Sometimes students look at their professors and wonder if they can really relate to what its like to be a student in today’s world. In a class taught by Professor Paul Kramer of the History Department, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Class of 1991, Kramer never believed he would return to Hopkins on the “other side.” But seven years later in 1998, after receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton, Kramer finally received his own office in Gilman, the same building where he had worked in the coffee shop as an undergrad. From coffee boy to faculty member, Kramer has certainly come full circle.
“When I came back for the first few days of work, everything was really strange,” Kramer recalled. “I was feeling anxious and excited, just like at any job, but I also had a rush of all these memories and nostalgia.”
Kramer was born in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. and grew up in Silver Springs, Md. During high school and the beginning of college, Kramer was very interested in science, and almost certain that he wanted to be a doctor .
“I was informally a pre-med, just like everybody else,” he said.
While at Hopkins, Kramer was a staff reporter for the News-Letter and acted as a tutor for students in East Baltimore. He also enjoyed exploring the city of Baltimore, which he continues to do even today. But as he started taking classes, something just wasn’t clicking. His science classes were not fulfilling him the same way as did the humanities, in which he eventually majored.
“I had a lot of great courses and teachers that inspired me,” said Kramer, specifically mentioning Professors Richard Macksey, James Goodyear and Harry Marks, all still on the faculty at Hopkins.
“Professor Macksey was one of my advisors. It was him more than anyone else who really got me interested in the humanities,” said Kramer.
Humanities encompasses a huge spectrum of departments, and during his undergraduate years Kramer took courses in English, Public Health, and of course, History.
“The variety gave a restless quality to my undergraduate education, which made it very rich, but also made looking for a career challenging,” he said.
At parties, Kramer said, people thought he was crazy when they found out he was a Humanities major.
As graduation approached Kramer had little idea of where he would go next. With both a bachelor’s and master’s in the humanities, he considered journalism and writing, but eventually decided on graduate school, heading towards a life in academia.
“I was very torn, and I wasn’t even sure what field I wanted to go into in graduate school. I was literally sitting over the applications deciding which box to check for my field, ” he said. Eventually, however, he settled on History, which he felt had inspired the best work in him.
“Grad school is a long haul, and I figured you better pick something you really like.”
At first, Kramer says, his diverse education was a hindrance as he became retrained specifically as a historian. But later on into his studies and beyond, he feels that his wide base was ultimately a great benefit to his research as he focused in on cultural history.
“What I liked about cultural history, as it developed in the ?80s and ?90s, was that it was picking up on a lot of different methodologies like literary criticism. It already was a synthetic field,” he said.
After receiving his Ph.D., Kramer landed in the academic job market and applied to places all over the country. He was pleasantly surprised when he received an offer from Johns Hopkins, though he never figured he would return to his alma mater as a professor.
“I really like the freedom at Hopkins to pursue your own research agenda,” he said. Currently, Kramer is revising his dissertation thesis into a book on the subject of the U.S. occupancy of the Philippines at the turn of the century. His principle areas of interest are modern U.S. history and trans-national history which examines the United States from an international perspective.
Still, the part of the job that brings the most out of him and appeals to him most is the teaching.
“I really love teaching and a lot of my energy comes from teaching. When you see your students making connections with the material and see them refer to a concept that they might have been struggling with at the beginning of a course, that is incredibly fulfilling,” he said.
While at Hopkins, Kramer has been very involved in political and social activism, involving himself in the fight for a living wage and the movement against war in Iraq. Next semester he will be teaching a class entitled “Comparing Racial Formations.” Even though Kramer is currently on academic leave, he says he really misses the student interaction, though he manages to continue advising several seniors with their theses.
For Hopkins students not sure about their major or eventual career path, Kramer encourages them not to be forced into a quick decision.
“Resist some of the professional pressure and really use the university experience to explore and indulge your curiosity in the most reckless way possible.”