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Learning How to Think

Honors Program Alumnus and Appellate Court Nominee Kyle Duncan Reflects on His Years at LSU

For LSU Honors program alumnus Kyle Duncan, his intellectual journey began with learning how to write and think critically — skills that he confides have been invaluable for him, both in the study and practice of law.  

Duncan, who was recently nominated to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, boasts a distinguished law career as both an educator and litigator. At various points he has worked as an appellate lawyer for both Texas and Louisiana, taught at Columbia University and the University of Mississippi School of Law, and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now a partner at his own firm, Schaerr Duncan LLP in Washington D.C., Duncan devotes his time and energy to constitutional law cases, which is where his passion truly lies.

His extensive experience has earned him praise as a confident litigator able to handle high-pressure cases. For instance, in a recent article in The National Review highlighting Duncan’s nomination, Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network called Duncan “the complete package.”

“I have watched Kyle successfully handle high stakes litigation in courts across the country, including the Supreme Court, and he is a superstar who can translate sophisticated arguments for the general public,” Severino said.

Before he launched his career, however, Duncan attended LSU for both his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and his law degree. In light of his recent nomination and the prospect of returning home to Louisiana, Duncan took some time to reflect on his years at LSU.

 

Q: What brought you to LSU and the Honors College?

A: I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to LSU, and this was a great opportunity for me to get some help going to college but also to work on campus. I was immediately recruited to the Honors Program. A couple of my professors encouraged me to take Honors classes at LSU. I found them extremely valuable because of — and really, two things stand out in my mind — they were very small classes and that they were seminar-style classes. I got to know my fellow students and my professors very well. They were also extremely rigorous academically. I remember having to work very, very hard at writing, in particular. I got a lot of critical feedback from professors in the Honors courses, and to this day I remember that feedback being very rigorous and really helping me learn to be a better writer and a critical thinker.

 

Q: Did you have the opportunity to study abroad while at LSU?

A: Ironically, the course I think I enjoyed the most was a course on Dante, which is obviously not English literature, but Professor Bob McMahon taught me a course on The Divine Comedy, and that encouraged me to study Italian. I actually ended up spending a year abroad in Siena as a result. LSU made it very easy for me to study abroad, in two ways. I did a summer program in Siena, Italy. That was taught by faculty from the Italian and French Departments. It was a wonderful experience, and I ended up wanting to do a year abroad. Now, LSU at the time did not have a formal year abroad program in Italy but, thanks to the scholarship I was on and the number of college credits I had from high school, I was allowed to design my own year abroad program in Siena. So I took classes on both Italian and English literature, film history, and art history, all in Italian, and it was a wonderful experience. While I was in Italy I also took the opportunity to get a certificate in Italian Language. It was very important to me to get proficient in a foreign language because it wasn't something I had done in high school and LSU really made that possible and I was very grateful for it.

 

Q: What ultimately led you to apply to law school?

A: I was a little uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life as someone with a degree in English and Italian. I took an aptitude test that said I might make a good lawyer, so I thought I'd give law school a try. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed law school. It seemed very much like a continuation of my studies in literature that I had done as an undergraduate. I found it intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun.

 

Q: What are some of your fondest memories of your time at LSU?

A: When I went to Italy for the summer was a really formative experience. I had never been to Europe before — I had never been anywhere where English was not the dominant language. I found that to have to try to interact with people in a foreign language was a formative experience. I'll never forget that.

I'll also never forget my first day of law school at LSU because I didn't know what to expect. No one really prepared me for the Socratic approach to teaching in which the professor ends up asking the students questions, and not simply lecturing and imparting information. It was such an eye-opening experience to see what was to be expected from the students. Real critical thinking, not just taking the information and regurgitating it on the test. That sort of experience inspired me to try to be a law professor.

 

Q: What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment in your undergraduate years?

The accomplishment I was proudest of was learning Italian. It was very difficult for me; it's very difficult for someone to learn a spoken foreign language who hasn't done it from a young age. I had to work very hard at it. It required a lot of discipline and a lot of putting yourself in difficult situations where you don't really understand what people are saying. I was very happy and grateful to be able to do that.

 

Q: What are your hopes for current and future Honors students based on your experience there?

A: The first thing I would say is that I had a wonderful experience in the Honors College, and I hope current and future students have a similar experience. The thing that I remember most vividly about my professors in the Honors College is that they pushed me to think critically about anything we were dealing with — whether it was a book, or a poem, or whatever else, they pushed me to think critically and to try to express myself as clearly as I could. That was extremely valuable. Entering college, I thought I was a good writer but I felt like I made huge strides early on in my career at LSU because of the Honors College, and it has helped me be a much better lawyer than I would have been otherwise. That ability to clearly express yourself — it's something that people get to law school and they think that they know how to write and express themselves, but they don't really, and it’s because they haven't been pushed to do it. The Honors College at LSU gave me a head start on that for which I am very, very grateful.