Truth be told, Jaime Settle began her career as a teacher long before she became an assistant professor for government at William & Mary.
“I started math tutoring when I was in fifth grade,” she recalled. “I tutored all through middle school and high school, fellow students, younger siblings of my friends. I entered college knowing that I enjoyed teaching.”
She once dreamed of going to Washington, D.C., and tackling the problems she diagnosed in science illiteracy and (lack of) effective regulation of biomedical research.
“I realized issue advocacy wasn’t my strength,” she said. “Teaching is the reason I went to graduate school. I love research; it lights my fire, gets my brain going, but at the end of the day I find teaching more rewarding. That’s where I stand to have the greatest impact.”
The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia will acknowledge her contributions on March 1 by honoring her with a 2018 Rising Star award. Part of the annual Outstanding Faculty Awards, it’s given to a faculty member who shows extraordinary promise at the start of his or her academic career and has no more than six years continuous service as a fulltime faculty member.
Settle and the W&M SNaPP lab
Two W&M professors are being honored with Outstanding Faculty Awards this year at a reception to be held in Richmond. The university has had more faculty receive the award since its inception than any other institution of higher education in the state. In addition to Settle, Deborah Bronk, Moses D. Nunnally Distinguished Professor at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, will receive an OFA this year.
Settle, who had been nominated once before, was taken aback by the news. The congratulatory phone call came from a number with an 804 area code. Settle has lots of friends whose numbers carry that prefix. She assumed the call was from one of them.
“It was one of those moments where you are left without words momentarily before you can pull yourself together and make an appropriate response,” she said.
The value of impacting the lives of others was reinforced the moment she began undergraduate studies at the University of Richmond in 2003. She was attending free of charge, courtesy of a scholarship set up by two people she wouldn’t meet until after she’d matriculated, Dortch and Sis Oldham.
“I didn’t realize that there would be people so willing to be generous with strangers they’d never met and had no previous connection to,” said Settle. “They wanted young people to be successful. They could have spent their money in any number of ways, but it was important to them to give opportunities to people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.
“That left an impression on me. I knew that given my interests I probably wasn’t going to go into business and make millions of dollars, but it left this imprint that I wanted to find a way to have an impact on other people.”
Settle has found several ways to follow in the Oldhams’ footsteps while at W&M. The SCHEV award is predicated on excellence in teaching, discovery, integration of knowledge and service. Settle has made notable achievements in each.
In her first year at W&M, Settle established the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab, a research lab comprised entirely of undergraduate students. Each year, 15 undergrads work collaboratively with her on several research projects that explore the biological, psychological and social underpinnings of political behavior. Since the lab was established, Settle has worked with 43 students, paved in part by a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant she received in 2014.
“The best part of that was the number of students who benefited in some way, everything from the chance to be a proctor for one of our lab experiments and just get a sense for what that part of the research process is all about, to one of the assistants in my lab who really got to help design and execute these studies,” she said. “There were graduate students from other universities as well who had the opportunity to come to our lab and visit. I felt like I was able to expand the impact beyond just me and one or two students.”
In addition, Settle has taught several classes about social media and political polarization at the W&M Washington Center, where students can interact with policymakers and make site visits in the nation’s capital.
A prolific scholar
At the same time that she guides and shapes research and scholarship opportunities for her students, Settle continues to be a prolific scholar herself. She had published 18 peer-reviewed articles or book chapters. Five of her papers have more than 100 citations each; overall her work has been cited more than 2,000 times.
One of the main takeaways from her upcoming book “Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America” is that American political discourse has changed rapidly in the preceding decade.
“I got the sense that it was likely only to get worse and probably worse at an accelerated rate,” she said. “The change in the way people communicate about politics predates the rise of social media, but you really started seeing the shift in people using Facebook as a way to express their political view. Coinciding with the rise of the Tea Party, the culture on the site changed and people began to feel more comfortable signaling their viewpoints. The outcome of the 2016 election has motivated more people to speak up, more loudly.”
Despite all of the awards and research grants, the peer-reviewed publications, the seminars to which she has been an invited speaker, Settle adheres to one abiding principle.
Living her faith
The Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” was a constant in her home, synagogue and her social circle. It translates to “repair the world,” and charges that humanity has a responsibility to change, improve and fix its earthly surroundings. It implies that each person has a hand in working towards the betterment of society as well as the lives of future generations.
She thought about mentors who had the greatest impact on her life: an academic advisor whose enthusiasm for research was contagious and whose methods inspired her with a passion for collecting and analyzing data. There was a thesis advisor who went above and beyond the call of duty, including e-mailing her right up to the time she went into labor. And there were the countless faculty members genuinely committed to making sure she succeeded.
Those close relationships made it clear to her that the potential to engage students with the substance of political science was enormous, she said.
“I hoped I could inspire students to apply their knowledge toward more constructive political conversations and activities, instead of speaking past one another parroting partisan talking points,” she said.
“I believed then and continue to believe now that I am able to make the greatest difference in my capacity as a college professor. I think of this as a ‘multiplier effect’ – what I invest in my students is repaid many times over by their impact on society.”