“It’s hard to separate who I am in my life from who I am in the classroom,” says criminology lecturer Danielle Murdoch. “I care about other people and that informs my approach to teaching.” Photo: Christine Palka

Awards, Criminology, Faculty

Cormack award winner comes full circle

September 15, 2019

Criminology lecturer Danielle Murdoch recalls the first time she saw SFU in person in September 2001, driving with her family and belongings up Burnaby Mountain to begin undergraduate life. They rounded the corner at the top of the hill and she thought, this feels like home.

After Murdoch did both a BA and PhD in criminology at SFU she always hoped to return to the place that felt like home. She was a professor of criminal justice at Boise State University when SFU criminology posted a lecturer position.

“I realized that my passion was in teaching and when the lecturer position became available, I put together my portfolio to show the School why I was the right fit for what I knew was my dream job,” Murdoch says. “Boise State was really great to me and we loved being part of the community, but I don’t regret my choice because I truly love being an instructor in the School of Criminology.”

Murdoch’s passion for teaching and the care and effort she puts into her classrooms have been recognized with a 2019 Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Cormack Teaching Award. The award was established by former FASS Dean Lesley Cormack to celebrate excellence in teaching.

Murdoch’s inclusive approach make her classes a particular favourite among criminology undergraduates. She is known for delivering passionate, engaging lectures and creating a supportive classroom environment where all students are accepted, and questions and discussion are encouraged. Her commitment to her students is reflected in their evaluations that describe her caring approach, dedication to their success, and rate her among the top instructors in SFU’s School of Criminology.

Prison tours change career path

Murdoch knew from the age of 10 that she was going to study criminology, but she planned to become a lawyer, not a criminology instructor. Her life’s trajectory changed when she took Introduction to Corrections at SFU with professor Curt Griffiths. The course provided the opportunity to tour prisons in Washington State where she met two prisoners who were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for offences they committed as juveniles.

“Curt and I talked about correctional policies and practices in the U.S. and Canada, and he questioned my intention of becoming a lawyer in the criminal justice system that I was so critical of,” recalls Murdoch. “I’d never really considered what my options were. He was the one who put the seed in my head about graduate school.”

Murdoch’s dedication to going the extra mile for her students is evident in the work she devotes to arranging tours of correctional facilities in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley for her classes. Inspired by her own career-altering prison tours in Washington, Murdoch has made the tours essential opportunities for her SFU students.

“I feel it would be wrong to teach a corrections class and not have the students go into that environment,” she says. “The tours reduce the social distance between students and prisoners and staff, as students come to see the prisoners as people rather than statistics, and they understand the dynamics and challenges that staff experience in their roles.”

While the prison tours are beneficial and meaningful for students, Murdoch didn’t like how the visits sometimes felt zoo-like. She wanted to offer additional opportunities for students who are interested in corrections and working with offenders to engage with incarcerated populations.

Her desire to maximize her students’ experiences led Murdoch to launch a student-prisoner book club where five students and six prisoners will meet weekly for one month this fall at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre. Murdoch anticipates the program will benefit students and prisoners alike by humanizing the prisoners and their experiences for the students and by providing the prisoners with an opportunity to connect with members of their community.

“My hope is that this is something that I do two or even three semesters every year at that institution.”