Carnegie Mellon University
May 16, 2023

Dinh Honored for Evidence-based, Justice-centered Teaching

By Marissa Pekular

Carnegie Mellon University has recognized Phuong (Phoebe) Dinh with the 2023 Graduate Student Teaching Award for their expertise, dedication and creativity in teaching. 

After finishing undergraduate degrees in cognitive and brain sciences, as well as philosophy at Tufts University, Dinh moved to Pittsburgh, embarking on graduate studies at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Psychology.

Dinh has been a graduate teaching assistant for three courses: Principles of Child Development, Cognitive Psychology and Biological Foundations of Behavior. In addition, they were an instructor-on-record for Research Methods in Cognitive Psychology in fall 2022.

During the process of designing their Research Methods in Cognitive Psychology course, they drew on past syllabi and advice of faculty who have taught the course, as well as evidence-based educational research through work with the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. As an instructor, Dinh prioritizes equity and inclusion through collaborative projects, reflexive practice (including frequent student-driven course adjustments) and a syllabus that strives to upset white supremacist epistemology in psychology education.

While Dinh sometimes felt isolated within their research-heavy discipline and the values it traditionally prioritizes, teaching grew to be a passion that sustained them.

“[In teaching,] I found the possibility for community building,” said Dinh. “Through thick and thin, I really do love teaching.”

They have a message for any student who may be considering teaching.

“It involves a lot of growing pains, and I’m there too. I may have my growing pains until I stop teaching,” Dinh said.

As a researcher, Dinh is interested in investigating causal cognition, or how people think about causation. Their research folds together philosophy and psychology.

“Causal cognition is how people come to learn and represent causal relations in the world, [like when a ball falls to the ground because of gravity],” Dinh said. “A lot of how we interact with the world is interpreted through or mediated by our understanding of how causation works, and that’s precisely what I’m interested in.”

Dinh’s interest in causal cognitions, which ultimately provided the foundation for their dissertation, started with questioning. Being trained in a tradition that utilizes a historical lens and considers the philosophy behind scientific research, Dinh studied how a theory comes to be in its historical, sociopolitical contexts. Through this study, they realized the importance of accounting for how people think about causation in scientific practice and not just causation in the ahistorical, apolitical abstract.  

Dinh successfully defended their dissertation on May 4 and plans to return to Tufts as a full-time lecturer within the university’s Psychology Department in the coming fall. They are most excited about teaching research methods, the very foundation of scientific inquiry. They are also excited to co-create and design instructional aspects of the course with future colleagues and students.

“I’m excited for the prospect of introducing different ways of thinking about the so-called scientific method,” said Dinh. “The reality is that there are so many ways of [conducting] science, more than what an introductory research methods textbook can capture. I’m looking forward to complicating this discourse.”

In addition to being an instructor, they plan to continue community organizing work. While at CMU, they were involved in planning the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit for three years. They also helped organized initiatives and events with the CMU Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion and their home department, Psychology.

“I feel more in alignment with my values when I get to do some of that work,” said Dinh. “I hope to continue that in the future.”