Tamar Murachver (30 August 1958 – 22 January, 2013)

Dr Tamar Murachver, a member of the IALSP executive committee and Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, died earlier this year, aged 54. A native of Orange County, California, Tamar completed her undergraduate degree at CSU Fullerton in 1983 with a perfect GPA and two published chapters in psycholinguistics with Art Graesser. After completing her PhD in developmental psychology with Jean Mandler at UC San Diego, Tamar immigrated to New Zealand in 1990 to take up a post as Lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Otago. Tamar continued working in developmental psychology, but it was at Otago in the early 90s that she was inspired by the language work of her colleague, Sik Hung Ng. After Ng left Otago, Tamar began teaching in the social psychology of language, and by the late 90s was supervising PhD students on topics related to Communication Accommodation Theory. One research study from these PhDs was presented at ICLASP in Cardiff in 2000, starting her association with IALSP. At the following ICLASP, hosted in Hong Kong by Sik Hung Ng, three of her current or former students presented. However, it was not until 2004 that Tamar herself was able to attend ICLASP.

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As a researcher, Tamar gained an international reputation in the 1990s and this century for her work on the developmental, social, and cognitive aspects of intergroup language.  Her research interests included the development of communication skills, the use of language in forming and maintaining social groups – a core area of intergroup communication – and the impact of language on cognition.  She is especially known for her clever experimental research on gender and language, and whether it is gender per se or a facilitative communication style that evokes impressions of femininity.  We owe Tamar for showing the great influence of style, and the dynamic effect of language in face-to-face and virtual communication.  Much of this work was done with her PhD students, and she and they published in leading journals, including many papers in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.  Her research skill and critical mind will leave a lasting legacy.

Tamar was an enthusiastic and supportive supervisor. She developed a professional and personal relationship with her students. Meetings were not just a forum to discuss research, but an opportunity to share stories and life experiences, and for students to hear stories about her family, and to receive enough encouragement or resources to foster independent research. Students left these meetings with more understanding of their research topic, and oftentimes, of many other things. Tamar encouraged, by demonstration and discussion, the growth of ethical thought and behaviour in her students. She encouraged her students to discuss ethical aspects of an experimental design critically and comprehensively, reminding them that an empirically perfect experimental design is worthless if it is ethically unsound.

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Tamar supervised 12 PhDs and 29 Masters to completion, and over 80 honours research projects. Her research interests were many, and often student-led. She engaged readily with students’ ideas as well as her own, leading her into computer-mediated communication, communication in people with a history of partner violence, risk-taking, development of theory of mind and representational thought, parenting styles, moral development, and identity. On more than one occasion, her students struggled to find the coherent narrative linking all the research being conducted in her lab. One theme underpinning many projects was her very strong belief in social justice, which she would often link back to previous projects. For example, having previously investigated gender roles, and attitudes towards different accents, and later, having been introduced to implicit measures by one student who wanted to assess implicit gender roles, Tamar then had an honours student explore the development of implicit ethnic stereotyping the following year.

Tamar also played a strong and memorable role in undergraduate teaching. Tamar’s role in first year psychology taught at the University of Otago was to introduce students to areas of intelligence, thought, and language. The foci of her lectures were based on her areas of interests in language development and acquisition, gender differences in language, and the relationship between language and cognition. Once again, Tamar’s personal and professional experiences illuminated her lectures. Her discussions of the development of language and cognition were informed just as much by her parenting experiences as her parenting experiences were informed by her research.

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However, the lecture hall was not the first place a student would meet Tamar. During Orientation week when students require advice and authorisation for Course Approval, Tamar would be one of the smiling faces at the Psychology Table, ready with her red pen and some practical advice for first and second year students. Her dedication to ensuring that first year psychology students received a firm foundation in Psychology extended beyond her lectures. She served as the Laboratory Co-ordinator for the two introductory psychology papers from 1992 until she became ill in 2012. Tamar was enthusiastically engaged in the development and structuring of the laboratory teaching content. The first year Psychology labs taught today were very much informed by Tamar’s understanding and knowledge of her areas of interest (thought, language, and cognition), as well as a broader scope of Psychology, ranging from brain and behaviour to group processes. As with her graduate students, she was a supportive co-ordinator for the demonstrators, imparting class and life lessons through anecdotes and examples she provided during meetings.

Despite an often heavy workload, Tamar always engaged with other activities and was devoted to her family. She was active in the university and broader community, including serving on a Kindergarten Committee and the University’s Human Ethics Committee, being an active member of the university staff union, and playing keyboard in the Psychology Department band Raw Shark. She continued to manage her youngest son’s soccer team, even as she was fighting cancer. Tamar is survived by her four children Jessica, Natasha, Neil and David, and her husband Brent.

We thank James Green, Sabrina Goh and Charmaine Strickland, who are Tamar’s former students, for writing this tribute.

The IALSP Executive will be putting in place an Award in Tamar’s memory. Details will be finalised soon.

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