Rupert Nacoste developed an interest in group dynamics, race relations and social psychology while experiencing race riots aboard an aircraft carrier during his service in the U.S. Navy from 1972-76.
A native of Opelousas, Louisiana, Nacoste joined the faculty at NC State in 1988, and he is now the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology. In 2013, the UNC Board of Governors recognized his work with an award for excellence in teaching.
Last year, he published his third book, Taking on Diversity: How We can Move from Anxiety to Respect. And this year, Chancellor Randy Woodson presented Nacoste with the Alexander Quarles Holladay Medal for Excellence, NC State’s highest honor in recognition of faculty achievement.
The Alumni Association spoke with Nacoste for the spring issue of NC State magazine. The interview covered more ground than the association could fit in the publication, so here are excerpts from the rest of the conversation:
Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?
A: Teaching, particularly at a university, is an opportunity to educate the citizenry. This is what I do, moving people through and understanding social change. I enjoy taking young people and giving them ideas and concepts that help them understand what’s happening around them.
Q: Any examples of that?
A: This generation has a real struggle with relationships, romantic relationships. They don’t understand why, because they hear these stories about where I met my sweetheart in high school and we’ve been married 30 years, and they’re like, “Well, why aren’t we doing that?” It is because there’s been a sociological shift in our society from a marriage system, where everything was set up so people could get married, to a relationship system that has nothing to do with marriage. It’s just having relationships.
Q: Does social media play a role in that?
A: Absolutely. Social media gives them this idea that they’re in interactions, and they’re not. They think they are having a relationship, and they’re not.
Q: How have students changed during your time at NC State?
A: When I first got here, this was a predominantly white campus and, technically, it still is. But it really doesn’t look that way, does it? Everyday…you’re seeing brown people, dark-skinned people, hijabs. You’ve got sexual orientation, you’ve got disability services, you’ve got a whole different mix of people on this campus who were not here when I first got here. Some of the students don’t realize that they’re having to deal with something that their parents didn’t have to deal with.
Q: Is that problematic for them?
A: Yes. Their parents can’t explain to them how to interact with people different from them because their parents didn’t have to do it.
Q: One of your teaching principles is to “violate expectations.” What do you mean by that?
A: People have certain expectations about what’s going to happen in a classroom. So they become passive, particularly in big classrooms. I don’t do what they would expect the professor would do. The first day of class, I walk in. I don’t say good morning, good afternoon, nothing. I just start reciting a poem. I just go, bam. And they’re immediately sitting up, like, what is happening. And that’s what I’m getting at, something that shows them that this is going to be a different experience.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about this generation?
A: I’m an optimist about young people. Young people just need the opportunity to learn. They’re no different than any other generation when it comes to that. I believe we can put them in a position to do better. That’s on us, though. It’s not on them.