Faculty Spotlight: Michael Sherr, Social Work

Faculty Spotlight: Michael Sherr, Social Work

MTSU Social Work department chair and professor Dr. Michael Sherr addressing a group at the MTSU Foundation House.

Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. Michael Sherr of the social work department. We’re talking running, raising a Blue Raider, and living his faith through his work.

Thanks for agreeing to interview today! First off, where did you go to college?

I did my undergraduate in social work at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and I did my Master’s in Social Work at University of South Carolina, and then I took three years off to practice. You have to practice in social work for a while before you go back for your doctorate, because most schools won’t hire you without any practice experience; students can tell if you haven’t actually worked with clients. Then I went back to South Carolina for my PhD.

What does practice work usually entail?

I did several things during my practice work time. I ran a hospital program for adults who were adjudicated, and they were either going into the hospital or we were trying to prevent them from going back to the hospital. They were trying to satisfy some kind of DUI sentencing where they would go through a program and show that they were making progress; it was a program that met from 9 to 2 every day and included a lot of group counseling. I would also do psychiatric evaluations once a month at the ER at the local hospital in Winston-Salem North Carolina. Then right before I went back for my doctorate, I was a children’s hospice social worker. Hospice care was actually the area that drew me to social work in the first place, because my mother died of cancer when I was young, and I was introduced to social work through a social worker that I saw in a group therapy for loss of parents. I always thought I’d want to work with folks who were dying, and I did for a little bit, but eventually I realized that I wanted to go back for my doctorate and pursue more of the teaching end of social work.  

What made you decide to get into teaching?

For me, honestly, I feel it’s my vocation; it’s my Christian calling. I was actually very close to doing my master’s of divinity instead, and a defining moment for me, professionally and spiritually, was when I was a clinician at that hospital program. Our local pastor was preaching on Thanksgiving about Jesus saying if you’re going to throw a banquet, don’t throw it for people you know; go out to the ends of the earth and bring anybody in. He was going to throw a Thanksgiving meal at the church, and I was on board; I helped organize all of the group home members from the local mental health organization to come to that event. But the pastor got upset with me because that wasn’t what he had envisioned the Thanksgiving dinner to be. He wanted to target people from the local apartment complex. But those people could give membership and tithes to the church; they had something to offer in return, and that’s not what Luke 14 was talking about! But that incident was a good lesson for me. I decided that I probably wasn’t tactful enough to be a pastor–I was always bent more towards the social justice part of living out the gospel. So I went back and did my doctorate at University of South Carolina, where my primary professor was a Christian social worker, and I had good mentorship even though I was at a secular school. I got to study volunteerism and what motivates people to help others. I love helping students figure out if they want to dedicate their lives to service, and my scholarship and research has been about the integration of faith through the classroom and the practice experience, both in subtle and more overt ways.

How many years have you been teaching?

I finished my doctorate in 2003, so I’ve been teaching almost fifteen years, and I came to MTSU last August, so I’ve been here about a year. My son also goes to school here, which is cool! We don’t really see the family moving, though, because we love Chattanooga and it’s not that bad of a commute. I spend three or four days here and then three or four days at home. Plus, I’m not going to be chair anymore after this semester; I’ve been doing this seven years as an administrator, and I want to go back to writing and teaching on a more regular basis. I have some grant work that I’m doing, and I’m working on my fourth book, so I feel like that’s what God wants me to do right now. I’m also involved with a group on campus called Open Arms, for faculty and staff who are believers. We get together once a month and we pray for everybody; we just try to be a presence on campus.

What are some of your favorite memories from college?

Well, I went back to school as an adult. My wife and I got married when we were nineteen, and we’ll have been married twenty-eight years in January. I was an eighteen-wheeler truck driver for a while; I really am the black sheep of my family, coming from a bunch of lawyers and doctors! When I went back to school, I had to do a year of remedial classes because I was such a bad student in high school. When my mother died, though, that kind of woke me up–sociologists call it a “significant emotional event”–and I started thinking of my whole life differently. I thought, “I better wake up and start doing something with my life”. My social worker encouraged me to memorialize my mother by applying myself more at life, so I started living with more of a purpose. I say all of that to say this: throughout  my college career, I was on a mission. I kept a 4.0 GPA, I wrote my first research article as a junior…while the younger students were out having fun, I was studying. I was eating, breathing, and sleeping school. I would show up to class having read everything that was required and having taken my own detailed notes, so I could really engage with the professor at another level. I wasn’t there to mess around. I loved my time in South Carolina. I had good mentors who showed me what it would be like to work on research. Going into the library was awesome! College for me was about being the Christopher Columbus of ideas; I love the exploration of finding and discovering new things. It was my job even then, and I loved it. I never really think about what I’m doing now as hard work. Hard work is digging a foxhole or working at UPS, you know? Hard work is not sitting at a library and drinking a latte while you write a paper–that’s not hard work. I’ve always considered myself a blue-collar scholar. In order for my to go back for my doctorate, my wife and I had to give up our incomes, sell our house, and basically go into poverty for a couple of years. She was working as a waitress, and I was delivering pizzas part-time. The day I defended my dissertation, I went to work that night delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut! But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, and I think that’s a good message for college students: be the in the season you’re in, and try to enjoy it.

