OXFORD, Miss. – When students file into Will Berry’s classroom in the University of Mississippi’s Khayat Law Center, they never know what the day’s discussion will involve. What they do know is that it will be always challenging, often entertaining and almost never a standard lecture format.
Students praise Berry’s innovative teaching methods, along with his passion, engaging personality and commitment to helping them succeed. The assistant professor of law was rewarded for his dedication Thursday evening, when Chancellor Dan Jones introduced him during the 70th annual Honors Day Convocation as the recipient of the 2013 Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teaching Award.
“(Berry) joined the faculty only five years ago, but he has already registered a tremendous impact that extends far beyond his classroom and discipline,” Jones said. “A gifted teacher, he works hard to be a mentor and friend, spending countless hours talking with students and having lunch with them in the law center’s cafe almost every day.”
The award is particularly meaningful because of the emphasis placed on quality instruction at Ole Miss, Berry said.
“Part of what makes this a great American university, as Robert Khayat called it, is that people really value teaching here,” he said. “There is an unusual interest and focus on making the classroom experience outstanding, and I’m honored to be chosen for this award, which recognizes great teaching.”
In their nomination letters, students cited Berry’s engaging personality and “new style of teaching law classes” that draws on music, current events and even sports to enhance the case law method.
“Professor Berry makes it his mission to make his class interesting regardless of the subject,” one student wrote. “His sports law classes are always themed as some sort of competition, and this enables students to learn the material without going through the traditional stand-and-lecture approach that is typical in law school.”
“Each class he teaches brings new ideas to the students and utilizes technology in the classroom to enhance the education experience,” another student said. “Professor Berry gets participation in his classroom by encouraging students to voice their opinions in multiple ways and not just the typical ‘call on someone’ approach. He pushes students to become scholars and not just students.”
It’s a method that comes straight from the heart of Berry’s teaching philosophy.
“I think the first thing you have to do is really to focus on engaging students and challenging them to be part of something bigger,” Berry said. “I try to challenge them to think critically about how to solve problems and apply information rather than just trying to impart knowledge.
“In so much of education, there’s the ‘sermon and regurgitate’ model where a professor delivers a sermon and students simply spout that material back at him or her. Finding a way to communicate information using a Socratic, interactive conversation tends to achieve much better results, in my experience.”
A prolific author, Berry has published 16 articles in legal journals over the past five years. One of his goals is to help students hone their thinking and writing skills to the point where they can produce publishable papers, and many of his students have done so.
“He edited, he encouraged, he offered constructive criticism,” one student wrote after completing the professor’s International Criminal Law course. “Now that this class is over, he is taking time out of his schedule to continue to help us get published. Not even in undergrad did I have a professor put in this much time and effort to try to ensure that I would be a successful student and a successful career person.”
Berry earned his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Virginia and a law degree at Vanderbilt University before going to the University of Oxford (England), where he earned a master’s degree in criminology and a doctorate in law. He clerked for Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. in the Middle District of Tennessee and for Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He also practiced law in Washington, D.C., with the firm of Shea & Gardner before joining the faculty in 2008.
His main research interest focuses on capital punishment and sentencing. He has published articles in the Arizona Law Review, Connecticut Law Review, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Florida Law Review, Georgia Law Review, Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Maryland Law Review, Ohio State Law Journal, Virginia Law Review In Brief and the Wisconsin Law Review.
Berry also is interested in sports law and facilitated the development of a new law journal, the Mississippi Sports Law Review, providing new opportunities for students and broadening the reputation of the School of Law. He recently represented the Ole Miss Faculty Senate at the annual conference of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, where he organized and moderated a panel that examined “Current Legal Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics,” focusing on concussions and the related litigation.
Each year since 1966, the university has recognized excellence in teaching by presenting the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award. Based on nominations from both students and faculty, the award includes a personal plaque and a check from the chancellor. Recipients’ names are also engraved on a plaque listing previous winners, which is displayed in the J. D. Williams Library.