Michelle Kuhl, Ph.D.
Michelle Kuhl, Ph.D.
College of Letters and Science
by Samantha Anderson and
Brittany Lemmenes, Student Features Reporters
Teaching Through Stories
Michelle Kuhl is fired up. On this day, she is faced with this challenge: make Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody about her life as an African American girl growing up in Mississippi, relevant to her students in this time, in this place.
She turns to the students in her African American History class, which is glaringly homogenous, and asks, “Is there a black experience, or is it unique to the individual?” The students divide into groups to dissect her question, and Kuhl works the room, making sure that each cluster is on track. She listens in, sometimes jumping in with a counter argument that gives the students pause.
One group ties the question to educational experiences. They share stories about their school life when they were kids. One girl talks about her small, rural, predominantly white school. Another, who went through the Milwaukee school system, shares the struggle he faced going to an overcrowded but terribly underfunded school. The teachers, he says, were overwhelmed and unequipped to control the students.
The 90-minute class started with a story about a black girl in Mississippi, but it ended as a conscious race experience. For Kuhl, the story served as a vehicle to get her students to think, to process and see life through different lenses.
Kuhl, an associate professor of history at UW Oshkosh, teaches through story. Whether it’s about the American Revolution or the backstory of unions during the Industrialization Age, her students learn history through her stories.
Kuhl’s storytelling ability runs in the family. Her father, Paul, a history professor, exposed Kuhl and her two siblings to educational opportunities, like trips to museums. Her mother, Sarah, was a kindergarten teacher and a natural storyteller.
Her mother would regal her with tales of growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas. Then she’d let her daughter take center stage so she could tell a story of her own. “That had a lot of influence on me,” Kuhl says. “I think that prepared me to be a history professor in a great way—that I spend a lot of my days telling stories.”
Kuhl took an interest in history at a young age, though she wouldn’t realize her true love for the subject until her college years. Her favorite book in second-grade was a biography of Harriet Tubman. She liked the adventure of the story: a slave woman who escaped from her owners, but risked her life many times by returning to slave country to rescue others. “I liked learning about injustice and overcoming it,” Kuhl says.
|Michelle Kuhl converses with students in a discussion group during class.
|In this audio-only podcast, Michelle Kuhl talks about how she responds to students who say history is boring. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.
Kuhl grew up in Pfafftown, N.C., a town situated outside the larger Winston-Salem, a major producer in North Carolina’s cigarette industry. As a kid, field trips for Kuhl involved going to a cigarette factory, much like kids in Wisconsin go to dairy farms. She recalls going to the RJ Reynolds Co., which manufactured the iconic Camel cigarettes, and petting the life-sized camel made out of tobacco leaves in the company’s lobby. “They’d hand out packs of cigarettes to the kids as a parting gift and say, ‘Now remember, this is for your parents,’” she says with a laugh.
As a young girl, Kuhl realized that not all people were treated the same. When she was 6 and raised as a good Catholic, she declared at Sunday school that she wanted to be a priest when she grew up. The nuns were horrified and suggested she be a nun instead. Kuhl didn’t much like that idea. “I thought, ‘Who wants to be a nun?’”
She was constantly told she couldn’t do such things because she was a girl and given messages that a girl’s self-worth is related to her appearance. As a self-described organic feminist, she was never interested in the culture of waking up an hour early to do her hair and makeup like other girls in the 1970s. She never hid the fact that she was smart and didn’t understand why other girls at school did. In high school Kuhl joined the marching band and debate club and took accelerated classes. “I think I could win an award for nerd,” Kuhl laughs again.
Growing up in North Carolina also exposed Kuhl to racial issues as the state was in the middle of transitioning to integration. She rode one of the integrated school buses in the area, a bus driven by a high school student as part of his driver’s ed class. On this bus were students in both middle and high school, some of who claimed they were proud members of the KKK.
During one of the 40-minute rides to school, Kuhl, then 10, saw a group of white boys from the back of the bus hanging out the window, hollering and harassing a black woman and her teenage son as he went to get on the bus. The mother was so upset that she pointed a shotgun at them, which made the boys laugh harder.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is strange,’” Kuhl says. “I wasn’t scared of her... I was always more scared of the white boys.”
