There's a joke among Social Work Professor Susan Kemp's students. The day they leave her office without an armload of books and articles, more good ideas and a deeper understanding than they walked in with, will be the day that hell freezes over. Students and colleagues describe her as extremely well-read and a sensitive resource for problem-solving.
"I'm just a passionate learner myself and have always been fascinated to browse around for the knowledge that lies, not necessarily right in front of you, but sometimes to the side," explains Kemp. "I have strong interdisciplinary interests. I'm a non-linear thinker and tend to want to make connections to things that are not always self-evident. So I tend to be full of statistics and things students might want to read, just to pique their interests and take them to a place they might not have thought about."
Kemp, who in 1996 received the school's Student Choice Teaching Award, is a champion of social justice and equity for disenfranchised and marginalized populations, as well as for students who need extra support. "Students of color and international students have a special affinity for Susan," writes one of her doctoral students.
Kemp's life experience makes her more aware of these issues. A native of New Zealand, she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees there and did doctoral work at Columbia University in New York. She has practiced social work in both countries. Her husband is Maori, of the indigenous people of New Zealand, and her children are bi-racial. "I've been an international student myself and bring a transnational perspective as someone who's worked in several different countries," she says. "I care deeply about inclusion and full participation for all within a community, whether that's in my classroom, the school as a whole or social services."
Students in Kemp's classes often find themselves pushed beyond what they thought they could do. "I have a high-support, high-demand teaching style," says Kemp, adding that she's never satisfied with mediocrity. "I have an incredible faith, borne out by long experience, that my students can reach higher than they think." She coaxes exemplary performances out of students by expecting it, by encouraging it, and by giving them many chances to accomplish it. "They have a sense that I'm in there with them but also have high expectations for them, and I believe that they can meet them. And they do."
While continuing to teach, Kemp has worked as associate dean for professional degree programs for the past two years. As an administrator, she has led a large-scale transformation of the M.S.W. curriculum, to put it more in line with the school's mission of social justice, be more responsive to the communities and agencies that social workers serve, change some structural and content issues, and work on inclusion and diversity issues.
Thinking about teaching through the lens of the curriculum has been rewarding, Kemp says, but she looks forward to returning to full-time teaching. Like all of the professors receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award, Kemp is somewhat surprised and humbled by the recognition. "I feel incredibly honored to have my students and peers believe that my teaching makes a difference and is valued," she says. "Teaching is like many other forms of practice - you never see the results in the near term. You hope that things pay off for students that you work with, but it's not always right there in front of you to know that."