Episode 19 – Dr. Kay Hoffman talks about the future of social work, ethics, and the power of literature in social work education.

Episode 19 – Dr. Kay Hoffman talks about the future of social work, ethics, and the power of literature in social work education.

Dr. Jones talks with Dr. Kay Hoffman about the future of social work, the importance of ethics, and the power of literature in social work education. He talks with her about her 38 years in academia and what is next for her life post-retirement.


Dr. Kay Hoffman is a retiring professor in the College of Social Work,  University of Kentucky. For 11 years (1998-2009) she served as the Dorothy A. Miller Professor in Social Work Education and the Dean of the College of Social Work. She is author of many publications, teacher of multiple classes, served on boards with various non-profit organizations, and also practiced as a professional social worker in Ohio.

See Kay’s Full CV Here


Middle Music: River Meditation by Jason Shaw – licensed under a Attribution 3.0 United States License.


Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.


Blake: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the social work Conversations podcast produced by the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. My name is Blake Jones. Here we explore the intersection of social work research practice and education. Our goal is to showcase the amazing people associated with our college and to give our listeners practical tools that they can use to change the world.

Blake: [00:00:24] I’m joined today by Kay Hoffman. Kay, Welcome to the program.

Kay: [00:00:27] Thank you so much.

Blake: [00:00:30] You’ve been a dean in our college you are a professor here now you’re sort of in a phased retirement and we’ll talk a little bit about that later but you have been a social worker and a social work educator for a long time now a long time and you’ve been associated with our college about 20 years 20 years. Right around the time when I came I think when you came in so I’m interested in talking with you about your career as a social worker as an educator. Tell us a little bit about what got you into social work.

Kay: [00:01:02] Well you know I got interested in social work when I was actually in high school. First of all my mother had these wonderful women friends who were social workers. And I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be somebody who had their own life. You know I wanted to be a person who did things in the world. I wanted to sort of have some excitement and and the idea of what most girls are it seemed like most girls wanted was not what I wanted. And so I got the opportunity which was really great when I was in high school because of one of my mom’s friends and I got to be a sort of an intern or a volunteer at public child welfare agency. And so I followed people around and in those days they weren’t you know worried that much about confidentiality so they let me read things.

Blake: [00:02:09] Ha ha..

Kay: [00:02:10] Which were very interesting. And of course also in social work in the in the early days before we came more when we were let’s say more art and less science the narratives that were written about families in case records were simply amazing. I mean that’s one of the reasons why sometimes social workers can be really good writers because they’ve had a lot of opportunity to tell an entire story of a family. So they’re very compelling stuff that you would read and I thought that it was pretty cool. And so that’s what I wanted to be. So I went to college and we didn’t I didn’t major in social work. But I wanted to be a social worker and I knew I would go and get a master’s degree someday because that’s what these women had. And so by the time I was maybe a junior junior or senior in college I got a chance to also have sort of an internship at a child welfare agency and then I got a chance – counsel and social work education which is still our accrediting body had a summer program for people in college to work in a child welfare agency. So I got to go to another child welfare agency for a whole summer and be a summer intern. And it was a program called careers in social work and it was an enticement for college students to go to go and get their master’s in social work. So that’s what I did. So I so that’s what I did. And then I went to and got my master’s.

Blake: [00:03:58] So it seems like child welfare has been has that always been kind of your focus of your work?

Kay: [00:04:02] I always thought that yeah it always was my focus I was always interested in child development. Though. I really did never wanted to be like a teacher of children or anything. But I wanted to work with I guess complicated people or I wanted to. I mean I was young you know I wanted to do something that was exciting. And I read some novels too about social workers. And so that sort of enticed me as well. But yes child welfare was a place for many many years is probably much less prominent in social work now than it was but that was sort of what social work had claimed as its area that we were the people who knew about child abuse and neglect. We are the people who knew about adoption and foster care. We are the people we were the experts. And I think that lasted for a long time and that was really the thing that compelled me is that I felt -I thought that was what social work was.

