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We asked history professor Lauren Turek a few questions to get to know her better.
by Susie P. Gonzalez
Growing up in New England, history professor Lauren Turek had no shortage of historic homes and sites to visit. She shares her love of historic objects with students through film clips, music, images, and historic artifacts, creating her own personal museum to bring a lesson to life. If you want to change the subject, ask her to “interpret” her love for the color pink and her respect for faculty colleagues.
What do you like most about teaching Trinity students?
Trinity students are impressively active and engaged, not only with everything that the University has to offer them but also within the community. This makes them particularly fun to teach.They ask great questions and they dive into classroom activities, such as debates, with great vigor. They draw cogent connections between the historical material that we cover in class and contemporary social issues. They also work incredibly hard. When they come to my office for feedback or help with their work, they almost always demonstrate their desire to learn and improve their skills. Nothing is more rewarding than working with students who want to learn and are willing to put in the hard work to improve their writing and analytical skills.
How do you motivate your students?
First, I try to keep my classes as interesting as possible by bringing in lots of multimedia (film clips, music, images), primary documents, and historic artifacts. There is something about handling an object that you might only see in a museum that brings the past alive for all of us. It's also much more fun to consider the diverse perspectives that animated the cultural and political debates of the past by going directly to the sources. Second, my classes address important historical questions that require us to consider how race, religion, ideology, class, gender, and culture have shaped not only American history but our contemporary politics and foreign policy. History is relevant, indeed indispensable, for understanding the major issues that we confront in the world today and examining the context of these issues allows students develop more balanced, informed opinions. Finally, I try to be encouraging. When I give feedback on written work, I do my best to focus on giving suggestions for improvement and allowing students opportunities to implement that feedback. Writing is hard and no one writes a good first draft of anything, but everyone has the ability to improve. I want my students to feel motivated to keep trying even when the going gets hard; I do my best to be constructive and helpful so no one gets discouraged.
What are some of your pre-class rituals?
I like to spend some time before each class reviewing my lecture notes and making sure that all of the classroom technology is in order for my presentation, but my favorite pre-class ritual is listening to music. I start each of my modern United States history classes with a song that is either from the period that we will discuss during that lecture or that in some way evokes the spirit of that time period. Doing this helps me (and hopefully my students) connect with the people who lived in the past in a visceral way. Music allows us to immerse ourselves in the sounds and emotions of the era we are studying, which I find gets me even more excited to talk about the topic of the day.
How did you get involved in your field of study?
I have always had a deep interest in American history, which I attribute to the fact that my family visited historic sites and museums constantly throughout my childhood. I grew up in New England, so there was no shortage of historic homes or sites to travel to in the region. When I was in high school, I took an elective in local history and as part of that class, I visited the town archives. Looking at the land grant records from the founding of the town in 1673--actually being able to touch the pages that someone had carefully inscribed centuries before--was a profound experience for me. I fell in love with doing archival research, and when I went to Vassar for my undergraduate work, my history professors nurtured this love. I traveled to Abilene, Kansas, to conduct research at the Eisenhower presidential library for my senior thesis and was absolutely hooked. Reading the documents that shaped U.S. foreign and domestic policy, with Eisenhower's handwritten notes in margins, revealed the exciting messiness of American political history. I just loved it. Although I initially went on for graduate work in museum studies and spent several years developing museum exhibits at an exhibition design firm in New York City, the lure of historical scholarship pulled me back to graduate school for a PhD in the history of American foreign relations.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?
My favorite aspect of teaching is the opportunity to share my love of history with my students and listening to them as they grapple with the primary materials from the time. Trinity students are incredibly sharp, so they always interpret the historical documents in intriguing ways and make fascinating connections between the past and the present. I also enjoy meeting with students one-on-one just to talk with them, not only about history but about their plans for the future as well. Because I teach a public history course and have a background in museum work, I am always thinking about the wide array of career opportunities out there for our students. I like being able to help students apply for internships, graduate school, and post-graduate jobs. My least favorite aspect of teaching is one I think most faculty share: grading. Although I really love providing students with suggestions on how to improve their writing and thus try to keep my grading focused on this, assigning grades is still not my favorite thing to do.
Who inspires you? Why?
All of my incredible colleagues. In May, I attended a workshop where faculty members shared their experiences and ideas for teaching in the Freshman Year Experience courses (I taught in the Science Fiction FYE last year and will be teaching it again this Fall). This is the second time I have attended this workshop and even though it occurs right after the end of the Spring semester when everyone is exhausted, I find myself rejuvenated and excited when I hear about all the inspiring work the faculty here are doing in the classroom and beyond. I have gotten so many good ideas for my own courses from hearing about the work that my colleagues in English, psychology, music, communication, and other departments are doing. I have learned a tremendous amount from them and feel fortunate that the University offers so many opportunities for the faculty to share their teaching triumphs and challenges so that we can all flourish together.
Favorite color? Why?
Pink, and not just because I am a millennial! When my husband and I got engaged I actually insisted on a pink sapphire engagement ring rather than a diamond because I love pink (and pink gems) so much. I love that it can range from loud and vibrant to pale and soft, evoking a range of moods.
What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Why?
I would love to become proficient at coding or web development. During graduate school, I worked as the webmaster and tech support person for my department and I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of managing the website and creating new websites for faculty members. It would be fun and challenging to actually learn to code though.
What's your favorite sound? Least favorite sound?
My favorite sound is the song of the Mourning Dove. It is haunting and mournful yet also lovely. My least favorite sound is hail bonking my roof and car.
Favorite sports team? Why?
I don't know much about professional sports, so let's just go with the Spurs and the Stars. I do enjoy rooting on the student athletes that I have in my classes.
What is your favorite word? Your least favorite word? Why?
I have many favorite words, but one I particularly like is "interpretation," in part because interpretation is one of the core tasks of the historian. We are always seeking to interpret and interrogate our primary sources to better understand why the people of the past made the decisions they made and acted as they did. Furthermore, seeing historians examine similar sources and actors and come to different interpretations is always an exciting opening for debate.
Least favorite: impactful. I hate when I see this word in professional writing because I dislike tired business jargon and buzzwords. Its usage is a personal pet peeve of mine.
Where would you like to retire?
Retirement is a very long way off, but perhaps in New England or New York where my husband and I are from originally. I love San Antonio and all that it has to offer, but I do miss the beautiful autumn foliage in the northeast and the cooler weather.