Susan Kuo named among nationís best law teachers
By Peggy Binette, email@example.com, 803-777-7704
What makes a great law professor? Look no further than USC School of Law’s Susan Kuo. She’s one of 26 top professors featured in the book “What the Best Law Teachers Do,” released this month by Harvard University Press. Named Outstanding Faculty Member twice by USC law students, Kuo was one of 250 professors nominated for the book project, which entailed two years of evaluations and classroom observation of her teaching.
Kuo shared her thoughts on teaching law:
What attracted you to teaching law?
Serendipity. I had not planned to be a law professor. However, during a year spent as a visiting academic, I discovered that I truly enjoyed scholarship and teaching, and I’ve never looked back.
How does teaching law differ from other programs?
Law schools are known for their use of the Socratic method. Instead of listening to lectures, students are expected to participate in a question-and-answer dialogue with their professors. The Socratic method is especially prevalent in the first year of law school, because, as you might expect, a good lawyer has to know how to make an argument. Rather than allowing our students to listen passively, we require them to articulate a position and defend it.
How do you prepare for the high bar you’ve set for yourself?
I work very hard to prepare for my classes, including classes that I’ve taught for years. I read everything that I’ve assigned to my students, even if I’ve read it all before a dozen times. The extra preparation helps me to respond effectively when students give incorrect responses – with the material fresh in mind, it’s much easier to figure out how someone managed to get off track. I’ve been teaching for years, and I still spend many hours preparing for each hour of class. One thing that has changed, however, is my comfort level with making mistakes and not knowing all the answers. In so many ways, I am still a student, learning new things every day.
What do you expect of your students?
I work hard to prepare my classes, and I work hard while teaching my classes. I expect my students to work hard as well. Ultimately, though, what they accomplish is up to them. I’ve often told my students to think of me as the traffic cop at the intersection. It’s my job to send them left or right, or to get them to speed up or slow down. But they are ones driving. Maybe this inspires them – the knowledge that they are in charge of their own educations!
What drives your passion for teaching?
The students! Every day of class, they remind me why I’m there. I’m a teacher. And it’s my job to teach. I get jazzed when my students master a concept. I get equally excited when they struggle with a concept – because this just means that they are earning their degrees. It’s okay not to know an answer. What matters is that you work to discover it.
How do you want to students to remember you?
As a colleague. As someone who made the journey through law school with them.
How do you encourage your students?
It’s my responsibility to treat my students with kindness and respect. This includes taking the time to learn their names and memorize their faces. I identify them by name in class and when I see them outside of class. Law school can be a lonely place; I don’t want my students to feel lost in a sea of strangers. What is more, I want them to know that learning in my classroom is a collaborative process. I can’t teach without them. I need 100 percent of their effort.
What do you love about teaching most?
I love that the students learn and that I learn. Every class is an opportunity to learn – not just about the subject matter but also about teaching. Every class is an opportunity for me to be a better teacher. I only rarely manage to achieve the latter goal, but it’s always there, hanging within my reach. This is one of the many wonderful gifts that teaching offers – the opportunity to improve, every day.
How does it feel when a student has that breakthrough moment?
Pure happiness. I feel almost giddy for the student. The law school experience causes many a student to doubt his or her intellectual capabilities. When a student has a breakthrough, he or she reaffirms her sense of self, and I am utterly delighted for the student.
Did you always want to be a lawyer?
No, I never conceived of becoming a lawyer! I thought that a doctorate degree in Asian American history was in my future. My parents thought otherwise. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee, in the foothills of the Appalachians. I chose a law school near home (Vanderbilt) so that I could make a break for it, should law school prove not to suit me (or me it). I ended up thinking law school was a hoot and half.
What’s your life outside the classroom?
When I’m not teaching, writing or serving on committees, I’m chasing my 2-year-old son!
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