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U prof: ‘we just teach what we know’

Kirsten Fischer is one of seven to receive the 2010-11 Morse-Alumni Award.

Kirsten Fischer thought she might make a career as a potter in Oregon after she finished graduate school.

While she loves pottery, it was when she tried teaching, as a kind of “test” at the University of South Florida, that she found her calling.

“That would not have sustained me for my life,” Fischer, an associate history professor at the University of Minnesota, said, “whereas the interactions that happen in the classroom, they sustain me. TheyâÄôre always different.”

In addition to rewriting her lectures each time she teaches them, Fischer said she memorizes the names of everyone in her lectures, even the ones with more than 100 students, which enables them to have a real discussion.

“I hear from people all over the room, not just the people in the front,” Fischer said. “I hear from the guys in the baseball caps on the back wall.”

Fischer, who teaches courses through the religious studies and history departments, was one of seven professors awarded the UniversityâÄôs 2010-11 Morse-Alumni Award for Undergraduate Education. Each year, professors in undergraduate and graduate programs are nominated for the award, which recognizes winners for their teaching.

Fischer spent eight years of her adolescence living in Germany before she moved to her home state of Massachusetts in time for college. She did not even take a history course until after she graduated cum laude from Smith College with a bachelorâÄôs degree in comparative literature in 1985. She started taking masterâÄôs-level history courses at night while she worked at Northeastern University.

While riding her bike around Boston in 1987, she said she noticed the city was “strictly segregated.” This would spark her academic interest in American history. After she watched a documentary on the civil rights movement, she knew she wanted to study race in America.

“This America, the one IâÄôve been so homesick for while IâÄôve been away, is perplexing, and in some ways, disappointing with this racial segregation,” Fischer said.

She graduated with her masterâÄôs degree in history from Duke University in 1989 and her doctorate in 1994.

Fischer came to the University of Minnesota in 2000, most recently teaching courses on American religious history developed from her research interests.

Fischer said teaching a course on religions and their founders at the University of Heidelberg in German “turned me around in my research interests” and led her to create a “blockbuster” course âÄî Religion and the U.S. Founding âÄî at the University of Minnesota. More than 100 students registered, and none dropped, when it premiered.

“Students often think that weâÄôre experts, and we just teach what we know, but weâÄôre constantly learning as we teach,” she said.

Kathryn Haglin, a political science junior who takes FischerâÄôs course titled Radicalism in Early America, described her professor as “enthusiastic.”

“SheâÄôs really into what sheâÄôs talking about and I think we have some pretty interesting class discussions,” Haglin said.

History junior Nathan Peterson, said Fischer is helpful and he prefers her class setup, which he said “provides an open forum for discussion.”

ThatâÄôs a key element to her classes, Fischer said.

“I feel gifted by my students. I donâÄôt think they realize the ways in which their courageous and candid exploration of difficult material is a gift to me,” Fischer said.

Drew Ross, her husband, said Fischer used to be a “perfectionist,” spending enormous amounts of time rewriting lectures, but that has changed.

“I think sheâÄôs de-emphasizing the perfect lecture for a more supportive classroom environment,” Ross said.

History professor Anna Clark said Fischer works to engage and respect the different perspectives of students with topics that deal with politics and religion. She said Fischer often has long conversations with students.

“Her office is right next to mine,” Clark said. “ThereâÄôs no soundproofing and so I know how dedicated she is to her students.”

Fischer will take a sabbatical beginning in August. She and her family plan to move to Germany for the year, where she will finish her second book and teach at the University of Heidelberg again.

Fischer said she cannot imagine a more rewarding career than teaching âÄìâÄì not even making pottery.

“ThatâÄôs all well and good, but thereâÄôs nothing really more important to me, or more satisfying, than getting somebody else to think hard and passionately about something,” she said.

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