Susannah B. Tobin ’00 is the assistant dean for academic career advising and a senior lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. She is also managing director of the Climenko Fellowship Program. She serves on the graduate council for The Harvard Crimson and Cambridge Historical Mission.
FM: So how did you get involved with The Crimson?
SBT: I comped The Crimson my freshman fall, same as you. I had spent a lot of time on my high school newspaper, so I thought that it was something I might enjoy. I actually hesitated to comp right away because I tried some other things and I thought I had already done the newspaper, and maybe I didn’t need to continue to do it. But I kept being drawn back towards 14 Plympton, and once I started, I never looked back.
FM: Why did you choose the Editorial Board?
SBT: I thought I had lots of opinions and wanted to share them. And the comp at the time was a mixture of news comp training, and also editorial training. And I liked the option to do some reporting, but then also work on opinion writing as well.
FM: Though, in the past, you wrote op-eds criticizing Harvard, you’re now a professor at Harvard Law School. What does it mean to simultaneously be critical of and appreciative of an institution like Harvard?
SBT: I think that’s a really good and hard question. I think we are critical of things that we care about. And so when I was a student, I loved my experiences as an undergraduate at Harvard and also had opinions about ways it could be improved for everyone. And so I really welcomed the opportunity to share both sides of that experience to say, ‘I love it here, and also here’s how it could be better.’ I think we don't spend time criticizing things that we don’t think are worth trying to make better.
FM: You studied classics at Harvard as an undergrad, and got a master’s of Philosophy in classics at Cambridge. What drew you to the field?
SBT: I love words, and I love how language fits together. And so studying Latin and Greek was a really logical thing for me to do, both because of the influence, particularly Latin has on English language and rhetoric in particular, but also because of the complexity of the languages. The grammar sounds very nerdy, but I teach writing, how the grammar works and the nuances of meaning that you can express with subtle changes in grammar was a puzzle I really loved trying to figure it out.
FM: So Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Cambridge, United Kingdom?
SBT: Cambridge, Massachusetts, for sure. I loved Cambridge, England, but Cambridge, Massachusetts, for sure.
FM: How did you end up at law school?
SBT: My grandfather was a lawyer. He actually became a lawyer rather later in his life, and he went to law school at night. And he lived with us when I was growing up.
I loved him, but I also admired him hugely and thought he had a very keen sense of justice that I admired and wanted to emulate. So I think he was the person who gave me the idea to go to law school. When I was in college and spending a lot of time at the newspaper and doing a lot of writing, it became clear to me that many lawyers spend a great deal of their time writing and making arguments and that appealed to me, intellectually as well.
FM: Do you have any advice for students considering law school?
SBT: Lots of advice. I think the biggest misunderstanding about going to law school is that you have to concentrate or major in a particular field in order to prepare. I think the opposite is true. I think it’s better to study what you care about and what you love, and then apply that knowledge in the context of a legal setting. So you’ve seen, I think, a pretty big shift over the years in the range of people coming to law school, lot more students with STEM backgrounds, which I think is fantastic. And so my biggest recommendation to students is to study what you care about and then see if it leads you in the direction of the law.
FM: While in law school, you were a senior editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and worked at the ACLU. What drew you towards civil rights law specifically?
SBT: I think in part, my work in journalism is going to be a recurring theme of this conversation. But also, I had an amazing history teacher in high school, who taught a short class on the Bill of Rights and did a wonderful job of illustrating the importance of protecting civil rights and civil liberties. So I was very, very interested in free speech and an independent media to hold government to account and read a great deal about the ACLU and the amazing work it has done to protect civil rights and civil liberties. So when I got to law school, that journal seemed like the logical place for me to work.
FM: What work specifically did you do with the ACLU?
SBT: I worked at the ACLU my first summer after law school. This is the ACLU of Massachusetts.
And I did a variety of work. Some of it was very directly related to helping students in public schools dealing with questions of whether their lockers could be searched without reasonable suspicion that they had any contraband in them. And some of it was prisoner litigation related to prisoners’ rights.
FM: You were a tutor in Leverett House for 10 years. What was that like?
