ROE R. Cross Distinguished Professor
Karen Manners Smith
2009 - Karen Manners Smith
Emporia State University professor of history Karen Manners Smith has logged about as many earth miles as famous travelers Nelly Bly and Gertrude Bell, and Kansans Martin and Osa Johnson.
She has published a number of journal articles and book chapters, edited and reviewed the historical works of others, and written several books, among them New Paths to Power: American Women 1890-1920 and Time It Was: American Stories from the Sixties. Smith has a foundation of degrees from the University of Massachusetts (Masters of Arts and Ph.D. in American History) and Brandeis University (Bachelor of Arts in English and American Literature), and has received numerous honors for her dedication to teaching and promoting the causes of social justice and gender equality.
"I am always eager to travel and see new places, the result of being raised by an anthropologist who took his family with him into the field," she says.
Smith lived for short periods during her youth in Puerto Rico, Kenya, and Guatemala, and has traveled throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. Her more recent travels are usually geared to her passion for exploring historical sites. While at ESU, Smith has traveled with students to England and Ireland, and to several cities in the United States.
And all that experience is what her students benefit from at Emporia State.
"Of course I want my students to understand history and to be able to apply their historical knowledge to situations that affect their own lives and careers, their communities, and their future families," she explains. "I want them, more than anything, to care passionately about something, and to try to make whatever niche they occupy in the world into a better place. History professors are not hired to teach morality, but I cannot escape the fact that history teaches us moral lessons, and gives us examples of human actions that we should either emulate or despise. I hope my students will make mindful, well-informed choices that involve a sense of responsibility for other human beings and the planet we all share."
Smith admittedly can be a hard task-master when it comes to the writing she receives on student assignments. She is not easy on her student writers but they can come out better prepared for life and career based on what they learn through the experience.
"On the last day of every course I try to give them a small piece of practical advice that they can use to enhance writing capability for the next generation: I tell them, 'Read to your kids.'" She explains, "Children absorb language, sentence structure, and grammar aurally at an astonishingly early age. A child who is read to will become a reader and will have a much better chance of becoming a competent writer than one who does not have that early sense of how the language works. One day, that child will be able to succeed in a college course taught by somebody like me!"
Smith is such a fierce advocate for education, partly because she comes from an academic family and she learned its importance from the beginning of her life.
"My grandfather, barely literate, was an immigrant who worked as a carpenter; my grandmother spoke little English and worked as a seamstress in a New York City sweatshop," says the Massachusetts native. "Their son, my father, always credited his success to the GI Bill, which rewarded his service in World War II with affordable college and graduate school programs and enabled him to become a professor.
"For me and my brothers and sister, college education was not an option, it was required! In the end, I was the only one of four children who became a college professor. However, I married the son of a college dean and four of my in-laws are teachers or college professors. One of my brothers runs a college preparation program for African youth. One of my two daughters-in-law works in university administration, the other runs a tutoring business. So, depending on how you look at it, education is either the family default or the family calling. In any case, we like it."
It would seem like a calling for sure, though Smith originally had another path selected.
She says she started her doctoral program with the intention of finding a job as a researcher for filmmakers of historical dramas and documentaries. She was heavily influenced by “Upstairs Downstairs.”
"Upstairs Downstairs," a dramatic television series, told the story of a wealthy English family and its servants in early 20th century London. It was created and written by Jean Marsh and John Hawkesworth and first ran from 1971 to 1975.
"Downton Abbey" is a current British television series that began in 2010. It takes place in the early 1900s and revolves around a family of aristocrats and their servants.
“Upstairs Downstairs” was the “Downton Abbey” of my generation," says Smith. "The historical research that formed the basis for that show was impeccable; I thought I would love to be the scholar who did that research."
Two dynamic professors in her graduate school, however, opened her eyes and mind to another idea and, excuse the cliché, the rest is history.
"They soon persuaded me that I would prefer to do the kind of work they were doing," says Smith. "I had an opportunity to test my teaching ability in adjunct positions at Smith College and Western New England College. That work confirmed my interest in helping students to appreciate history. From that point, degree in hand, I applied for teaching positions all over the country, and was hired at Emporia State University n 1995."
Smith directed ESU’s Ethnic and Gender Studies Program from 2006 to 2013 and has been honored on campus with the Ruth Schillinger Faculty Award in 2004 and the Dr. Mary Headrick Award in 2010.
In the coming semesters, said Smith, "I hope to introduce many more students to the excitement of historical tourism. For myself, the next stop is India, 2015!"