Story by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
In 35 years as a professor of history at Saint Mary’s College, Katherine Roper has strived to teach her students to “cultivate historical thinking.” She encourages students “to be curious about the past and to think about why the understanding of the past is relevant to their own lives.” To her, it’s all part of the liberal arts training that characterizes the Saint Mary’s curriculum.
Roper, whose research specialty is German cinema, has taught European history throughout her SMC career. Her accolades reflect her talent: Professor of the Year, 1998; DeSales Perez Award, 1998; Jean Baptiste De La Salle Award, awarded by the alumni association for teaching excellence, 1988. Roper, one of the first female professors on campus and one of the first to be promoted to full professor, has been a mentor and a model for other women faculty members, according to Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, chair of the history department. “Katherine has made it easier for the women who came after her,” she says.
Roper believes teaching should be enjoyable as well as satisfying.
“I’ve always wanted teaching to be fun,” Roper says. “When I come out of a class where we have enjoyed ourselves and laughed, and at the same time had good and productive discussion, then I feel good about it. Sometimes it’s a hard line to draw, and I can also tend to be something of a taskmaster at keeping the discussion serious and trying to push the students to look more closely at the reading than they have. They have to realize that learning can be difficult and frustrating at times, and that’s part of teaching also.”
Roper says when she looks around the campus, she sees many older colleagues who are having fun. She attributes it to a unique educational environment that embraces the joy of learning and teaching.
“This environment is one of really intense intellectual engagement and stimulation, and I think it’s contagious among faculty members,” she says.
Roper says she continually rethinks her classes, and hopes in a year or two to introduce a course teaching 20th century European history through film. After hearing her excitement as she ticks off the names of directors and their films, it sounds like a course not to be missed.