Faculty Spotlight: Michael Polakowski

  1. At what institution did you do your undergrad and graduate work?

Undergrad was while I was still working as a police officer – Lakeland College in Wisconsin.

Graduate was at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Initially I only intended on doing a master’s and then got carried away in studies and stuck around for the PHD.

2. What was your favorite course in your undergraduate career?

Probably a criminology course because I liked the idea of trying to predict why people commit crimes and that guided me in what I did in my graduate work. So once I got to my graduate work, I focused on statistics and used that to build time-series models to explain why people go in and out of crime throughout their lifetimes.

3. What is your field of research in?

Criminology/Criminal Justice – more criminal justice these days than criminology.

4. What initiated your interest in this field?

I was a deviant as a child and got arrested a lot as a teenager and I always wanted to go into law enforcement. I became a law enforcement officer at the age of 18. I wasn't prepared for the responsibility. I was in it for about 8 years and knew at about 4 years that I didn’t want to make a career out of it. So that is when I started my bachelor’s degree.

When I got into law enforcement it was, for lack of a better term, sexy, something that you thought was going to be a lot of fun. But when you get into it, there is a lot of paperwork and its not that much fun. It became more bureaucratic than I thought it was going to be.

5. What inspired you to want to teach?

The reason I went into academics, really, was my experiences in law enforcement because we were doing everything half way and I wasn't satisfied with the responsibility that we gave law enforcement. My goal was that if I cant change things from the inside, maybe I can study criminology and change it from the outside.

The teaching just sort of came to me. I never took a course on how to teach. It was something I learned I enjoyed and continued to develop it over time.

6. What do you think a professor’s role is in a student’s academic journey?

Exposing them to ideas. Not telling them what to think but what is out there and how to tear things apart so that they can understand why things are the way that they are in hopes that they may figure out how to do them better when they are in their careers.

7. What words of advice do you have for students who may be taking your course(s)?

Read newspapers and everything out there. You should be consumers of information.  The more well informed you are about what is going on in society the better you will be able to use whatever it is you are doing in your school career once you get into your professional career.

8. What is your teaching philosophy?

I sort of see myself as a body of information, and students are able to pick and choose what pieces of information they want to cling on to. One of the most frustrating thinks I hear from my students is that I don’t tell them what to think and I think, “exactly, I don’t want to tell you what to think. I want you to make your own choice”.

9. What do you like to do in your free time?

It depends. Vacations, it is usually scuba diving. When I am away from school, I do a lot of consulting work in criminal justice. I help the local agencies come up with new programs and policies or evaluate their programs or policies. I sit on a couple of boards where your focus is on how you can improve local criminal justice operations and programs. For about five years in the 2000’s, I was on the Arizona Post Board (police officer standards and training). That was the sort of the highlight of my career because what it did was it allowed me to have an impact on how the incoming police officers were going to be trained. That was also some of my discouraging parts of my professional career because we also had to discipline officers who stepped outside of the rules and you see how people lack ethics, which is what gets them in trouble.

10. Who is your greatest inspiration?

The person that propelled me into this direction was my father, who worked 45 years in a paper mill. His greatest wish for his kids was never to work in a paper mill, which he hated but he had to put food on the table. Out of his 6 kids, I was the first to go to college and it was because he kept telling me that there was something better.

Professionally, there was a professor who was one of the folks who brought me to this university. I worked with him for several years before he retired. He was one of the most well read people I had ever met. I sort of model the way I teach by the way that he showed me.