Chicago Harris students honor outstanding teachers

"The one exclusive sign of a thorough knowledge is the power of teaching," Aristotle wrote. Students at the Harris School Of Public Policy regard this maxim each year when they vote for the best teachers in their Core and non-Core courses.

This year's winners are Asst. Prof. James Sallee, for his Core course on Empirical Statistics and Methodology; and Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy, for his non-Core course on Crime Policy.

Jens Ludwig

Jens Ludwig

Ludwig's course is a direct connection to an urgent issue facing large urban areas, a big draw for Chicago Harris' public policy students.

"The threat of crime victimization, particularly from violent crime, is one of the most damaging and distressing features of living in some of the most disadvantaged communities that we have here in Chicago's South and West sides and in other cities," said Ludwig, who also directs the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "The graduate students I interact with very much have come back to school in order to try to make a difference on critically important, real-world problems. Crime is certainly among the most formidable."

Through his course, Ludwig shows students how the application of basic and rigorous scientific research can help inform and objectively measure the effects of a wide range of crime-control strategies, ranging from policing to prison policies to social programs. Research in this area also can benchmark the progress of testing new innovations and ideas to help determine if they can be scaled effectively in various locales.

James Sallee

James Sallee

In Sallee's statistics course, he shows his students that creating reliable, consistent and honest statistical data to inform the development of public policy is the formidable but worthwhile challenge. He touches on subjects from tax policy to economic perspectives on climate change.

"In the statistics class, I introduce an 'enlightened pessimism' to help students understand—from the beginning—how difficult it is to use data to determine the truth," said Sallee, who also won the teaching award last year. "I emphasize the various factors that can go wrong, ways data can be 'cooked' and the ambiguities of research that can generate correlations that are misleading. I try to blend instruction on the use of practical statistical tools with a bit of caution."

Sallee acknowledges that statistics might seem like a dry subject, but said he couches the inevitable mathematics in an overall philosophical framework to set up his lectures and homework into a series of broader inquiries that can even capture the interest of those who do not love math. Sallee aims for "a minimum of math" compared to similar courses at other institutions—though the hefty content of his course makes it perhaps considerably faster-paced in comparison.

To balance out the rigor of the course, Sallee tries to inject humor into his lectures and also "to emphasize critical points in a relatable way that distills complex but important concepts in a way that I hope helps them remember why the math is important."

And as much as Sallee piles work on, the students are eager for the challenge.

"It isn't so much the grades," he said. "Students want to learn what is useful. A teacher can't ask for more. That's why I feel confident motivating and pushing them."

Ludwig agreed.

"Among the reasons students may take Crime Policy is because I try very hard to teach them a little bit about crime, but more importantly to teach or reinforce a lot of other skills and tools that will be useful to them, regardless of whether they go out to work in the crime area or some other area of public policy: things like knowing how to write a policy memo, how to critically evaluate empirical evidence, how to conceptually approach a policy problem—skills that will be of more enduring value to students than what a professor believes about crime today, since the state of the literature is always changing."

Ludwig includes statistical evaluation in his course, something Sallee views as not a casual overlap with his own course: It evinces the collegial synergy within Chicago Harris that Sallee says informs his teaching.

"It's important for the students to know the resources within the school (and the entire university) so they know what my colleagues are working on and their research in various areas that applies to their studies,” he said.