SBT: I loved it. It was a great job. Leverett House is a great community. I started it in law school. So I was a first-year law student and I was working as a tutor in Leverett at the same time, which was, I think, what I would call a heavy caseload. But I loved the immersion of being in law school and then the perspective of walking back down to the river and sitting in the dining hall and talking to students who had had a million different days, were interested in a million different things, were pursuing all kinds of opportunities and had dreams, some of which related to law school, but many or most of them didn’t. And hearing what they wanted to do, and trying to help them a little bit, was just an incredibly rewarding experience.
FM: Do you have a specific favorite memory from your time in Leverett?
SBT: One recurring memory, which I think Leverett doesn’t do anymore because time has passed, but we used to have a semesterly 80’s dance, which was at the time, you can believe me or not, a very big deal on campus, and we did it. We did it in the fall, in the spring. In the spring, it usually coincided with pre-frosh weekend, and working with the students to organize that and see them dress up in their version of what they thought 80’s costume might be. Having grown up in the 80’s, it seemed very different to me from what 80’s attire had been. But it was a really great community event, and always a lot of fun to work with HoCo on doing that.
FM: What are the major differences between dealing with students at the College and students at the Law School?
SBT: I’m not sure there are that many actually. I think one big difference between working at the College and working at the Law School is if you’ve come to the Law School, you’ve made a kind of choice about the direction you might want your career to go. And so in some ways that may seem more narrowing, the kinds of questions and the kinds of concerns students might have might be more headed in one direction. I think that has turned out not to be the case, for some of the reasons I was alluding to earlier that you can have lots of different paths into the law. And once you’re in the law, you can take lots of different paths. So the conversations I have with my students about where they want to go, what they want to do, the kinds of justice they want to pursue, are as varied as the conversations I had with my undergraduates about the different jobs they wanted to have or what they wanted to study and that’s been a really just enlivening series of conversations.
FM: Which do you prefer?
SBT: Oh, I can’t choose.
FM: So you serve on the Cambridge Historical Commission, what drove you to join? And what is the importance of preserving Cambridge’s history as you see it?
SBT: I’m a history buff, which may not surprise you, since I was a Classics concentrator, and also, as you suggested earlier, a longtime Cambridge resident. So the opportunity came up because the commission has a number of different designated spots: one for an architect, one for a real estate agent, and one for a lawyer. So that position for the lawyer slot came open, and a couple of people who knew about my love of Cambridge and my love of history thought I might be a good fit for that. And it’s been an unbelievable education in the history of the city, in history of architecture and urban planning, and how we think about our lived environment, and particularly getting to work with the city staff, who run the commission day to day and advise people who are looking to make renovations on property or to understand the way the city is laid out and why it is the way it is, has just been a terrific opportunity. And then we’ve had a lot of open meetings on Zoom the past three-and-a-half years.
FM: Any fun facts you’ve learned about Cambridge since joining the Historical Commission?
SBT: You know, that Adams House and some of the Harvard housing down by The Crimson used to be called the Gold Coast. And it was because that was where Harvard undergraduates of particular means got to live in the early part of the century. And my grandparents were Irish, poor people who lived in a less good neighborhood not too far away from the Gold Coast. And sometimes the people who lived in those better properties would heat up pennies on the radiator and throw them out the window for poor children to pick up and then their fingers would burn because they were hot. And so when I think about Cambridge history, and I think about town gown issues, and also the interactions between the many, many different members of our community, I think about that and think about how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.
FM: There’s been a lot of discourse in the past few years about the increasing politicization of the Supreme Court, what are your thoughts?
SBT: There’s a lot to say about that that goes beyond the scope of the interview. But I would say I think it’s really important for there to be those conversations and to think critically about the role that Supreme Court justices play in our politics and not to accept the premise that they are above politics or outside.
FM: What work are you proudest of?
SBT: I think the work I’m proudest of is getting to teach and advise students every day. You all are amazing and bring so much energy and intelligence and sense of purpose to this campus all the time. And getting to work with you and help even a little bit is what I’m most proud of.
—Associate Magazine Editor Jem K. Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jemkwilliams.