This week I interviewed Chris Ralston, a professor of Psychology at Grinnell. You may have heard of (or had the fortune of taking) one of Professor Ralston’s popular courses at Grinnell, but you probably don’t know that he is also a licensed psychologist in the state of Iowa. For the past three years, Professor Ralston has partnered with various community mental health agencies, such as Grinnell Regional Medical Center and Poweshiek County Mental Health. He has played a leading role in multiple service learning projects that address the reduction of mental health barriers such as access, stigma, and having a sufficient number of local providers to meet community needs.
Professor Ralston is an active member of the Task Force for Safety, Responsibility, and Prevention at Grinnell. This task force works on ways to reduce sexual misconduct. A lot of topics fall under the area of sexual misconduct that many people do not always immediately think about when they hear the words “sexual misconduct”. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and stalking are all issues that the Task Force addresses.
To address the issue on campus, Ralston lead his team through an extensive review of the literature on sexual misconduct prevention. The Task Force used these findings to create the first ever Sexual Conduct, Culture, and Respect Survey, which was then distributed throughout the Grinnell College community. Ultimately, this survey helped Ralston and his colleagues identify specific areas of risk. But he didn’t stop there: as a good methodologist, Professor Ralston has currently been retesting and revising the two-year-old Sexual Conduct, Culture, and Respect Survey before its second debut on campus. Ideally, these changes will result in the creation of a finely tuned instrument that will in turn help make Grinnell a safer and more welcoming place.
After hearing about Professor Ralston’s specific focus in psychology, I couldn’t help but ask what sparked his intrerest in this field. Much to my surprise, I learned that Professor Ralston didn’t even want to take his first psychology class. “I couldn’t get into the Bio or Chem courses that I needed to go pre-med, so I took psychology in its place,” he explained. Luckily for his students (and the future of criminal justice reform), he has loved it ever since. Specifically, Ralston enjoyed disproving folk-wisdoms and using empirical methods to predict human behavior.
This passion ultimately lead him to graduate school at Iowa State University. His chosen area of graduate research was controversial and compelling: how could psychologists predict whether sexual offenders would reoffend? Given that there was no existing reliable and valid metric to predict the high-stakes outcome of recidivism, Professor Ralston set to work developing an effective measure. At Iowa State University, he spent his time helping to develop the Juvenile Sexual Offender Recidivism Risk Assessment Tool-II (JSORRAT-II), and he has been cross validating it ever since. This risk assessment tool is currently being used forensically in Iowa, California, Utah, and Georgia, and many other states are interested in adopting it as well.
Although his research is weighty and his classes are challenging, Professor Ralston is one of the most accessible, funny, and down to earth professors out there. If you run into him working in Noyce or sharing a meal with his adorable son Lucas at the D-Hall, make sure to say hi!