What advice would you give to your students about how to succeed academically and professionally?

I think that students need to get to the writing lab as freshmen. They need to get a better grip on their writing ability, and see it as a craft. Think it through and don’t just approach it as something to “get done”, approach it as a project that will develop you. Stay up on the reading too; have your fun, but try to get everything you need to get out of those classes. But of course, this is coming from a non-traditional adult who went back to school. In that situation, you want to squeeze everything you can out of your classes, because you never know how it might help you one day. I’ll give you a great example of that: I had to take fine art as a general education class, and at the time, I didn’t understand why on earth I had to take that class. I thought it was incredibly boring and a waste of my time. But there’s a defense mechanism is psychology called reaction formulation, where you pretend the complete opposite of what you really feel, so I forced myself to pretend that I loved this stuff for one semester so that I could get through it. I became an art connoisseur; I came to class having read everything, being able to talk analytically about different line planes and colors and textures. I got an A in the class, thinking I would never use that stuff again. But do you know, I have had clients in my practice where the ability to talk about different art was the one thing that allowed me to develop a rapport with them. Knowing a little bit about Caravaggio or impressionistic art was just enough to be able to connect with these people, because art spoke to them and it was their lifeline. If I had not taken that class and pretended to like it in order to get good at it, I would never have been able to make those vital connections. So you just never know how any particular piece of knowledge is going to help you relate to people, and when you may actually need it.

What is your favorite class to teach?

My favorite class is Intro to Social Work. I like the idea of being that first voice to a bunch of new students who are trying to decide if social work is right for them, where my job as their professor is to help them make the right choice for their career. I’m actually working on the second edition of an intro book I wrote! When students know they want to help somebody, but they don’t know what that looks like, and then they see all the different kinds of things that people can do in the field of social work….I just love that excitement. You can see them get interested, and the light goes on. Another thing about teaching intro courses in social work: there’s a very wide range of students with different academic abilities. Some students who go into social work can change the world. They could be the ones changing legislation, writing grants, or helping abused children get out of bad situations. But these could also be the students who have a 17 on the ACT, and in some ways they have to make bigger adjustments to be able to succeed in school. As a professor, sometimes you have to sift through whether they could make it through four years of school; maybe they could be great social workers once they got there, but do they have what it takes to make it through? Then there’s the opposite phenomena where some of the students who are absolutely excellent at school don’t always do well when they get in the field. They can’t translate the academic learning into real-life situations. Also, the perfectionists don’t do well in social work. It’s hard for them to function in real life situations because there are no perfect outcomes. The danger is that when they start working in the field, they could start blaming all their clients for having problems and not working things out correctly, which is a dangerous mindset to have. But I love how teaching introductory courses gives you the ability to help students at such an early stage of their career, and help them find the path that is best for them.

Describe yourself in a nutshell.

Well, I am definitely a Christian in social work; so my primary lens for seeing the whole world is through Christ. Colossians 2:8 for me is a verse that every student on campus, Christian or non-Christian, needs to think about as they’re learning from lots of different sources on campus: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow, deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces in this world rather than on Christ.” When I encounter all kinds of different theories in the academic world, my primary lens of viewing all that is through Christ, as far as what I let into my soul and what I put a lot of weight into. That’s probably the most important thing about me. Another thing about me is that I’m an avid long-distance runner; I run eighty to a hundred miles a week, and I’m training now for a hundred-mile race in December. I got up this morning to run twelve miles before five a.m., and I’ll probably run another four tonight. I run, and I pray the whole time. I have an active prayer ministry where people can send me prayer requests on Facebook messenger, and as I run, I just pray continually. I’m also a deacon in my church, and I’ve been married twenty-eight years with three wonderful kids…I guess that’s me in a nutshell.

If you’re interested in taking a class in social work, click here to go to the department’s home page.