Studying Herstory: Dr. Michaela Reaves

While Cal Lutheran is known for its genuinely nice atmosphere, we’re also known for having a particularly difficult history department. One of the most well-known professors is Dr. Michaela Reaves, who specializes in American history, with an emphasis in sociological history and genealogy. She also happens to be one of the best professors I know. I took her U.S. History to 1877 class my first semester at Cal Lutheran and I was terrified because, make no mistake, she is intimidating. But I went to her office hours one day and I learned just how much she cares about her students in that very first meeting. I came with the intention of talking about the research paper and left with a fairly solid plan for my classes for the next four years and the knowledge that I just spoke to a truly wonderful person, who teaches because she genuinely loves teaching. Throughout the past three years, I've been to her office just to talk and hang out because she is that amazing. She's genuine and she cares for all her students, she is fearless and marches to the beat of her own drum. She can talk a mile a minute and have your head spinning, but she can also listen and laugh with you about what's going on in your life. In honor on Women's History Month, I wanted to interview one of the best female professors I've had the privilege of knowing.

Her Campus at Cal Lutheran: Did you know you always wanted to be a professor?

Dr. Michaela Reaves: No I was going to be a lawyer; I had gotten into UCLA for law school and then I changed my mind.

HCCLU: Why did you change your mind?

MR: I got the list of classes when I was going to UCLA and I was going to have tort law for the whole first year. In between the time I had taken the LSAT and I had gotten admitted, I had talked to several lawyers and by the time I would have been leaving the school, the average pay for lawyers was $15,000 a year, which was very low. I wanted to work with defendants, this was back in the early 80’s, and they didn’t want women going into the prisons because it would be such a problem. I was getting a lot of pushback on that and I thought “I’m going to have trouble with what I want to do” then I got the schedule for tort law and I did not want to do tort law. So I applied for a fellowship in archeology in UCLA, which I got, and I was excited until I found out I had to go to Iraq. My doctor said I would come back with terrible diseases. So I decided to get a Ph.D. in History instead.

HCCLU: What was your thought process when you made the decision to get your Ph.D. in History?

MR: History was always the thing I loved, even with archeology. But if I wanted to do archeology, I would have to go to Iraq and I didn’t want to do that. History was my first love, so I figured if I was going to make that much money being a lawyer, I would rather do something I really loved. If I wasn’t going to make more money, there was no reason to go to law school.

HCCLU: Was it difficult to make that choice because you had already planned to go to law school?

MR: It was hard to make it because I thought what if I’m making a big mistake. You’re 21 years old, you wonder if the decisions you make now are the ones you would make later on in life. You ask yourself if you’re going to regret this or you think you’re so dumb for making that choice. But I was pretty sure that this was not panning out in the direction I was comfortable with and so I tend to rethink decisions through pretty well, so I was done, I was ready to go. I waited until two weeks before class started so I like to think that I made someone on the waitlist very happy.

HCCLU: I know history gets a bad rap for being boring, so why did you decide to teach it?

MR: I have loved it since I was a kid because it’s a narrative of the human race; it’s a story and I love to read. I remember specifically, when I was in 6th grade, we had this book and Sister Mary Bridget had this beautiful picture of a manor and a story about the serfs and I could just jump into it and that feeling stayed because I read a lot about it, I was really into mythology. It just captures my imagination and to be honest, it really sticks in my head. I never really had to work at it, I just remember it. Eventually it began to flesh itself out so I had all the pieces, so for me, it’s reading history and lives backwards. I studied genealogy and I like the narrative.

HCCLU: Is that why you ask students for their names and trace it back on the first day of class?

MR: Yes because I love knowing where they’re from and they will become more personal. In a way, they feel like someone’s listening to them a little bit and so the other students say it will help them remember other kids in the class. It forms a community and I normally have 40 students in a class so it’s really interesting because it’s a way to do diversity without having to do it. Everyone can hear everyone’s stories and they’re all very similar with their hopes and dreams.

HCCLU: When did you start teaching at Cal Lutheran?

MR: 1987.

HCCLU: Have you seen a change in the students throughout the past years you’ve been teaching?

MR: Yes, I would say the 80’s students were a response to the more radical 60’s to 70’s students. So people had termed them as apathetic and I’m not sure that’s fair but they weren’t as activists. They were more involved with the idea of earning the money to own a BMW. The education level was better back then and I think we can lay that at Prop 13’s door. Students come in now and they aren’t well prepared; they think classes here are too hard so they try to take their degree classes here and take most of their common cores somewhere else to get a higher grade. The degree has become a commodity instead of an education; it used to be you got educated because that’s what you did to learn what happened and what went on before so you can put context to what’s happening now. Students are, now, getting degrees just to get a job, so taking the class to learn it isn’t enough anymore. It’s about keeping a certain GPA in order to get a job once they graduate; that creates a different type of classroom. I think there was also a big problem with the 2008 recession because it cost a lot of people the money they saved up for their students so they can go to college. I think that contributes to the commodification of the degree, but I also think that’s why we see college students having 2, 3, or 4 jobs and that makes their lives difficult to pursue academia the way they want.

HCCLU: You mentioned how you got pushed back when you were trying to get into prisons for law school to interview the prisoners because you were a woman, what was that like? Why did you get pushed back when you were trying to get into prisons?

