Associate Professor William Sites, the recipient of the William Pollak Award for Excellence in Teaching at the School of Social Service Administration, named Pollak as an inspiration for his own work: “If you're going to be a maker of government policies, you have to understand the political and economic context in which policies are created and implemented.”
Pollak, associate professor emeritus at SSA, made the observation in an interview with The University of Chicago Chronicle in 1998, when he received an SSA teaching award that the school later named for him.
Upon receiving the Pollak award, Sites noted the similarities between his and Pollak’s teaching philosophies. “What is especially striking to me,” said Sites, “is that his comments include a simple sentence that is practically identical—almost word-for-word—to the very first sentence on my own syllabus for the Political Processes class I teach.”
Sites, who has taught at the University since 1995, said he had depended upon a course description from Pollak in preparing the Political Processes syllabus. “But I think the larger point is that this emphasis on context is important to how so many of us at SSA think about teaching, about knowledge and about useful action in the world,” he added.
Sites, who also teaches courses in urban social movements, community organization and the role of theory in research, explained that there are three guiding principles in teaching at SSA.
“The first involves the pursuit of knowledge—the ‘what we need to know about.’ In my classes this means theories of politics, conceptions of community organizing, ideas about how social movements relate to cities,” he said.
The second guiding thread involves the pursuit of social welfare and for many SSA faculty members, the pursuit of economic and social justice. “In my courses this is about who the community is, or who is being represented in a democratic capitalist society, or what collectivity, exactly, is invoked by those people who are protesting in the street,” he said.
The third principle involves questions of strategy—the how, as in “how we might do things”—how community groups try to make the community stronger, how coalitions seek to maximize their leverage, how the sorts of disruptions created by social movements can actually be their strategy, he said.
SSA students find out that there are tensions between those three principles, and Sites tries to help them reflect on those tensions through critique.
“At the heart of a genuinely honest process of critique is the notion that we give every serious idea our most respectful consideration, and that we do this carefully, of course, by tearing every idea apart. When we survey the wreckage around us—when we see what we have left—then we know what we have to build on, and build with.”
These skills become critical habits of mind. “It’s impossible not to carry those skills with us beyond the classroom. They’re part of who we are. And they will be invaluable when we perform those same tasks all over again—in our workplaces, in our communities, in the world,” he said.
Sites’ research, which contributes to his teaching, focuses on how economic and political structures, policymakers and community action shape the ways in which cities develop and change, and on how such changes relate to the power and social welfare of residents.