Blake: [00:05:15] It’s somewhat ironic that even now when people think about social workers you often hear well they’re the they’re the baby snatchers – they are the child welfare people but we have a really deep commitment to child welfare in our in this work. And I have really added a lot to the field.

Kay: [00:05:36] We’ve been the field. I mean until until public child welfare went went wrong. I guess is all I can say is when it became a place where anybody with any degree or not even a degree could work. And I think that it changed that field enormously. I think it changed it and it didn’t help let’s say because you know in Kentucky for instance you don’t have to be a social worker to work in public child welfare. In fact most people who work there are not.

Blake: [00:06:15] Right.

Kay: [00:06:16] And to to you know encourage people to go into child welfare is is pretty it’s a pretty big challenge. First of all it’s not just that the pay isn’t so great it’s just that the protections for people who are working in child welfare are not very strong. So people feel very vulnerable and burned out in a pretty quick amount of time. I do not think that was the case earlier when I worked when I had my first job in child welfare after I got my master’s. Every single person in that public agency had a master’s degree. It was a you know it was a like a sort of a model program sponsored by the Children’s Bureau in Washington and they were experimenting to see whether or not it made a difference. If you had well-educated people who understood Child Development who understood the dynamics of child neglect and abuse who understood how to find you know proper foster care how to how to find adoptive homes that were good if people were schooled and educated. Would that make a difference. And I mean we had a wonderful agency and I don’t think that we could have we could quantitatively say it made a difference because there were too many changes in the world. You know to know whether or not that particular model made a difference. But to the people who work there and to the clients who were served it made a difference.

Blake: [00:08:05] I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier one thing I know about you is that you’re a reader and not just of academic literature but of novels of fiction and we’ve had some conversations about teaching through the use of novels and that sort of thing. And I think that’s really an interesting thing to think about what draws you to fiction and how do you see it as a vehicle to teach social work students?

Kay: [00:08:34] Well I think it’s a great vehicle. You know I happen to believe in the power of literature to both pique one’s imagination and to broaden one’s view of the human condition. There was a study once done long time ago by a guy who was the dean ultimately became the dean at UC Berkeley. And now I can’t remember his name Harry but there was a little study done about who makes the best MSW students. And in terms of scores in terms of grades and it wasn’t a huge study. The people who made the best who were the best students were people who had literature degrees undergrad literature degrees. Now people a lot of people thought oh well that’s because they can write well. But it probably wasn’t. It was probably because they could imagine well. because they could because they had empathic responses because they had read about people who were so different and who lived in such you know and are worlds that we didn’t know would that one who was reading it would not have understood unless you tried to yourself in that world. So we know you know you know we all know that empathy is the key to any good relationship whether it’s personal or professional but we know that for a professional relationship empathy is important. I think a road to developing empathy is through literature. And I believe that it that it could be cold in a way that that were that a lot of people are unwilling to try this profession. You know. You know me enough to know that I can be very critical of this profession because I love this profession. So when you love something you get to criticize it. But. I think that we have been bound and inundated and almost drowned by textbooks that most of which I think are poorly written and certainly written without imagination. They are just compilations of somebody else’s ideas. I’ve always been a believer that reading something that is the source the real source is where we should go. Yeah it’s hard to get undergrad students or even MSW students to read something that is you know that is the source of the idea. So you read if you’re going to read about development read from somebody who’s done research in child development or adolescent development or whatever you’re studying but don’t read a textbook that somebody else interprets what that development is about. So the same I think is true if you can read literature. When I taught and not here because they didn’t teach human behavior here at UK but I did teach it at Wayne State University and that at New Mexico State. And I did use novels as a way of sort of engaging students in differences. So we read things that were so out sort of out there. I mean I remember one of the books we read was The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. It’s a book probably written in the 80s maybe and it’s a really great novel but it’s about poverty in Maine and it’s about a family in Maine and Appalachian family in Maine. Now lots people don’t even realize that you know Appalachia goes all the way to Maine.

Blake: [00:12:43] Right.

