Excellence in Teaching: Patricia O’Brien

Patricia O'BrienJane Addams once said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Patricia O’Brien draws upon the “common life” espoused by community activist and social reformer Addams to assist students to construct transformative practice, consistent with the mission of the College of Social Work.

Nationally known for her advocacy related to women’s pathways in and out of prison, O’Brien refers to scholarship and connecting with students as “necessary components” in effective teaching and mentorship.

The committee nominating her for the award also noted this, indicating that O’Brien is well-known for implementing assignments that take students out of the classroom to build their knowledge and skills in applied “real-world” settings.

O’Brien, who recently retired after 20 years at UIC, taught in the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs, including courses in human behavior and the social environment, community practice, practice with women, practice models and qualitative research methods.

Active in curriculum development, she provided leadership across the college, and created several electives that are cross-listed with other departments on campus. Dr. “P” as many of her students called her, created and delivered the only required social work course in a blended format to accommodate the part-time cohort of graduate students.

As a member of the interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, she led the development and implementation of the interdepartmental graduate concentration in violence studies that draws upon courses in multiple departments across UIC.

O’Brien has linked her research on criminalized women to her teaching by creating a course on social work in corrections (including both social work and criminology/law/justice students), engaging countless students in her research projects, and has co-authored five articles with students.

In 2016–17, she supervised an Honors College student’s capstone project, a re-analysis of data from O’Brien’s National Institute of Justice-funded study on recidivism and reentry of women exiting prison in Illinois. Her extensive advising includes involvement in 30 Ph.D. dissertations, at UIC and other schools, including the social work program at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

O’Brien’s teaching was influenced by her undergraduate education at a small liberal arts college and her experience as a social worker.

“I found the classroom space empowering,” she said, explaining that the experience helped her think critically and challenged her to articulate her ideas for how to secure social justice with individuals and in communities.

In addition to the Excellence in Teaching Award, O’Brien received the Teaching Recognition Award from the UIC Council for Excellence in Teaching in 2000–01, and the Excellence in Social Work Education from the Jane Addams College of Social Work in 2012. The Council on Social Work presented O’Brien with its Feminist Scholarship Award at its 2017 annual program meeting, recognizing her scholarship and mentorship of women in social work education.


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