If one’s value could be defined by the company he attracts, than John P. Karras, professor of history, would be akin to gold. Lectures in Classical History in Honor of John P. Karras’s 50th Year of Teaching at the College commenced on Friday in the Library Auditorium. Seats were filled with deans, department chairs, professors, alumni and current students.
Welcoming the diverse crowd, Jo-Ann Gross, chair of the history department, called the man who taught 100 consecutive semesters at the College “a legend.” His passion, extensive knowledge of classical studies and distinctive demeanor has created a legacy that has not been lost among past and present students as well as colleagues, many of whom consider him their mentor.
Taking a course with Karras has become “a ritual rite of passage” for history majors, according to Gross.
Paul Mumm, senior history major, has taken five courses with the professor and understands this rite of passage. “There is something about him. He pushes your intellect and causes you to feel guilty if you can’t follow him, his argument and his extrapolations … He has a unique approach that is refreshing. It’s ‘fear me,’ but with a friendly wink at the same time,” Mumm said.
Having maintained the same teaching style for the past 50 years, Karras has continued to push classes of students to reach their fullest potential, even if that means creating a very demanding classroom atmosphere. “I give them a difficult and hard time as part of their education. The task is to get you to think. Whatever works is legitimate and useful,” Karras said.
His desire to push the intellectual capacity of students initially inspired him to focus on classical studies teaching. “It is basically the best test of faculty and student intellect. It has the creating capacity for self-discipline. There is nothing like learning Latin irregular verbs or Greek irregular verbs,” Karras said.
This combination of intimidation and challenge, accompanied with a great sense of humor, has made him a mentor to many colleagues and students.
Adam Knobler, professor of history, attributes the fact that Karras has been his mentor for the 15 years he has been teaching at the College to their shared sense of humor. “Karras has a good sense of humor about himself and his own shortcomings; he is never afraid to laugh at himself, which is rare in academia,” Knobler said.
If anyone could measure the extent of Karras’ legacy by his former students, it would be well represented by Rosemary Sheldon of Virginia Military Institute and Craig Champion of Syracuse University, the two presenters of the night. Both boast Ph.D.s and work as department chairs at their respective schools.
However, Karras remains modest about any influence he has had in the lives of these former students. “I got out of the way. They are highly intelligent and capable of hard work, so I got out of the way and let them learn.”
Sheldon however, debunks this modesty. She considers Karras a mentor and father figure, the one who inspired her to major in classical studies.
“Mentors never die. They critique you into infinity,” Sheldon said before beginning her presentation titled “Trajan’s Parthian Adventure: with some modern parallels.” She has remained in contact with Karras over her entire educational career, submitting every paper to him first for critiques.
If you have ever wondered how students at the College today compare to students from 50 years ago, Karras can shed some light. “They have changed in regards to demographics. Students come from more affluent backgrounds than 40-50 years ago. There is a greater diversity in goals. Students know where they want to end up, which is always healthy,” he said.
“They have a greater awareness of human rights, that they can’t be abused by teachers or administration. Students today are not as radical as 25 years ago, and the students are going to be the ones to cope with the consequences of that,” Karras said.
There is still time for students who wish to take the “ritual rite of passage.” Karras says that he has no plans to retire in the future because he does not consider teaching work. In fact, Karras is taking on a heavy course load of teaching for the spring semester, including a course on global Byzantine history, a seminar on Roman imperialism and a team teaching project titled “Empires: Ancient and Modern.”