June 8, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 19

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    First SSA graduate teaching award to Melissa Roderick

    Melissa Roderick approaches teaching by adopting the adage that good teachers don't teach a subject -- they teach people.

    It is this philosophy -- along with her energy, enthusiasm and ability to engage her students -- that made Roderick, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, a natural choice as the first recipient of SSA's Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.

    The award recognizes exemplary teaching as well as leadership in the development of programs, the creation of innovative approaches to teaching and the special ability to encourage, influence and work with graduate students.

    "I see myself as a trainer of researchers in social work," Roderick said. "I try to make the ideas and application of statistical research exciting by eliminating the boundaries placed on students, particularly for those students who may come into class with an initial fear of statistics."

    Roderick's course in statistical research methods is a mix of doctoral students and working professionals in medicine, social work and human development. For Roderick, this means balancing the different ways that students learn.

    "I believe people learn by doing," Roderick said. A "problem of the day" is due each day which asks students to apply material they learn in class to real-world problems. The students work in groups to solve the problems, which get progressively more difficult throughout the course. Roderick said that as the concepts develop, so do the students' abilities to understand complex statistical research methods.

    "An important aspect of teaching, especially in statistics, is to not dump everything on people all at once," said Roderick. "If people understand that you are really trying to teach them something while at the same time trying to help them get somewhere personally and professionally, then they are more willing to believe they can try new things and accomplish anything."

    Roderick received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1991, while serving as an instructor there, and she joined the Chicago faculty that same year. She said teaching at Chicago has been a liberating experience.

    "When I began teaching here it was an incredible relief to find that the main concern of the faculty was how can we create the best researchers and practitioners, and how do we get the best answers to our questions," Roderick said. "This environment tells you to push researchers, to knock down all their barriers and just go for it. For me this means statistics should not be a course where you come out feeling less adequate or less empowered than when you went in."

    Described by her students as a real motivating force, Roderick said her own motivation comes from knowing that her students are actually solving important social problems.

    "My students are professionals who are working on important and compelling issues, including how we can better deal with children who are sexually abused, how high schools can assist poor and urban parents in dealing with their adolescent, and how we should think about preventive health care in urban areas," said Roderick. "People in my master's and doctoral classes are and have been on the front lines in dealing with many of our most difficult social problems. I am in admiration of their commitment. When I work with them, it's not just to have intellectual discussions, but to help them do their best work. This makes you feel good about what you teach and what could happen as a result."

    -- Charles Whitt