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Prof. Goya-Tocchetto: Helping Students Understand Human Behavior

Posted by: Kate Kenney-Newhard | September 12, 2016 | No Comment |

From her early days growing up in the large urban city of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southernmost state in Brazil, Dr. Daniela Goya-Tocchetto has had a passion for learning. This passion, combined with a desire to gain a better understanding of disparate peoples and cultures, led Goya-Tocchetto to devote her life and career to the interdisciplinary study of human behavior.

“All in all, it is fair to say that my life has always revolved around my passions for learning more about, and connecting with the world and the people around us,” says Goya-Tocchetto, an adjunct professor with the School of Professional Studies at the College of Charleston. “More specifically, my academic history started with a conjoined fascination for the social sciences and mathematics…” Pursuing her multidisciplinary interests, Goya-Tocchetto initially earned a B.S. and a M.Sc. in Economics. During her course of study, she became interested in the intersection between economic development and theories of justice, running experiments on the justice of alternative distributions of income within society. Noting that her research interests were more closely tied to the work of philosophers than traditional economists, Goya-Tocchetto, opted to pursue an M.Sc. in Philosophy and Public Policy, and a Ph.D in Philosophy, focusing her research on the intersection between economics, philosophy, psychology, and public policy.

Goya-Tocchetto’s interdisciplinary approach required regarding human behavior from two different ethical perspectives – descriptive and normative – and connecting the two to gain a more comprehensive view of the subject matter. “(A) descriptive project is about understanding how humans actually make decisions and shape our societies; (a) normative project is about figuring out the rules that humans ought to abide (by) when making their decisions—either individually or collectively,” she explains. “…(I)f we connect both projects in the design of public policies we can get a full picture of all the possible overlaps between these areas.”

Since completing her dissertation, Goya-Tocchetto’s research pursuits have continued to reflect this fruitful collaboration between the aforementioned social science fields, including her current interest in the factors contributing to judgements about wealth inequality in the United States. Goya-Tocchetto has also drawn on her interdisciplinary background in teaching two required courses in the Bachelor of Professional Studies Program: PRST 220, a basic critical thinking course, and PRST 300, an introductory ethics course. Both courses have been designed to help students examine and evaluate ideas beyond the constraints of a given discipline, and teach concepts that are invaluable both inside and outside the academic realm.

“…(C)ritical thinking skills enable students to better organize their ideas, better evaluate incoming sources and information, and develop sound arguments in their work,” says Goya-Tocchetto. “All these skills are highly valued not only in academia, but also in the market.” In order for students to engage in sound research protocol, and learn from their inquiries, they must first understand how individuals come to hold their beliefs, which sources of information are evidence-based, and how to differentiate between realible and unreliable sources. Goya-Tocchetto hopes that through her curriculum, students will learn to make informed choices – in both their personal and professional lives – and make arguments that can stand the test of logical scrutiny.

Goya-Tocchetto also emphasizes the wide-reaching benefits of the skills acquired in her introductory ethics course, particularly when confronting subject matter that involves complex moral issues – such as ongoing media debates about social justice and political policy. “I would say that one of the main benefits… is to better grasp the importance of being open to respectful dialogue at all times,” explains Goya-Tocchetto. “Students have the opportunity to experience disagreements as more complex and nuanced than the commonsense, ‘either you are for it or against it.’”

In encouraging an understanding of ethics theory and critical thinking practices, Goya-Tocchetto invites her students to evaluate news articles, identifying the key parts of an argument, as well as the kinds of arguments that don’t work – so-called fallacies. Goya-Tocchetto is keenly aware that many non-traditional students feel apprehensive about participating in class; she tries to remain approachable, and demonstrate an appreciation for each student’s unique contributions and life circumstances. “Only when we are able to fully recognize that we are all equals are we able to feel comfortable with each other…,” says Goya- Tocchetto. “…(T)hen we can completely overcome our fears and reservations in order to truly engage in meaningful learning.”

With her passion for lifelong learning, and appreciation for societal diversity, Daniela Goya-Tocchetto strives to create an academic environment where everyone – students, staff, and professors – is encouraged to learn as much a possible about the surrounding world. “Learning is a beautiful, ongoing, and collective endeavor. I learn from the students and the students learn from me,” she says. “We should acknowledge this (phenomenon) and enjoy the ride, while helping each other as much as we can along the way.

under: colloquia

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