May 25, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 18

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    Quantrell Teaching Award: Kathleen Neils Conzen

    For Kathleen Neils Conzen, Professor in History, the joy of teaching undergraduates comes from seeing them begin to think for themselves as they are challenged to think historically.

    "What I like best is when students write their final papers for the course and challenge the structuring argument of the course itself," said Conzen, who teaches the Core course in American Civilization as well as courses on 19th-century urban history and the history of American immigration.

    Conzen is a specialist on 19th-century immigration and is particularly interested in the role of Central European immigrants in the development of the Midwest.

    One of her challenges as a teacher is to make her students understand the material they study from a historical perspective.

    "The American Civilization course confronts them with documents from the 19th century that help them understand what the public discourse of that period was. The contents of the documents help students begin to think historically. This is because the language of the documents and the perspective are so different from their own.

    "This discovery, that there was a different way of looking at things in the 19th century, helps the students probe the logics and consequences of the choices people make, then and today," Conzen explained.

    "I think one of the things that surprises students as they read the materials is the strong religiosity that permeates the writings. There was a strong moral core that ran through the writings of the 19th century," Conzen said. It is a point of view that still permeates American life, she added. "All we have to do is look at the Christian Right to see the connections," she said.

    Conzen received her B.A. in 1963 from the College of St. Catherine, her M.A. in 1966 from the University of Delaware and her Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She served on the faculty at Wellesley before joining the University faculty in 1976. Since 1992, she has directed Chicago's undergraduate program in history.

    As director, she has worked with the faculty to create a coherent program in history for College students, and she has worked with graduate students to help them improve their teaching abilities.

    "It is satisfying to me to see how the graduate students develop. They lead the B.A. seminars and do a wonderful job. Many of our B.A. papers are excellent and could qualify as work for an M.A.," she said.

    "I think what the graduate students add to the course is serving as an additional resource to the students, someone else they can talk with. Many of the graduate students are engaged in the same kind of discovery as the College students," Conzen said.

    During the coming year, Conzen will be on leave to work on two research projects. One examines the immigrant reconstruction of Midwestern rural culture. In a second project, she is writing a series of essays about the formation of ideological ethnicity among German immigrants during the 19th century.

    -- William Harms