Women and History
Like many college students, Kuhl didn’t know what she wanted to do when she started at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, so she dipped into a variety of subjects she liked, collecting course credits across the board.
Sophomore year she took a U.S. Women’s History class that completely changed how she looked at the world. Finally she was given insight to the strange and confusing situations of her youth. In that class, Kuhl learned about how women had been in a subordinate position and was impressed by how they got out of it. She was hungry to learn more. “It helped me understand my life and the world around me,” Kuhl says. “It just helped make so many things make sense to me.”
By the time she was a junior she realized that she was accumulating more history credits than any other subject. She felt the same connection and clarity taking history classes she had felt that sophomore year. She became a history major.
At that time, North Carolina State did not have a women’s studies program. Undeterred, Kuhl created her own informal women’s studies degree. She did so by relating papers and projects to a feminist perspective. After graduating from North Carolina State University in 1991 with a bachelor’s in history, Kuhl was still uncertain on what path to take. She wandered for a while, staying with relatives in Texas for a year, then headed back to North Carolina. Back in Raleigh, she worked her way up in a catering business she’d been at throughout college. But after a while, catering wasn’t cutting it. “I missed the world of ideas,” Kuhl says. “And I missed thinking about how the world worked, and reading books about ideas.”
In order to fulfill her desire for intellectual discovery, Kuhl enrolled in graduate school at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and pursued studies in American History. By that point Kuhl knew she wanted to be a historian, and she chose to become a history professor. She received her master’s degree in 1995 and continued on there for her doctorate.
After she received her doctorate in 2004, Kuhl wrote many essays, including one that was published in Interconnections: Gender and Race in American History by Carol Faulkner and Alison Parker. She is currently working on a book about the anti-lynching movement called Manly Martyrs: African Americans and the Anti-Lynching Battle.
In Manly Martyrs, Kuhl wants to know how African Americans dealt with lynching. How did they experience, fight against and overcome it? “I think secretly I was hoping to find a story about women saving the day,” Kuhl says, “and though women were important in the struggle, I got more interested in questions of how manhood was being defined.”
|In this audio-only podcast, Michelle Kuhl explains what she would say to someone who asks, "There is not field of men's studies, why should women's studies be a field of interest?"
Kuhl began teaching at UW Oshkosh in 2004 after she was a visiting professor at Utica College in New York and the University of Texas at Dallas. Had she been asked as an undergraduate, Kuhl would not have wanted to go into teaching. She was more ambitious than that, or so she thought, at the time. Now, she appreciates the profession. “I think being a teacher is very ambitious,” she says. “You’re trying to shape people’s minds and teach them to think, so I have more respect for the profession now and see teaching as something that’s hard to do.”
She finds value in the dual roles that she plays—as a researcher and writer while alone, and that of a thought-provoking, idea-bouncer while in the classroom. “I really like that energy and that dynamic,” she says.
Plus, she is now able to find answers to all of the questions that have plagued her throughout life, especially from a feminist perspective. The life of a professor, however, is not always easy. Sometimes nobody reads the research that took months to complete, write about and publish. Sometimes students just don’t care about class. That’s why Kuhl has what she calls her “insurance against despair.”
On her University website page is a quote from John Hope Franklin, a renowned U.S. historian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor, that serves as a reminder that all the work is worth it.
“I would only add that when one begins a poem, a hymn, a short story, or even a history, one must be optimistic about its completion and about what it seeks to teach. If one believes in the power of his own words and in the words of others, one must also hope and believe that the world will be a better place by our having spoken or written those words.”
Knowledge and Wisdom
After teaching for 13 years, Kuhl knows her goal when she faces a new group of students each semester. She wants them to come away with a combination of knowledge and wisdom.
In her mind, knowledge is timely, but wisdom is timeless. She says studying history exercises the mind in such a way that you have to think critically. “You have to imagine choices people have made, you have to think about a really different world, you have to look for patterns and evidence,” Kuhl says. “That kind of practice of doing history can create wisdom.”
But wisdom is not easily gained, and neither is an A in Kuhl’s classes, so she does her best to show students their work pays off in the long run. “I try to show students that it’s a process, it’s not just memorizing facts,” she says. “It’s not just one damn thing after another.”
She pauses. “History is making sense of what we know, and that’s more like a puzzle. There’s no right answer; everyone has to make sense of the past on their own terms.”
|Michelle Kuhl challenges students during a small group discussion.
|In this audio-only podcast, Michelle Kuhl tells a story about her favorite historical person. Pdcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.
