Focus On Faculty

Mary Caplan

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I have a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and minor and certificate in women’s studies from the University of Oregon, a master’s and Ph.D. of social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley. I am an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, where I teach classes on social welfare policy, history and philosophy of social work and social welfare, poverty and research. My research centers on the relationship between poverty, consumer debt and social policy. I am most interested in the interplay between policy, the market and human behavior. Specifically, I seek to clarify the processes and implications of how low-income people use informal, fringe and secondary (i.e., predatory) financial services to make ends meet in a political economy awash with credit and changing social protections.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I came to UGA in the summer of 2013, immediately after graduating from UC, Berkeley. UGA appealed to me because of the School of Social Work’s faculty research areas, and I applied for a tenure-track position. When I visited, I really clicked with the faculty and thought UGA and Athens would be a great fit for me—and they are.

What are your favorite courses and why?

I am very lucky because I teach all of my favorite courses. These include an intro class on social work, as well as history and philosophy of social welfare, social policy, and a course on special topics in social justice about poverty. I love teaching the introduction course to undergraduates because the curriculum is vast, covering the broad field of social work in one semester, and I am able to weave in stories from my practice as a community-based social worker. Students in this class exhibit extraordinary curiosity, and we have fun discovering what the field of social work has to offer them as a possible profession, including that some may realize that it’s not the right fit for them. I also love teaching the history and philosophy class to first-year doctoral students, most of whom are coming from professional careers as social workers. We delve deeply into issues pertaining to human nature, the economy, politics, ethics and the arrangements of social welfare.

What interests you about your field?

The goal of my research agenda is to engage the field of social work to develop appropriate and effective individual-, community- and policy-level interventions that can enhance equality of opportunity and social mobility. A guiding principle in my work is based on Amartya Sen’s concept that poverty is not merely a lack of income or even assets; it is rather a deprivation of capabilities, that is, the ability to live and the actual living of a life one has reason to value in a given society. In the field of social work, we have a unique and serious responsibility to think expansively and multi-dimensionally in order to address pressing social problems and work toward social justice.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

I work with some of the most talented scholars in the field of social work here at UGA, and I am a better scholar because of them. In addition, they are genuinely kind and wonderful people.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

Throughout my professional work, I have witnessed how low-income people are disenfranchised from mainstream economic channels and rely on fringe financial services and informal economic networks. This experience has directly informed my research agenda. In academia in general, there can be considerable overlap between research, teaching and service. To teach what one researches, or research what one teaches, or provide service in an arena that touches either of these realms is an ideal integration of interests and talents for a scholar. A common thread in this academic trilogy for me is a searching, critical reflexivity and praxis regarding issues of power, privilege, identity and human experience in the context of 21st-century American capitalism.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

Central to my approach to teaching is to develop students’ critical thinking skills through practical and engaging activities, especially important in courses that are designed for practitioners. For example, students have reported that my use of debates, case studies, role-playing and multimedia helps them understand course content above and beyond lectures and assignments. I am also committed to mentoring students who are the first in their families to attend college, or who are in some other way disadvantaged in the current system of higher education.

Describe your ideal student.

I appreciate it when students have a strong sense of curiosity. This will enable them to ask great questions and delve deeply into a subject. I also encourage students to find out how they best learn—through direct experience, writing, visuals, talking, etc.—and then communicate that with me so I can get a sense of them as individuals.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

… the deck overlooking the river at the School of Social Work. It is a very peaceful, beautiful place.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

… hang out with my new friends here in Athens—either at home or out in the community. I relish going to my kids’ sports games, where I can meet new people and watch my children enjoying themselves. Also, I continue to be amazed at the natural beauty of this part of the country—the weather, the flora and fauna. Sometimes I get pleasantly sidetracked picking honeysuckle, listening to the summer songs of the insects or looking at an amazing set of clouds.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

Lately, a book that has captured my attention is Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.” It provides evidence of the level of absolute poverty (once thought to only occur in so-called “developing” countries) in the U.S. through survey research and ethnography, and would be an important text for anyone who is concerned about U.S. poverty.

My favorite movie is “I Heart Huckabees,” from 2004, which is about two “existential detectives” in search of meaning—it is both funny/entertaining as well as having moments of critical commentary and humanity.

Proudest moment at UGA?

Recently, I decided to change the agenda for my social policy class (halfway through the session) to provide a forum for students to have an important talk about racism, police violence and micro-aggression. It was painful and difficult, but hearing the authentic exchange between students was the most profound experience of my teaching career so far, and I am proud of both the students who talked and the students who witnessed and listened.
(Originally published Oct. 30, 2016)
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