Kay: [00:12:43] And the culture there are very similar similar aspects of culture there as there are in West Virginia Kentucky and poverty is rampant there as it is in southern Appalachia. So to understand that and to read about that and to understand something about a person’s true personal life and about her struggles or his struggles that does develop empathy because then you can feel you know not only there but by the grace of God go I. But there am I. And I think that literature does that for you. The last book the last novel I read when I just finished it about a week or so ago and I drug it out because I loved it so much. Is it you know that is called a Gentleman in Moscow and it’s about a guy who was he was a gentleman before the Bolshevik Revolution and he was a czarist and. And the revolution came in. He became a non-person then and for for various reasons he ended up having to live for the rest of his life in a hotel in Moscow where he he developed a life. Now his choice he said was – and this is important I think for understanding people – his choice was “Do I try to figure out how what I will do when I get out of here? Maybe like Napoleon did when he was in exile or do I instead try to find out how I’m going to live my life here?” And he chose that way. And so out of this very constrained life. Rose a life of adventure and love and mystery. All the things that that human life really consists of that was constrained as all of our lives are constrained. You know but but it shows that – to me it just shows how how I don’t know how how complicated and how deep our inner lives are and how important it is to see how those inner lives are manifested and to and to appreciate another person’s inner life.

Blake: [00:15:26] I think you’re speaking to the art of social work and I thought a lot about you know the way that we deliver content information to our students. It’s almost like we’re sometimes afraid to draw on the different types of ways that people understand humanity. You know I really love podcasts it seems like every day you know Jason and I are emailing each other about this new podcast we found. I play music for my students. I introduce them to music. I talk about my life through music and reading and short stories and poetry. And I just think that’s such a rich place to learn.

Kay: [00:16:14] I do too.

Blake: [00:16:15] So why are we afraid of that in social work? Why do we stick to textbooks.

Kay: [00:16:22] Oh god I wish I knew! (ha ha) but I think I think sometimes education itself squashes us. You know I hate to say that because I love education but I think that institutions are always oppressive and you have to realize that I mean – you know I studied sociology so I sort of am a person who both appreciates institutions and structure and also I think I understand not a huge amount. I wouldn’t ever claim that. But that structures and institutions oppress the human spirit. And so there’s always that struggle between the outside and the inside. So how do we give more. I think what you’re saying is how do we give more you know influence at least on some on the inside of what life is like instead of both measuring things and always observing things from the outside. Of course we are always on the outside with another person but our struggle is to be a part of that person’s inside.

Blake: [00:17:33] Right.

Kay: [00:17:34] In order to understand him or her – eah it’s art but you know what it’s science to.

Blake: [00:17:40] Sure.

Kay: [00:17:41] You know and the more we learn about how our brain functions about how our mind develops about the difference between brain and mind the more we can appreciate it in a scientific way the richness of human experience.

Blake: [00:18:01] Absolutely. An education doesn’t have to be misery.

Kay: [00:18:06] You know I always say to my students Hey especially the Master’s students. I always say hey this is it you guys this is the last time you’re going to really be able to talk openly and and truly about what you’re learning. Take advantage of it. Enjoy this because you’re going to go out there and work and that is going to be hard. It’s going to be hard. This is easy. Enjoy it. (ha ha)

Blake: [00:18:34] That’s great. Well I know that you’ve had a lot of different perspectives and you know we couldn’t go on for hours about your career which is which has been really rich but I wonder you’ve had the perspective of a professional social worker, of an educator, of a dean. And I wonder what. What those perspectives have taught you about where social work is headed. What are you. What do you think are the major issues that we’re going to have to grapple with as social workers over the next ten years?

Kay: [00:19:12] Well. I think that to me this is not just social work but I was talking to a friend this morning about this. I think that there we are in a perilous time when it comes to public service when it comes to working with and on behalf of others. Look at the struggle of the public school teacher. Now look at the struggle of the public Child welfare worker look at the funding that our society chooses to invest in helping people to helping people through the opioid crisis or through you know children’s struggles to develop in a way that’s that’s you know makes them kind and open people think of how little we invest. Look at how little we invest in higher education as a public endeavor. I mean you know how much of a University of Kentucky’s budget is state funded. Very very little.

