Professor Spotlight: Maria Falikman

Daphne Nwobike   
Staff writer

When you’ve just immigrated to the United States a few months ago, teaching is even more nerve-wracking. Originally from Moscow, Dr. Maria Falikman is a visiting professor of psychology who has been immersed in this field for years.  

Although Falikman’s prowess in psychology defines her career, she wasn’t always fascinated by the study of the human mind until she discovered her love for it. “I wouldn’t say that psychology was my primary interest when I was in high school. I really loved biology, math, and literature. When I was trying to find something at the intersection, it was almost impossible—either you do science or you do humanities. Psychology was somewhere in between biology and the humanities and math,” says Falikman. When she stumbled upon the middle ground of psychology, she narrowed her interest further, specializing in cognitive modeling and artificial intelligence. She poured all her time and energy into researching this field, winning various awards for her teaching and research endeavors in Russia. 

In Moscow, Falikman spent more time on research than she did in front of a classroom. When she did teach, it was to a class of 100-plus students. Sewanee has been a significant change for her with its small class sizes that mandate professors and students to interact closely and collaboratively with one another. Falikman has learned to navigate the maze of professor-student relationships. 

Regarding her pedagogy, Falikan believes in interactive lessons that help students engage with the concepts. “I try to include as many classroom demonstrations as possible. I also try to hook what we’re studying to some interesting phenomena my students can feel and experience, and if they do, it means that they will be able to further use this kind of knowledge,” says Falikman. She has seen students perform well on exam questions referencing the in-class demonstrations. She tries to make her exams as straightforward as possible through multiple-choice questions that require students to apply what they’ve learned to real-life situations and pictures that connect to psychological concepts. Most students perform well on their exams and improve continuously as the course progresses. Falikman believes curiosity is the key to success in her class. 

Outside of the classroom, Falikman is an expert translator of poetry. Although she doesn’t consider herself a “professional poet,” she is “part of a couple of professional [poetry] unions.” 

Her fascination with poetry and psychology compelled her to seek ways in which both disciplines intersect, “There are a couple of domains binding these two topics and bridging them, such as cognitive poetics, which analyzes brain correlates, eye movement correlates, and comprehension. I’ve even, just for fun, made a presentation about recent findings in cognitive poetics.” Falikman proves that it is possible to pursue the things we are passionate about, whether in the arts, science, or both. 

At Sewanee, Falikman hopes to contribute to the Psychology department by starting new courses, a goal she will achieve by teaching two 300-level courses next semester: Consciousness and Unconsciousness and Cognitive Science. 

“To me, it’s really important not to be included just in the basic courses but also to be able to add some, and this will probably be my very first contribution,” says Falikman. She also wants the psychology department to connect with other departments—such as English, Russian, math, and more—to create interdisciplinary courses and research studies.

Falikman acknowledges the most significant aspect of her time here at Sewanee: the ability to learn. “As it is just the beginning of my way here, what’s important is that I don’t only teach, but I also learn from my students, colleagues, and new visiting faculty fellows—It puts me in my students’ shoes. I am trying to teach, but [I’m also] learning from them. It is a really mind-shaping and important experience.”