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Commemorating a cornerstone

If you talk to Irene Katele's students from her 10 years of instruction at UW-Madison, they’ll rave about her engaging, dynamic lectures, her passion for her course material, and her commitment to those in her classes.

They'll also describe a demanding teacher who doesn't hand out As indiscriminately and who pushes students to their limits with difficult exams.

So how did Katele strike that ever-so-delicate balance between rigorous and beloved?

"You know, I don’t know how that happened," she says with a laugh.

Katele retired in May after serving as the associate director of UW-Madison’s Legal Studies Program since 2002. A former assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina, Katele moved to Madison in 1990 after getting married. She worked in a yarn shop and in corporate communications before deciding to pursue her interest in law. She graduated from UW Law School in 1999, held a one-year appointment as a law clerk to Justice David Prosser Jr. at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and worked in estate planning for Michael Best & Friedrich for two years, before returning to campus.

During her tenure, she transformed Legal Studies/Sociology 131: Criminal Justice in America - a gateway course for the legal studies major and a required course for the criminal justice certificate - into a wildly popular course, while also advising countless legal studies students.

Howard Erlanger says when he took over as director of the Center for Law, Society, and Justice in 2007, one of his first moves was deciding whether to nominate Katele for a campus-wide award for teaching, advising or administration. He opted for teaching, and Katele received the UW System's Underkofler Award, given for undergraduate teaching excellence, in 2009.

"Irene took what was essentially a moribund course and turned it into a highly successful course, enrolling hundreds of students who give it exceptionally high ratings," says Erlanger, who stepped down as director earlier this year. "By any measure, her student evaluations are remarkable; they are pretty much unheard of for someone teaching large freshman power lectures, where she makes high demands on her students."

Indeed, Katele consistently drew high scores from students on RateMyProfessors.com, with comments such as: "Holy smokes. Katele is PHENOMENAL. If you have the opportunity to take 131 with her, DO IT."

"She engages with students without losing a professional distance and explains topics in a way students can relate," says colleague Ralph Grunewald, who has taken over teaching Legal Studies/Sociology 131.

Katele believes her popularity was tied to the inherently interesting and current subject matter of her signature course. As its name would imply, the class serves as an introduction to the criminal justice system in the United States, from crime to punishment and everything in between. Katele also infused her curriculum with contemporary content - the Casey Anthony and Trayvon Martin cases, for example - while utilizing an informal lecture style that encouraged discussion.

Katele viewed teaching students how to handle such a wide swath of material as part of her charge as an educator of undergraduates. She showed them how to organize their notes and readings, encouraged critical thinking, and advised them on how to study - skills they could apply for the rest of their college careers.

"I realized a year or two after taking Katele's class just how spoiled her students are," says Greg Docter (BA'12, Legal Studies), who reconnected with Katele several years after taking the class to get her advice as he weighed job offers. "Her class is a rare combination of relevant and highly interesting material, taught by an engaging, thoughtful, and caring professor."

Katele would have preferred to remain teaching. But she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008 - it's twice been in remission since, but came back in 2011 and 2012 - and in the spring her doctor advised her to retire. She's staying busy with her three dogs, knitting, and photography, as well as spending time with her 90-year-old mother, who lives with Katele and her husband.

She says she hopes to have impacted her students' lives. Her colleagues at the CLSJ certainly think she has - they named the Legal Studies Program's outstanding student award after Katele. The first five winners were recognized in May.

"When I think back on my college professors, there's one or two that stand out," she says. "So I would like to be, in a student’s mind, in that one or two - she taught me how to study, she taught me how to think differently, and she made me laugh. I want to be memorable."