SSA Award for Excellence in Teaching: William PollakAssociate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration
By Catherine Behan
It can be tough explaining to social
welfare students why understanding
economics is important, but William Pollak, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, has made it relevant enough that students selected him to receive SSA's teaching award this year.
"If you're going to be a maker of government policies, you have to understand the political and economic context of how policies are created and implemented," Pollak said. "I try to make it evident to students that understanding economic principles will help them understand the world and help them develop better policies. I try to allow students to get an appreciation of how markets work, how markets fail and how to use that information to create better social policy."
Pollak is an economist in a school that teaches people to become leaders in developing public policies that help the vulnerable. Many of the students have no background or interest in economics. Pollak likes the challenge of teaching them.
"It is a kick to teach at SSA," he said. "First, the students at SSA are very good students and don't accept information without challenging you. They push you and test you and keep you on your toes.
"Another reason is that SSA is teaching a profession, not a discipline, and values enter into it explicitly and are central. It's nice to teach at a school where the values of the students correspond to one's own."
In addition, more than at most social work schools, SSA emphasizes conceptual foundations, which Pollak thinks helps give students better grounding and strengthens their long-term effectiveness.
An expert in organizing and financing human services, Pollak received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton in 1972. Before coming to the University in 1976, he was a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He previously taught at Princeton, Grinnell College and at Oberlin College, his alma mater.
Good teaching, he says, primarily requires a solid knowledge of a subject "and the ability to relate that to the concerns of students. You try to use what you can -- like humor -- to bring the subject matter alive and maintain students' interest."
His goal in classes, Pollak says, is not just to teach lessons that will be tested in final exams.
"I think the goal in teaching is to change how students will think about the world five years later and beyond," he said. "If all they learn is what to give back on a test, then your long-range impact is minimal. These students are at the start of their professional lives. We want to affect how they think, to change how they look at the world."