MR: You can’t have a woman who was attractive at all going into a prison because they would get cat calls and threats from the inmates because it made them too uncomfortable. I stood on the cusp of a super feminist group that did not believe in shaving your legs, that kind of thing and that’s not who I was and I was never subjected to peer pressure. So if you fit the stereotype of that, it might have been okay but you couldn’t dress professionally. When you watch legal shows today with Kristen Bransky, she’s dressed very professionally and she makes a good appearance but at the time, that wasn’t what they wanted. You either had to be the Margaret Mead variety and I got tired of having to fight that. You also got that type of reaction in history in grad school. There was a lot of pushback that was trying to enforce that you had to be a certain type of person to do that and it impacted what happened and the choices that I made. Even in grad school, there were some people who would make sexual harassment claims and I tend to think people are exaggerating and it turned out the guy did; things like that were not seen as necessarily negative back in the 80’s. I always marched to the beat of my own drum. For me it’s all about ethics and being true to myself; I’m looking for the perfect orange and students think I’m looking for the perfect paper and that’s not what I’m trying to do. Fortunately, I never took any loans, I either received scholarships or paid for it myself. Because I never wanted to become beholden because it gets tricky and I see a lot more of it now. I really have a problem with the I'll scratch your back then you scratch mine mentality. So I guess I've lived my life just so I could walk through life doing what I think is right. And it's difficult, especially for your generation because your generation has incredible loans. So you'll probably have to take jobs that you don't necessarily want to pay the loan off and that will inhibit your freedom in some cases. I wanted to work with battered women and kids that are abused but you don't get a lot of money from that so that was another factor in decision making. So I worry that your generation will have less freedom to have their perfect job. 

HCCLU: Do you think that impacts the way we, as students, act in our decision making?

MR: I think it depends on the person. But I think the money worry is becoming more of a black raven on your shoulder, always haunting you. So you can develop the need to always ask if I do this, how much will it cost me and I think that takes the fun out of learning for the sake of learning. It makes students, sometimes, resentful of core classes because they don't contribute to their major. But the core classes do make them a better, more complete person because it helps them relate to different groups across different countries. I think people are becoming more narrow in their interests because money has become more of pushback against pursuing what you love, whatever that may be.

HCCLU: Why do you love teaching?

MR: I just love the information. To me, it's a story and I love sharing it because the amount of trivia in my head doesn't have any place to be other than on a university campus. It's so much of who we are so that's the fun part. The students here, by and large, are so nice and friendly. A lot of our junior transfers are eager to learn and we're getting more students who are just eager to learn; they're here to learn not just to get a degree. So the students make it worthwhile.

HCCLU: Why do you like Cal Lutheran specifically? 

MR: When I came here, the ethics and the foundation of Cal Lutheran and the friendliness of it, are what I wanted to give to others because I think they're important. Cal Lutheran has changed in ways that I am finding more difficult. A lot of the faculty retired and it's sad.

HCCLU: Do you have a favorite quote or someone who inspires you?

MR: The person I would want to have lunch with is Aspasia, who was Pericles mistress. The quote that sums up me is Emily Dickinson, "if I can save one fainting robin... I will not have lived in vain." And so that's why I like advising so much; if I can make it easier for a student to get out on time, find the classes that will double dip and it may mean the student doesn't have to pay the money then I will do what I can to get that done. I love the teaching and the advising is another part I love. I like the time I get to talk to a student individually and find out more abut their lives.

HCCLU: Why do you want to have lunch with Aspasia?

MR: Aspasia is said to have written the funeral oration speech that was said at the end of the Peloponnesian War that Pericles gave and because she was the daughter of a man who left Athens, she was not considered a citizen of Athens. But she was super erudite, very smart, and she had all the salons that Socrates and everyone would go to. She's sort of an invisible person in history but we are knowing a little bit more about her and I love Ancient Greece so I would love to talk to her because I think so many women have stood behind great men and we don't acknowledge them and they need to be acknowledged.

HCCLU: Speaking of great women and in honor of Women's History Month, what would you hope for the females you see on campus, the females you advise, and the females you teach?

MR: I would hope, first of all, that they would be true to themselves and not try to fit into a stereotype of what they're supposed to act like. I think women need to be seen as equal people. When people only associate women with pink and sparkles and what have you, I find that offensive. It relegates us to a position where we're no more useful than we would have been any time in history. They don't even call us mothers anymore, we're called gestational carriers like we're some womb for rent which is such a medieval mindset. I think that the women's movement may find itself accidentally being ignored. If we're only talking about whether or not you can have a baby or whether or not we're "supposed to like sparkles" we ignore the fact that there is so much more to the female experience.

HCCLU: Has that always been frustrating for you, the pink sparkles ideation that women seem like they have to fulfill?

MR: I went to an all girls Catholic school and there have been tests that girls do better in all girl schools. They compete harder, they work harder, and they go on to be our Senators and whatnot. So competing with men was never something that bothered me. Now I've started visiting schools and I've noticed that the little girls, 5th and 6th graders, will talk to you. But by the time you get to 7th or 8th grade, those little girls will not raise their hands because a guy doesn't like a smart women. And I've asked in my classes, "would you date her?" and guys will say no. Then I'll ask, "well how smart of a girl do you want to date?" And they respond, "one who's smart enough to shop." And that annoys me. I don't want women to be stereotyped as something. A cheerleader doesn't have to be a daft women, people need to be given the credit of who they are and not have to fit these outlines society has set. I guess I try to influence against the outlines by telling my female students that they can get out there, they can be the smartest, they can be the best. They don't have to stand back.

HCCLU: What would you say to the people reading this article?

MR: You have to free yourself up from the ideas of what other people think of you. You have to just look in yourself and be honest with yourself. If you're going to lie to people, that's your business, but always be honest with yourself. Then be who you are and don't be afraid to be that person. I live my life by that, it's gotten me into the place I want to be and when I die, I will not have to say that I didn't do what I wanted. People have regrets, I don't have regrets. I went after what I wanted and I worked until I got to my goal.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Michaela Reaves