Karla Erickson

For this week’s campus celebrity I was given the honor of interviewing the one and only Karla Erickson. Currently an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Sociology department here at Grinnell, it’s safe to say that Karla is a busy woman. Not only has she recently taken on a new position as Associate Dean, which officially begins during the 2015-2016 academic year, she is also a published author, travelling enthusiast, and the mother to a three year old little boy who is bursting with energy. Earning her undergrad degree at Illinois Wesleyan University, her Masters of Liberal studies at Hamline University and her PHD in American studies and Feminist studies, Erickson is a prime example of what can be accomplished with a lot of hard work as well as the fact that while a college education is crucial, your major doesn’t dictate your life. Interested in learning more about Karla? Keep scrolling to read through the full interview!

Q: What do you feel your role is as a Grinnellian?

A: I feel like one of the things I’ve enjoyed about working at Grinnell is that I believe in the mission of the institution, and so I think that my role at Grinnell is to be committed to that mission of preparing students for the common good using my skills and gifts, and I think that that’s what all of our roles are and I feel really lucky that I’m in a discipline like sociology that allows me to do that in a way that makes use of a lot of my kind of capacities.

Q: As a person who has a good amount of power within their field, where do you see this department going?

A: Well, I’m really excited about where the department is right now, because we just hired two new tenure tracks last year and then another tenure track this year, so it’s fun for me to kinda be in the middle of my career and see how the department has evolved. I think one of the directions our department specifically is going is towards public intellectualism, I think one of the answers to the tension between higher education and culture at large is to make sure that academics who are experts use their expertise to serve the common good too and are in communication with wider audiences and one of the things I think connects the people with the Sociology faculty is that we’re really committed to that and part of why we are at Grinnell is to be a t a school where that matters.

Q: Outside of Grinnell, you are a published author. Do you have any other projects coming up?

A: Yeah, I have a project that I’m really excited about, well, two projects. One is for faculty and it’s called “mid-career love”, and it’s about helping people at the middle of their career find their path and do their best work, and so that one is like a development project that’s more like organizationally based and I’m working with some people at Kenyon, and DePauw on that project.

The other project is more applicable to students, and that’s called “Building Selves”, and it’s about how young people navigate notions of success in a post-recession economy, and so I’ve had seven MAP students to date, and I’ve started interviewing alumni and learning a lot about how they think about what counts as success and how they make choices and you know, just like, even navigating the often touted line that downward mobility is going to be pretty common in your generation.

Q: You were recently promoted to a new position. First off, congratulations!! Second, could you tell us a bit about the position, what it entails, and to kind of follow this train of thought, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: Thanks! So, the position is really interesting for me because when you’re an academic you’re kind of an entrepreneur and you get to “run your own shop” as it were and now I’m joining Dean Latham’s team and there will be four associate deans, one of whom is the chief diversity officer Lakesia Johnson, and then three other associate deans. How this works is you kind of reshuffle portfolios, and so I don’t know explicitly what I’ll be working on until we make those decisions this summer. What I’m excited about for me is that I am somebody who does my best work when I’m being challenged, so it’s good for me to have a new role. But also, because I’m someone who kind of geeks out about organizational dynamics and interaction, I’m just interested in being able to operate at an associate dean level and to think about how I can apply some of what I know in that role. The hard part for me of course is leaving the classroom, and my advising relationships. That is something I weighed pretty heavily, but I’m really delighted because I get to stay a Posse mentor. So I’m going to stay connected to my 10 incoming DC Posse students, and that will help ground me.

When I started being an academic I didn’t even want to be a researcher. I was like, “Okay, I’ll publish just so you can give me a classroom”, but then I got into the research and I liked it, and so for the next 10 years, I have this book that I want to write about building selves and I have some smaller projects that I wanna do. Then I kinda want to decide what the chapter after that is, as my son gets older because right now he’s a little guy.

Q: We’ve talked a little about the future, now can you tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today?

A: Well, there’s been a lot of great inputs. I’ve had a lot of great mentors here, and then my graduate advisor is some who is a real role model of being powerful and principled at the same time. More recently, the college has invested in me considerably by sending me to this women’s leadership experience over a whole year period and then both David Cook-Martin and I work for a program called “The National Center for Diversity and Development”; we went through that program and we now mentor people to go through that program. That’s helped me get really clear about my work, because I help other people get clear about theirs.

Q: Final question, just to lighten up the mood a bit, what are some things people don’t know about you. Who is Karla outside of Grinnell?

A: So, no, you don’t want to know what I listen to. My musical tastes are embarrassing, and my husband would back that up. I do love movies and I love yoga. Yoga’s kinda important for my wellness, and I just like to be outside with my husband and son. We have a garden in the summertime and have friends over a lot, that kind of thing. We do some house projects, but we mainly chase that child around. I’m also really committed to travelling, my son is already quite the traveler. Most of my family is four hours away, so I spend a fair amount of time touching back in Minneapolis. So outside of work I’m kinda like a quiet person, but I feel very lucky to get to do work that wakes me up in the morning but sometimes that comes at the cost of having a lot of hobbies, for example being completely out of it on the music scene.

Q: Okay, final question for real this time... Five things you can’t live without..GO!


  1. Yoga
  2. Good Ice Cream – Something with caramel and fudge
  3. A Toni Morrison book – “Jazz” is a personal Favorite
  4. Good Company
  5. Music…just not me picking it.