Q&A with UW Professor Dr. Melissa Morris

There are some amazing people on campus and professors that do a lot for their students. As a student, I love when I have a professor that is engaging, yet can still have fun with their class. One professor I had that particularly stood out was Dr. Melissa Morris. I wanted to interview her because she is only 36, has a 13-month old daughter, is married, and has a PhD. Cool, right?  

Q: What’s your name, where are you originally from, and how old are you?

A: My name is Melissa Morris, I’m from Dayton, Ohio, and I am 36

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Q: Where did you attend undergraduate and graduate school and eventually your PhD and what was it like?

A: My undergraduate is Miami University which is in Oxford, Ohio. It’s a public university, it’s maybe 15,000. They had a really great History department so that is part of why I became a History major and I did a Masters degree there too. And then I did my PhD at Columbia University in New York City.

 

Q: So your undergraduate, graduate, and PhD was in history?

A: Yes. I also double majored in mass communications also when was an undergrad, so I did both. I had an idea for a little while that I wanted to do history TV shows, but then I realized you can’t just be like, “Hi, I’m here to start a History TV show,” you have to be famous already. We’ll see, maybe one day they’ll come calling for me. PBS will be like “Hey, we’re here!”

Q: What’s your current position?  How long have you been in this position?  Can you give me a brief overview of what it is you do in your work?

A: I’m an assistant professor in the Department of History and American Studies at the University of Wyoming! This is my first year, so I started in August and now we’re in November! So just a few months in. I teach and research mostly Early America in the 17th/18th century. For teaching, I teach US History up to 1865, so to the end of the Civil War. I also teach other classes on Colonial America, American Revolution, America in a global context in the colonial period. My own research is on 17th century, I work on failed colonies, I work on agricultural knowledge. Part of what I’m interested in is how the Spanish and the Portuguese were like really powerful initially, so I’m really interested in how the other powers kind of worm their way in and establish colonies.  

Q: What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your work?

A: Some of the things I would like to accomplish... well, one of the things is to me, I think the 17th century in the Early Modern Period is really fascinating because there are people that in some ways are like us, we can kind of sympathize with some of their goals. They’re not totally removed, but then their world was really different from ours too. So I hope that students will become interested in that period because I think it’s really important to how we got to where we are today. I hope people will find history fascinating because it’s really like a bunch of human stories. Another thing I try and do is highlight some aspects of the history that are lesser known, so like experiences of enslaved people and Native people are important to my work.  

Q:What are you most excited or passionate about?

A: I really love arts. I went to an arts high school. So even though I didn’t become an artist myself, I really love going to concerts and I really love going to art museums. I’m not an artist myself professionally, but I love experiencing that kind of stuff so I find that really interesting. Of course I’m passionate about History. I really like going outdoors like hiking and stuff like that too.

Q: How many kids do you have and how old are they?

A: I have one daughter. Her name is Isadora and she is 13 months old. So just a little over 1.

Q: How has being a mother and wife impacted your career?

A: For me, I’ve been really lucky that I was still able to get basically my dream job, even though when I came here for my interview she was 4 months old. I’ve been fortunate that way. When I was in grad school, if I had a student email me at 10 p.m., I’d probably be up. I could deal with that stuff and I could devote all my time to thinking about research and applying for grants and things like that. I think when you have a kid, it does take away from that, but I think it also helps you be really disciplined because you’re like, “okay, right, I have to stay focused,” whereas sometimes when I was a student I would be like, “okay, I’m gonna check Facebook.” I think it helps makes you be more focused too. Plus, she’s really fun. Makes my life a lot more better in a lot of ways. It can be challenging for a lot of women to balance having kids and having a career and trying to do all those things together.  

Q: Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today?  Tell me about them.

A: I guess for me, just going to college in the first place was the big life changing experience that made me realize, because neither of my parents had gone to college, so the only people I knew really who went to college were my teachers in school. They all did the same thing right, cause they were all teachers. I knew I liked history so I thought well maybe I could do that, maybe I could be a teacher like they are. But then when I got to college, I had really great History professors and it made me think more about other things I could do. So really for me just going to college and being able to benefit from a state university that was affordable was totally life changing for me and having great professors kind of put me on the historian’s path for better or worse.   

Q: What is some advice you would give to someone currently going through college and wanting to attend grad school or get their PhD?

A: I think if someone is in college now, and they’re thinking about getting their PhD, part of my advice would be to take some time off. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone, but I think sometimes if you go all the way through, people can get a little bit burnt out. I think if you have some experience, if you were in history, if you wanted to go to get a PhD for history, maybe try and work in a library or museum. I think having a little bit of experience working with the public or teaching or something will kind of help make you more focused when you go to grad school. I would also say to keep your options open. A lot of professors, they think, well, of course being a professor is a great job but there’s lots of other things you could do with a History degree that aren’t necessarily becoming a professor that are really cool that impact lots of peoples lives. So I would say keep your options open and maybe take a little bit of time off and think about what it is you really want to do.

Q: What’s one of the most important skills you learn from being in your line of work?

A: I think the most important skill you learn in History is the idea that, sometimes students hear History and think like, “Oh, gosh. People in the past did all this bad stuff”. A lot of the focus is on the horrific wars or all the bad things that happen, not entirely but there’s lots of bad guys in history. I think that the interesting thing for me about history is actually more positive. Like the idea that societies can change for the better too. So I think it’s important for students to know that if you don’t like the way things are in the world, there’s examples of heroes throughout history too. There’s abolitionists and people who fought for women’s rights and there’s those hopeful stories in history too. I think society can be better is an important lesson.

Q: What are you looking forward to in the future? Both as a professor and a wife/mother.

A: In the future, one of the things I’m looking forward to, is I always look forward to teaching new courses and if I’ve taught a course before, tweaking it to make it better all the time. I am in the next few years working on a book so hopefully that will come out in the next few years or so. Always with my daughter, I’m excited to see how she grows and develops. We’re excited to be here in Wyoming as a family because it’s a great place for families and a nice place for kids. We’re doing a baby ski lesson this weekend so we’re excited to do that kind of stuff around here too and be involved in the kind of activities you can do in Wyoming.

 

*Interview was edited for clarity.