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2008 Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching: Marianna Brown Bettman

With two rewarding career choices already behind her, Marianna Brown Bettman was pleasantly surprised to discover the best was last – she feels like she's found her true calling on the faculty of the UC College of Law.

Date: 5/13/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   Marianna Brown Bettman has led the rarest of professional lives: Each step of the way, she’s found things have only gotten better and better.

A successful attorney for a number of years in Cincinnati, her career went to another level in 1992 when she became the first woman elected to Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals.

How do you book a follow-up to that act? As much as she valued serving on the bench, Bettman feels now that she’s found her true calling – teaching students at the UC College of Law.

Marianna Brown Bettman
Marianna Brown Bettman

So, despite not becoming an educator until 1999, consider her joy in learning this spring that she was to receive the A.B. "Dolly" Cohen Award, UC’s top honor for excellence in the classroom.

"I think I shrieked," says Bettman of her reaction upon being informed of the honor. "I was blown away, in part because I didn’t arrive as a traditional teacher. For me, teaching is the essence of why I have so much fun in this job."

Looking back, she says, she sees the underpinnings of what have made her a successful teacher apparent in her other roles.

"There is a correlation, particularly between appellate judging and law school," Bettman says. "I used to joke that being on the appeals court was like being back in law school, except that now you know what you’re doing. You have the same breadth of topics to deal with."

Her excitement that she brings into the classroom has led to a feeling of being challenged, in the best possible way, by her students.

"Through her innovative style of teaching, Professor Bettman inspires original and inventive discussion amongst the students," says Patrick Hayes, the current president of UC’s Student Bar Association. "She possesses the unique ability to maintain high standards of performance – on more than one occasion, I can recall holding my breath as she overlooked the crowd in search of the next volunteer – but provide the students the freedom to think for themselves. And rather than force discussion, she would embrace the differences and diversity of each class so that the students might, in essence, create their own classroom."

More succinctly, College of Law Dean Louis D. Bilionis offers: "No matter the course, Professor Bettman’s prior experience as an appellate judge enables her to offer insight and practical advice to students who are about to be lawyers with clients."

Marianna Brown Bettman

A key part of that, for Bettman, is making sure her students take their responsibilities seriously. So she has a reputation for being demanding – but for backing that reputation up by producing an educational climate in her classes that rewards the student.

"I do hear a lot of that from my students," Bettman says. "I am demanding – I really expect my students to be prepared. But I treat them the same way I treated lawyers (in court). I expect them to be thoroughly prepared, sharp and inquisitive."

A measure of how successful she is in integrating this approach with an environment that students come to appreciate can be found in what students have indicated, anonymously, in post-course evaluations. On multiple occasions, she has received across-the-board unanimous marks as outstanding, the highest level available.

"Fun is not a word generally associated with law school," admits UC law alum Ginger Bock. "But Professor Bettman’s classes were actually fun. She clearly spent a lot of time choosing interesting cases, planning how to explain these cases – including entertaining student re-enactments – and figuring out how best to ensure that we understood the lesson from each case."

She employs a Socratic approach to teaching where she leads students along through a line of questioning because, as she says, "I don’t want to go to class and just hear myself talk all the time."

"Professor Bettman is able to deftly use the Socratic method to enable her students to understand aspects of the law that students would otherwise be unable to appreciate through a routine lecture or through their own consumption of course materials," says another recent grad, Corey Duersch.

Ronna Greff Schneider, a fellow member of the law faculty, has often taught a section of the college’s class on Torts at the same time that Bettman has led another section of students.

"Professor Bettman is demanding yet understanding," Schneider says. "Her students are prepared because they know she requires it. But they are also intellectually and professionally challenged because she demands that of herself.

"Professor Bettman has the ability to make each student think that she is speaking personally to them – that she cares. It is obvious to all who know her that she does."

Interestingly, Bettman says winning this particular award holds special significance for her. As a lifelong Cincinnatian, she can recall seeing Dolly Cohen at events around town. "I think that is a very sweet extra connection for me," Bettman says. "The bottom line is that my passion is classroom teaching."

Bilionis considers her, despite her many years away from the classroom from the time she was a UC law student to her return on the faculty, to be a natural teacher.

"Professor Bettman has the master teacher’s gift: she knows how to enhance each student’s ability to learn by setting high expectations that the student is motivated to realize," he says. "By her demeanor, she encourages each student to love the law, not just for today’s class but as an individual calling. In this way, her students become professionals who have independence of thought and judgment that can be applied in service to clients and the public."