According to her students, Kuhl’s lessons have lasting effects. Journalism major Brittany Farrell left Kuhl’s class still thinking about what they had discussed minutes before. “I found the knowledge that Dr. Kuhl opened up to me carries into my personal life and guides me on certain issues outside of school,” Farrell said.
Jasmine Draxler, a history major, appreciated Kuhl’s vast knowledge about the subject of the class. “She really excels in teaching details about African Americans,” Draxler said. “More than what you would learn from a survey.”
In a recent student opinion survey, a student wrote, “Kuhl got me really interested in history. I wanted to do the homework. Helped me decide to get a history minor.”
But not all of Kuhl’s students are as enthusiastic about history. She teaches 120 students in two sections of her history survey class. At the beginning of each semester, she asks them how many students are taking the class because they love history, and how many are there only to fulfill a general education requirement.
Only a handful of students raise their hands for “love history.” “So I’m faced with four to six history fans, and over 100 people who just want to trudge through the course,” Kuhl says.
It’s a struggle to get students to care about history, but she finds fun ways to help them learn, like through song. Students often get confused about the Federalist, Anti-Federalist, and Jeffersonian political factions, so she asks them to pick a theme song that best represents the ideals of each and they sing them in class.
“I think if people are willing to sing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to represent the Federalists, or ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ to represent the Jeffersonians, then students feel my classroom is a safe environment to do something risky for the sake of learning,” Kuhl says.
Kuhl’s colleagues sing her praises. Kim Rivers, professor and chair for the history department, has worked with Kuhl for years and enjoys the directness of her associate. “Michelle is a dedicated teacher and scholar who always exhibits professionalism in the classroom and in the department,” Rivers said.
Stephen Kercher, associate history professor, admires the versatility in which Kuhl can teach a wide range of courses. “I’ve had the privilege of watching her teach, and it’s fair to say that she inspires envy with the way she relates to her students,” Kercher said.
Kuhl’s love of history is felt as strongly as home as it is as work. Her husband, Jeff Pickron, is a historian and lecturer at UW Oshkosh. Together they have two daughters: Clio, 10, and Eliza, 5. “I think we bore our children to death,” Kuhl laughs. “When we watch the news we contextualize everything. If they ask us questions such as why people wear shoes, we start back in ancient history and give them the history of shoes.”
As for her teaching, she finds her greatest rewards from students who develop a true appreciation for history. She recalls one student who told her at a history club function how much he hated her class, how she gave too much work and how she was too hard on the students.
“Then he said when he was studying for the final exam, he realized he loved the class, that he learned and understood so much,” she says.
Kuhl is happy when her students appreciate the lessons they learn in the time spent with her. She hopes they learn one more lesson, too. “Instead of accepting the world around them as inevitable and natural, they’ll realize the world constantly changes,” she says, “and it changes because people with visions shape the world according to their visions.”
Her wish for her students? “Maybe our students will roll up their sleeves and work to remake the world according to their visions.”
research mattersby Michelle Kuhl, Ph.D.
My ongoing research
interests center on race, gender, and violence in the Jim Crow period.
In the 1880s lynch mobs killed hundreds of people a year in the American
south, yet there was no outcry from the average citizen. How did people
who explicitly championed liberty and Christianity tolerate this
outrage? And how were activists able to challenge this complacency and
define lynching as a moral crime? I draw on newspaper articles, short
stories, sermons, organizational records, and images to chart the rise
of a powerful anti-lynching movement. Many of the assumptions embedded
in the practice and defense of lynching had to do with widespread
assumptions about race, crime, sexuality, and gender that were backed by
religion and science. The movement to debunk these fictions had some
well-known leaders such as Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B.
DuBois, and Walter White. Many other lesser known people shaped this
opposition such as sociologists, newspaper reporters, Baptist ministers,
and of course, the numerous sharecroppers and workers who battled white
supremacy on the ground. In many ways the story of lynching at the turn
of the century provides a context for understanding modern day
practices and beliefs about violence, crime, race, and gender. Overall,
it helps us wrestle with the question: What do we tolerate as a society?
Student Assistant Features Editor Noell Dickmann also contributed to this report.