Blake: [00:20:21] Right.

Kay: [00:20:22] Did it did it used to be more state funded. Absolutely. So there has been a rotation of public support for public servants now public servants are looked on as as you know almost like they’re not they’re like lower class or something. You know that’s wrong. So that’s a struggle that we have a struggle that we have then is to compete for the very best students because the world has become so – our society (I don’t say the world) but our society has become so you know oriented toward Super-Capitalism that to think of a person entering a career where they may never make six figures. And yet people in business you know with a master’s in business start out at six figures.

Blake: [00:21:21] Right.

Kay: [00:21:22] So what how do we entice them the very smartest the very the kindest the very big hearted the very big minded people to come into this field. That is a real challenge for us. That’s I think the second big challenge that we have. And the third big challenge I think is is our social work educators becoming people who really understand what what are the important questions in teaching and in research. What how is it that we should be teaching. I mean I think that the move that we’re making toward technology toward a greater emphasis on technology is absolutely necessary. I also think that there are dangers in it and we all know that – this is not rocket science at all but we have to have the finance the money to invest in the best kind of technology that can that can engage our students. So that’s that’s another challenge that we have along with what are the questions what are the research questions that have to be answered. It’s really hard to get you know federal funding now for social scientists. It’s it’s been it’s diminished through the years how do we change that. What kind of influence do we need in Washington to to help our lawmakers and help bureaucrats in Washington. Look at the questions that are important for social science to study for Social Work and Social Science so I think those are the main. To me those are the main challenges. But but trying to get the best students is I think the biggest.

Blake: [00:23:26] They are the lifesblood going forward.

Kay: [00:23:28] Absolutely the lifesblood of the profession.

Blake: [00:23:31] I know that ethics has a real interest of yours and I wonder if you could comment on ethical issues that you see kind of looking looking toward the future. You mentioned technology I think what technology presents all kinds of ethical dilemmas.

Kay: [00:23:52] Oh my gosh – Ones we haven’t even we haven’t even dreamed of.

Blake: [00:23:54] Right.

Kay: [00:23:54] You know now Hulk you know social work is based on privacy and confidentiality. Social media is based on no confidentiality and no privacy. So how is it that if if we are a society that is giving up a little bit of ourselves to you know the media are a lot of ourselves to the media how do we deal with that. I mean that is you know an enduring it will be an enduring ethical question for a long time. I think that then the question of this is a hard one and I never understood how to teach this. Believe me. But I think that as we look out there in the in the public world that we see we have to ask ourselves: What about moral character? What happened? I mean how is it that in our nation’s Capitol we don’t see much character you know what is it in education that has been missed that we would have so many adult people who are running this society that seem to have so little in the way of moral character and I mean choosing the hard way to go you know saying saying no instead of always agreeing with something looks like it’s easier or more profitable or a winning strategy. You see what I mean? So I think that and I don’t know exactly how to do that. I really don’t. I think that I’ve what I’ve always tried to consider because I have you know I don’t want to be too grand about things and think that I have some magic because I don’t – I’m just a woman struggling in the world like everybody else. But I would like our students to realize and I would like social workers to realize that they can do a lot of harm. And they can do a lot of harm by not knowing enough. They can do a lot of harm by overstepping their boundaries. They can do a lot of harm by not working hard enough and that the job that we have is to reduce harm. You know we’re not going to like change the whole world and make it all beautiful but that we think it could be but we can do things to make the world better. By reducing the amount of harm that is absolutely in the world. So it’s it’s not grand but it’s hard.

Blake: [00:26:41] Yes. Yes it is hard. And I think I would add to that. I’ve seen a number of students lately who have had their own personal struggles in their lives with abuse or mental illness or whatever and I think that’s often what draws people to social work. But I’ve also seen those same students. They’ve not dealt with those issues in their lives. And they bring that to the classroom they bring that to practicum and they do harm people. I think it’s because of that.

