Michaela Woodward – Staff Writer
For Visiting Assistant Professor in History Misti Harper, her area of study has not only shaped her career, but every aspect of her life.
Originally from Arkansas, Harper was always fascinated by the history of the region she was from.
“I went to undergrad at a school that was really similar to Gustavus. It’s a place called University of the Ozarks and it’s a little private liberal arts college. Then I did my Master’s work at the University of Central Arkansas and I earned my PhD in African American History at the University of Arkansas in 2017,” Harper said.
Harper received her Bachelor’s degree in theater, but discovered an important intersectionality between theater and history that has allowed her to go deeper into already well documented historical events.
“It requires empathy and compassion, and it really requires getting out of your comfort zone and thinking about somebody else’s lived experience,” Harper said.
This attention to exploring other perspectives on a personal level helped her with her Master’s project, a study focusing on the Little Rock Nine.
“There’s been so much stinkin’ work done on the Little Rock Nine, it’s not original at all. So, I really had to think about how can I look at this differently than what so many other people had done before me… Nobody had really bothered to get into the experiences of these people beyond their symbolism, really,” Harper said.
Harper decided to go deeper into the lives of the Little Rock Nine and center their experiences.
“You can’t tell a story if you’re reducing half of your actors to that kind of shallow treatment. I was really interested in thinking about their experiences, doing work that would center them, and specifically centering Black women and girls because–as is the case with so many major social movements–it’s women and girls who are often the backbone of the work,” Harper said.
“You get a lot of male leaders who were essentially the faces to put on money, the people that other folks will listen to by virtue of the patriarchy. But you have all of these women behind who are doing the grunt work, the organizing, the reaching out, and I realized that that was missing from the historiography. So that was how I became interested specifically in African American history and in women’s history. It was still a southern story, but it broadened my horizons to really understanding some of how the Civil Rights Movement had worked across the country,” Harper said.
This area of study has caused Harper to closely examine her own identities and the environment that shaped them.
“I’m obviously a white woman, and white people have been typically really surprised to realize what I do. I certainly had to unlearn a lot of racism that I was raised with, simply by the fact of being a white southerner in the deep South, raised by people who were white southerners who came of age in the Civil Rights Movement, people like my grandparents who were raised in the thick of Jim Crow…Whenever I was growing up, it was very much a white man’s story, and usually a rich white man. There were a whole lot of assumptions that I carried in myself that I had to unlearn and it was uncomfortable and I found myself in spaces that I had never been in before,” Harper said.
Harper expanded on how she grew into her career.
“It also awakened me to concepts of privilege: race privilege, sex privilege, orientation privilege, things that I had just never had to think about before because of systemic things. At the risk of sounding sappy or overly sentimental, it’s really hard for me to talk about this from a completely professional, academic point of view, when it so very much challenged and changed everything about who I was,” Harper said.
At Gustavus, Harper demonstrates her passion, knowledge, and personal experience in these issues for her students.
“I specialize in African American history. I was hired here as the Twentieth Century U.S. Historian, primarily of women’s history, but also of race and ethnic history. I am a modern U.S. historian, so that means the second half, but I specialize in post-1865, especially with an emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement,” Harper said.
She is also the advisor to IGNITE at Gustavus and Students for Reproductive Freedom (SRF). Junior Emily Falk has worked with Harper in her capacity as President of SRF.
“Harper is the best professor and mentor I’ve ever worked with in my entire life. She’s a dedicated educator and shows her students how to be involved in more than just activities on the Hill, [but] especially in local activist spaces. Her passion for reproductive justice made her the perfect advisor for SRF and she has been an inspiration for our entire [executive] board to keep fighting and creating space for our work on campus,” Falk said.
This dedication is clear to her colleagues as well.
“Dr. Harper combines a keen intellect with a fierce and humane commitment to social justice, unflagging dedication to students’ intellectual development and well-being, and, not least, a fine sense of humor that, among other things, reveals idiocy and pomposity for what they are. She holds herself and her students to high standards, and in her teaching, scholarship, and civic activism she continually and importantly illuminates how the past informs the present,” Professor in History and African Studies Greg Kaster said.
On Honors Day this year, students recognized Harper’s excellence in teaching with the Swenson-Bunn Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.
“I am beyond humbled and honored to have been considered at all for this award, much less to have won it. I’ve said this to several people after I found out that I won it: the students at Gustavus have made it easy to want to engage with them, to want to mentor, to want to advise—even though I can’t officially do that as a visiting professor. The commitment and dedication and care… To be recognized this way by a campus full of some of the most intellectually curious and empathetic and committed students in every way, trying to do their best in the classroom, trying their absolute best to make their community better, I cannot think of a better way to close my career at Gustavus,” Harper said.
Gustavus and the students have made an impact on Harper since the beginning of her time here.
“I knew from the second that I was invited to an on-campus interview in 2018, that I was in love with this place, and that it would be an ideal place to start my career. I was attracted to Gustavus out of necessity and then I knew as soon as I hit campus that it would be a dream to work here, and in so many ways it has been,” Harper said.
While Harper advocates for students being involved in their community and being aware of important issues, she also understands that stepping back can be crucial.
“I think what I want Gustavus students to understand is that self-care is essential right now; the world is literally and metaphorically on fire…. In the interim we’re seeing a lot of push back, a lot of resistance, spikes in reactionary violence to the fact that the tide is turning. If it wasn’t turning in the favor of people who have traditionally been marginalized, we wouldn’t be seeing these pushbacks. There’s a silver lining in recognizing that, but it’s also so difficult, and it’s very easy to get emotionally burned out whenever you do pay the kind of attention that Gustavus students do. So I want these students to understand that it is okay to unplug, and it is okay to protect your mental and emotional health. You can still be dedicated and committed to your academic intellectualism, your social intellectualism, without having to be attuned 24/7 because that will also cause harm,” Harper said.
Harper acknowledges that there can be a balance achieved in being aware of social issues and self-care, especially for college students
“It can be really isolating and really depressing to constantly be in a headspace of outrage and anguish, even though both of those things are necessary to keep you going… keep you learning. College is very difficult. It’s a whole new experience of learning how to communicate, learning how to live with other people, to say nothing of what goes on in classrooms. But you are also learning about people, and I think that being cognizant of other people’s experiences, even if you can’t really fathom what that must be like, support for the fact that everyone truly does have a different path, they self-care differently, and what is happening in the world does affect people very differently. I guess that basically boils down to empathy and compassion,” Harper said.
For Harper herself, taking time to check in on mental well-being has been critical, especially in navigating the COVID-19 world.
“I was formally diagnosed [with depression and anxiety] in March… I know that a lot of students have struggled with mental and emotional health issues. Whenever I was an undergraduate, nobody talked about their mental and emotional health issues, at least in any way that I remember that was very healthy. It’s important to me that the students understand they’re not alone. There are faculty, administration, staff, there are so many of us who get that. Oftentimes, the place where I felt the most centered was in my classrooms with my students. Being able to work with and listen to and teach and discuss being in spaces with students was kind of like a sanctuary some days,” Harper said.
Outside of the classroom, Harper enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and cooking. Moving to the Midwest from the South, she was familiar with the area because of the research she had done at universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She came into her position looking for an opportunity to start her career and provide stability for her family. Looking back at her three years at Gustavus, she has no reservations.
“I have never ever regretted it at all,” Harper said.