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BYU's Susan Easton Black revels in teaching

PROVO, Utah —Susan Easton Black, BYU's prolific teacher, author and lecturer of LDS Church history, has a history of her own that sounds like something borrowed from Oprah.Before coming to BYU, the former debutante was divorced and financially marooned in an unheated mountain cabin with three small children for several years. That seems like another lifetime ago. Here she is now, a self-made woman, the first female professor to crack BYU's religion department, queen of the BYU classroom and champion of LDS history, not to mention the pingpong table.What students and other faculty members all want to know is this: How does she teach three classes twice a week — nearly six hours in all — on the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and never look at a note?Observers marvel. She just opens her mouth and she's off and talking and doesn't come up for air for almost an hour. She doesn't use PowerPoint and rarely even the blackboard. It's just Susan Easton Black and her brain."Students paid a lot for tuition," she says. "I don't want to share my time with technology, and I'm not going to tell you stuff you can learn in the textbook. I'm going to cover the details, and you better leave class with an arthritic grip because you're taking notes."This tiny grandmother, whose energy, enthusiasm and booming laugh belie her 64 years, rattles off histories and dates and facts and narratives as if she wrote the book on the subject — which she has. The only time she pauses is to ask, "Are you still with me?"She teaches 700 students in her classes. Many of them audit the class, which means they get no credit or grade; they come simply to hear Black's orations. There aren't enough seats for them all, so they sit on the floor and in the aisles. Even other professors attend the class (including a biology teacher this semester). It's not unusual that students leave class with six to eight pages of notes."Her classes are just packed," says fellow BYU religion professor Mary Jane Woodger. "Students throng to her. Sitting at her feet is like being there. And she walks into class without a note. I sure can't do that."At the end of each semester, students are asked to rate teachers. Black averages a score in the 7.7 to 7.9 range, with 8 being perfect. In 2000, she was presented BYU's highest honor — the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer award — making her the first female winner ever.Ask another BYU religion professor, Randy Bott, about Black, and this is what he says: "Wow. She's probably the best teacher on the BYU campus. She's a natural draw. She makes it come to life. She has you crying one minute and laughing the next."Woodger calls Black "almost a legend in her own time."Black's oratory skills and knowledge of her subject have transcended the classroom. She is bombarded with requests for speaking engagements, giving some 200 of them a year. She has lectured in all 50 states, and has served as a guide for church cruises and tours in the Mediterranean, Jerusalem, Alaska, Caribbean and Baltics.The real question is when does this woman sleep? She has written or co-written more than 60 books and compiled statistical data that filled another 79 volumes. She found herself doing so much research in Nauvoo, Ill. — one of the early church's home bases — that she bought a house there."I am immersed in my subject — isn't it obvious? — and I love those students," says Black.