50 Years and counting: MIT “pracademic” and public service awardee reflects on teaching journey
When Larry Susskind began teaching at MIT Richard Nixon was the United States President, Don McClean’s American Pie was at the top of the Billboard 100 top songs, and the first iteration of “The Godfather” just came out in theaters. Since then, Nixon has passed, McClean no longer performs, and the Godfather has been immortalized in streaming platforms across the internet. However, Susskind is entering year 51 of teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His first year of teaching molded Susskind’s view of how to go about it.
“I wondered whether I’d be taken seriously since I was new,” said Susskind. “I was worried about not knowing what to say or do. I was glad to teach courses that grew out of both what I had helped to teach and what my own research was about.”
Susskind credits mentors and role models that believed in him as what pushed him to keep teaching at MIT. One of those role models was the late Paul Gray, who’s namesake award, the Paul Gray Faculty Award for Public Service, Susskind was honored with as the 2022 recipient this past May.
Graduating with both a Master’s in City Planning and a PhD in Urban Planning, Susskind chose to be a “pracademic” as opposed to a traditional academic.
“Prof. Susskind encourages students and practitioners to improve their personal theory-of-practice and increase their awareness of their public impact and sense of service,” said Samuel Dinnar, former student of Susskind and current teaching colleague at MIT, in his recommendation letter to the PKG Center’s award committee.
Throughout his teaching career Susskind has published several articles on the idea of teaching as a “pracademic.” His courses are riddled with games and simulations that draw on real world experiences, guiding students to make the connection between theory and practice.
“I felt that teaching in a professional degree program, it was important to teach from practice and not just from theory,” shared Susskind. “Even though I got my PhD, and I knew what the theory was, I thought it would be much more useful for my students, both undergraduates and graduates, if I introduced them to problems in practice that either I had been involved in myself or I knew about.”
Attending Columbia University in his undergraduate years, The Vietnam War played a major role in his decision to ultimately study conflict resolution. Along with other optimistic problem solvers from Harvard University, Tufts University, and MIT, Susskind helped to found the inter-university Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, which just recently celebrated 40 years of existence.
With a background in conflict resolution, Susskind uses games and simulations to encourage students to learn how to deal with disputes in the public arena, at every scale.
Each game Susskind designs comes with different instructions for each participant so that everyone has to take on a realistic role. As a result, much like in the real world, conflict is unavoidable.
“You can’t just argue your way to somebody doing what you want, because you want it,” shared Susskind regarding his approach to teaching negotiation. “I teach people how to manage conflict, how to resolve disputes, by trading across differences so that everybody’s interests are met.”
Responding to groups at the margin, who have no money to hire professional negotiation advisors or mediators, Susskind and the not-for-profit he started called the Consensus Building Institute, provide neutral services all over the world. He maintains partnerships with people who “make their own decisions about things,” said Susskind, referring to his view of public service.
Susskind advises professors trying to incorporate public service into their teaching to help their students reflect on their social responsibilities and the university’s responsibilities.
“Professors need to know how to help students reflect on their experience and incorporate what they learn into their evolving personal theory of practice. If you’re just going to take students somewhere, as if they’re sightseeing, and tell them to go home and write a paper about they saw, that’s not clinical education. And, it is not public service being incorporated into classes, said Susskind. “The class needs to engage in a partnership with a community client, and the client needs to retain the final say about what should be done with the work the students complete.”
Susskind encourages faculty to generate more meaningful public service opportunities for their students as part of their clinical education.
This fall semester Susskind is leading the MIT Cybersecurity Clinic (11.074/11.274) offering assistance to cities and towns trying to reduce their vulnerabilities to cyber attack.
Learn more about the Paul Gray Award for Public Service, and if you know a faculty member who is ‘making a better world’ through their work in public service, consider nominating them for the 2023 award!