2007 William Pollak Teaching Award in SSA: Judith LevineBy William Harms
Judith Levine considers one of her most important teaching jobs is to help students become critical thinkers and informed consumers of literature in the field of social work. “If they go into the field as social workers, they will face important challenges and will have to make decisions that greatly impact people’s lives, and I want them to be well informed. If they become scholars, they have to be able to do good research and need to be able to read critically,” said Levine, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and the recipient this year of the school’s William Pollak Teaching Award.
To help students become more adept at sorting out the arguments and perspectives in the literature, Levine encourages class discussions and incorporates discussion in her lectures.
“I want them to understand how the literature was developed in terms of the scholars responding to each other,” she said. “I also talk about the early treatment in the literature of social problems so that they can understand some of the early controversies,” she said.
The work helps students see some of the assumptions underlying the research and also helps prevent them from becoming misled, she said.
One of the areas in which researchers have not agreed is how to measure the length of time people have been receiving welfare benefits. Some studies take a longitudinal approach and ask people at one point in time how long they have received welfare, while others survey people over a long period of time to determine what percentage of Americans have been living at poverty level.
The longitudinal approach tends to capture a higher percentage of long-term welfare cases because many people move in and out of welfare for short periods of time and their information is not normally captured in one-time measurements, Levine tells her students.
Talking about real problems that students are likely to encounter in their social work is another way of enhancing her teaching style as well as helping students see the value of using different methods to understand social problems. “When we talk about measurements of poverty, for instance, I am more likely to get students interested in using mathematics,” she said.
Levine’s own work deals with the problems of poverty and social inequality. She is currently working on the welfare-to-work transition, which was part of welfare reform that began in the 1990s.
She teaches a master’s degree level class on gender, work and family that picks up many of the themes that are part of her own research agenda. “I am really lucky to teach at SSA because what I teach is aligned with my own work,” she said.
Besides the gender, work and family course, she also teaches a core course on social policy and a doctoral-level course on social stratification.
Levine’s own teaching is inspired by the teachers she had, including Christopher Jencks, at Northwestern University, where she completed her Ph.D. “He has a remarkable mind. He could listen to a student go on about a topic and then in one sentence be able to make the student rethink everything he or she had said.
“I also enjoyed a teacher I had as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Roderick McFarquhar, who taught a course on the Chinese Cultural Revolution to a lecture class of 800 students. He was able to engage the whole class. I remember, one day, he wanted to teach us how Mao was able to organize so many people to have them support his ideology, so he had us chanting slogans. That helped us understand how it works, but it also made me see how much about good teaching is actually good theater, knowing how to engage the audience,” she said.
“I also learned a great deal from my parents, who weren’t professional teachers, but they did teach me how to have a sense of humor,” she said.