By Leticia Ceballos
Two things are guaranteed to happen during Laura Kalman’s lectures: her two or three water bottles, which she keeps close by, will inevitably be spilled on stage as she swishes her arms across in dramatic gestures. She will also have one curse word ready to use at the least expected moment, sending the class into hysterical laughter.
This small woman, in her vintage jean jacket and brown leather shoes, makes her history lectures as colorful as her rainbow shoelaces. Teaching history seems to be something that is as much fun for her as it is for her students.
“I love teaching 20th century United States history,” Kalman said. “I feel as though it is important that you all (students) have some sense of what it is.”
Kalman’s latest book is “The Long Reach of the Sixties: LBJ, Nixon, and the Making of the Contemporary Supreme Court.” She said this book took her about five years to complete, as have most of her others works. It focuses on the late 1960s and 1970s, when Presidents Johnson’s and Nixon’s tussles over the Supreme Court transformed the nomination and confirmation process for Justices.
Kalman was born and raised in Los Angeles by her mother, a schoolteacher, and her father, a lawyer. With a background in both academia and the legal field, Kalman has dedicated her life to what is a familiar realm for her.
At the age of 19 Kalman graduated from Pomona University with a B.A. in History, and then went on to law school at UCLA. Upon graduating from UCLA, Kalman spent time as a lawyer, before deciding to go back to school to become a teacher. She graduated from Yale with a PhD in American History, focusing on the 20th century.
“My mom was a teacher and my dad a lawyer. I like to think I am combining both of their careers,” Kalman said. “I do history of law and I teach. So I feel that I chose something that is tethered to them both.”
While the public may have lost out on a savvy lawyer, students have gained a passionate teacher. Kalman primarily teaches a series of courses dedicated to 20th century U.S. history, as well as one class on the legal history of the 20th century.
As a result of her law school education, Kalman brings a legal lens to her historical perspectives. This unique way of approaching history has been well received by students.
“When she told us that she was a lawyer I was impressed; it helped me understand her style as a teacher,” said Oscar Segovia, a History major and a transfer student. “She passionately argues her opinions like a lawyer and that makes lectures interesting.”
Kalman feels it is important to convey her personal opinions, in order to engage students and encourage them to do the same. She is not afraid to wade into the partisan minefield of political opinions either.
“It is impossible to remain impartial. I wear my politics on my sleeve, because that is the only way I know how to,” Kalman said. Students report that it is her candor that inspires them to flock to lectures.
“My favorite thing about Professor Kalman was how honest she was about her opinions, and the way she encouraged us to have our own opinions, and the way she encouraged us to have our own,” said Jonathan Alejandre, who graduated from UCSB in 2015 with a B.A. in History.
For now, Kalman says her love for teaching means she has no plan to retire and she is already working on some new research while teaching American history at UCSB.
Leticia Ceballos is a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in History.