rawson now in the Wire Mother camp, the band began playing a few gigs around Kent, their first being at the old stomping grounds of the 11th Frame. Then in 2006, Spitznagel came into the fold. She explains the current line-up came together after she attended a practice, in Dunlosky and Rawson’s basement.

“I went to a Wire Mother practice once, and they were playing an Indigo Girls song,” Spitznagel says. “Katherine was up there singing all by herself, and I was like, ‘You know, next time you guys have practice I’ll come back you up on the Indigo Girls song.'”

Her stint as a one-song guest was short-lived, however, as eventually she solidified the five-person corps of lead singers, along with bringing what she calls the “dancing capacity.”

Aside from having constant rotation on the microphone, Wire Mother also rotates on the instruments. With the exception of Hughes, everybody does some rotating and singing.

“It’s like musical chairs,” Hughes says, dropping a cleverly-placed pun. “I’m the only person who sits at his instrument the whole time, and everybody else switches off to various things.” He then laughs and adds, “And everybody’s a lead singer except for me.”

The band chooses songs they play at the suggestion of its members, and while they usually are up for anything, they do have to occasionally draw the line, at least according to Spitznagel.

“I wanted us to cover – do you remember ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC?” Spitznagel asks around the table. “Yeah, I thought we could cover that, like folk-like. Nobody was into that.”

Between teaching and conferences: finding the time to practice and perform

The members of Wire Mother are all members of Kent State’s psychology department, and work in various fields of research, along with occasionally teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. With six band members all involved in different aspects of psychology, finding the time to get together can sometimes prove difficult.

“I think that’s probably our only constraint,” says Rawson. “With six of us in, it’s hard to line up schedules so we can find times to practice.”

Rawson and Dunlosky are the only two members who work in the same areas of research, and consequently the members’ schedules vary widely.

“We all have different conferences that we attend,” Spitznagel says. “It’s not like we all have the same two conferences, and then we’re gone at the same time.”

Palmieri says when Wire Mother does come together to jam, it is not always strictly business.

“When we all get a date that works, we all look forward to it,” Palmieri says. “We get to hang out and goof around. In the basement where we practice, there’s a ping-pong table, a pinball machine, a kegerator – we make it a night of fun.”

Practices are only part of what the professors enjoy about being in the band. The members say performing live is a way to show sides of themselves that do not always get expressed in their everyday work. Rawson says while life as a professor can be rewarding, life as a musician provides something on an entirely different level.

“The best way to explain it is that in our jobs, I think almost everything we do is very intellectual and heady,” Rawson says. “There’s an emotional element to music that you don’t often get out of the day-to-day kind of work we do.”

Hughes echoes her sentiments.

“It’s fun to be multi-dimensional as a person,” Hughes explains. “I mean everybody thinks you’re just your job. ‘What are you? Well, you’re a psychology professor.’ Well that’s not really true. A lot of us have other interests, and one of them happens to be music.

“It’s so fun to expose that to people, ’cause usually people don’t know what you do with your life, especially students. It’s like, what if the principal of your high school raced cars?”

According to the band members, lives as musicians and psychologists offer very different forms of satisfaction. Updegraff, who famously combined the two with the performance of his “Brain Song” in a General Psychology class (available on YouTube), said sometimes the field of psychology just doesn’t quite offer the same rush.

“I’ve never had a case where I published a paper and had a crowd cheer,” Updegraff jokes. “We don’t have to submit our songs to a review process.”

Contact off-campus entertainment reporter Nick Baker at [email protected].