Profile with Ruth Mazo Karras
Ruth Mazo Karras (Oregon & New College 1979) is a Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of five books and many articles on various aspects of medieval social and cultural history, gender and sexuality. Ruth holds a PhD and an MPhil in History from Yale University, an MPhil in European Archaeology from the University of Oxford, and a BA in History from Yale.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Ruth Mazo Karras: Mainly Philadelphia – I commute between Philadelphia and Minneapolis.
Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Ruth Mazo Karras: By the time I was in high school, I wanted to be a constitutional lawyer. A friend got me one of those fake newspapers where you can print whatever headline you want and she made me one that said “Ruth Mazo: Appointed to Supreme Court.”
Rhodes Project: What’s the best part of your job now?
Ruth Mazo Karras: When I’m in an archive and I’m actually reading manuscripts that were handwritten by somebody 700 years ago. You feel an actual physical connection with the past. The other best part is that you’re constantly learning things, either from colleagues at conferences or in seminars or from students.
Rhodes Project: What’s the coolest manuscript you’ve gotten to look at?
Ruth Mazo Karras: Probably the most beautiful manuscript I’ve held in my hand was one I wasn’t even working with. Our alumni magazine wanted to take a picture of me working with a graduate student so they put us in the manuscript room and brought out a really lovely manuscript – Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale, which is a 13th century encyclopedia. It was a beautiful copy with lots of illustrations, and they took all these pictures of us looking at the manuscript – it was totally posed!
Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Ruth Mazo Karras: Multitasking with teaching, administration and research. I’m really happier when I can do one thing and just focus on that for a while.
Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about the way students learn history in school, what would it be?
Ruth Mazo Karras: I would want them to know that it’s a process. Historians don’t just repeat facts, they create history through interpretation. Every student needs to learn facts and look at sources to have something to work with to create an interpretation, but I would like them to understand that history is a process and not just a bunch of dates.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?
Ruth Mazo Karras: There’s a course called “Medieval Stories and Modern Echoes” that I’m going to teach again. We read several different medieval texts and modern versions of them like Dante’s Inferno and then the Dante’s Inferno video game, and some Persian love stories and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. The next time we do it, I don’t want to do Dante’s Inferno because Dan Brown’s Inferno is just out, and I don’t want to deal with that.
Rhodes Project: What is the most important lesson we can learn from the past in order to ensure a better future?
Ruth Mazo Karras: The past is contingent. I was just reading an op-ed by a Catholic bishop about marriage and how you can call same-sex marriage whatever you want but it’s not marriage, because “this is what marriage really is.” That’s what marriage was at one point, or what the church tried to make it at one point, and they sort of froze it and said “this is what it is, it doesn’t change.” But things do change. It’s important that people know about the past, but it’s also important that they not pick a single point in the past to say “here we have truth, and therefore it must always be done in this way.”
Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, global or local, what would it be and why?
Ruth Mazo Karras: The biggest problem is inequality in access to resources and particularly food.
Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?
Ruth Mazo Karras: I just got back from a trip to China and I’m looking forward to a trip to Korea next spring.