Kay: [00:27:14] Yeah and sometimes they think they’re doing good or they can’t separate what happened to them from what another person’s needs are. I mean that’s all we always have trouble with that as human beings you know. But when you have piled on you in your life traumatic experiences and trauma then working to get out of that is is – that’s hard. And and I wish that we could help people get through that in some you know some faster way before they get out there and start working with others. I mean I do think small classes are really good. I do kind of worry about the online stuff without really engaging people to finding out who they are. You know I feel like an online program without really knowing who it is you know that we’re sending out there has a lot of danger to it.

Blake: [00:28:14] I agree. I think people can sort of cover online not just in the classroom but elsewhere as well.

Kay: [00:28:20] Yeah, I do too.

Blake: [00:28:21] Now, I know that you are in a phased retirement. I’m not sure what that means exactly. So why don’t you explain what that is and what’s what’s next for you in your life?

Kay: [00:28:30] Yeah well phased retirement is a wonderful program here at UK for three years a person who has been on the faculty for a particular amount of time can choose to go on what they call phased retirement which means really working half time and you can choose to do that in any form that you wish I chose to do it by teaching one semester and having a semester without teaching or without any duties really. Although I still have to do doctoral students that I’m like pushing through this thing but phased retirement really means you’re going to retire and and I’m going to retire and I you know I know that it’s the right thing to do even though I feel I mean I could sort of cry right now because of it. But but I want to I want to move forward. You know I just loved this college. I feel loyal to it. I have a huge worry about its future. I want it to be the college that I had dreamed it could be. I put as much of my self into a job here that I that I couldn’t have put more into it because I didn’t have more energy to – but I worked hard to try to to try to push it forward to be a leader in in Social Work Education. So I feel very worried about its future but I also realize that you know everybody has a time and everybody’s time gets to be up and my time’s up here and I feel it deeply. And I never thought that I could even imagine myself – because I’ve been in academic life for actually it’s 38 years that I’ve been an academic and it has been who I have been. You know. I mean you know I get teased about being the person that I am. And so to try to Vision myself without this crutch of academia as my as my emblem you know what will I be? I don’t even know. I just know that I want to try something new. I just know that it’s the right thing and I know that leaving this college is the right thing. It’s never easy – saying goodbye as hard. For me it’s hard for me to say goodbye to anybody you know let alone you know part of my life but I – I’ll take on some new challenges. But I also never thought I would say this either: I want to be more kind of present in a in a way that I’m no expert on it. I want to be like I don’t want to be known for anything. I just want to be happy that I that I’m healthy that I love being in the outdoors that I love fresh air that I love swimming in cold lakes and oceans with waves. I want to feel, oh I just want to be alive. That’s all. So I don’t know what it’s going to mean. I don’t say you know of course I’ve got grandkids and I’ve got wonderful people that I love. I have wonderful people in my life but I also want to be by myself a little in a in in terms of being present with all that is around me. I’ve worked so hard you know I’ve spent so much time on behalf of other people. Part of me just wants to be present. That’s all. So I know that’s very much. But I can’t conceive of it in a different way. You know people always say Oh you’ve got to have hobbies. I have hobbies: my hobby is living.

Blake: [00:33:24] ha ha..

Kay: [00:33:25] And that’s what I’m going to do.

Blake: [00:33:28] Well Kay I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. This has been you know you and I don’t get a chance to sit down and talk and I just it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

Kay: [00:33:38] Well thanks. I know I talk too much and I could probably go on and on but I really do appreciate what you’re doing to try to get the stories out about our college and about the profession. And I wish you well and I hope these podcasts go on for years and years.

Blake: [00:33:55] Thanks.

Blake: [00:33:57] You’ve been listening to the social work conversations podcast. Thanks for joining us. And now let’s move this conversation into action.

Announcer: [00:34:08] This production is made possible by the support of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, Interim Dean Ann Vail and all the faculty and staff who support researching contemporary social problems and prepare students for the social work profession hosted by Dr. Blake Jones produced by Jason Johnston thanks to our Webmaster Jonathan Hagee. Music by Billy McLaughlin. To find out more about the UK College of Social Work and this podcast visit socialwork.uky.edu/podcast