To celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Kenyon, we’re profiling 50 Kenyon alumnae during the 2019-20 academic year. These 50 women, merely a small sample of the thousands of female graduates who have earned Kenyon degrees since 1969, will discuss their undergraduate experiences and how their education in Gambier prepared them for their lives and careers.
The 14th alumna in our series is Laura King ’86. An English and psychology major at Kenyon, King earned her doctorate at the University of California, Davis, and is now a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri.
How do you prioritize your life and get things done?
I am lucky because most of the things I have to get done are things I enjoy. Also, having a supportive wife (Lisa Jensen ’86) is more helpful than I can possibly describe.
Academia is demanding but also flexible. It means that any time I am thinking, I am “working” — so whether it is preparing for a dinner party or gardening or hanging out with my son, I am earning my keep if I am thinking. As a psychologist whose scholarship concerns happiness, well-being and especially the experience of meaning in life, I feel like I have to actually live a life to know what I am trying to understand.
Who at Kenyon inspired you?
All of my professors in the English department. They changed me forever, and are why I realized that I wanted to never leave the academic context — that I would always want to be in a place where good ideas are the most important thing. I would always want to be part of a place and of a process where you can have such a transformative impact on people.
If I had to pick specific people it would be [Professor Emeritus of English William] Klein and [the late Professor of English Gerrit] Roelofs. The level of attention Professor Klein gave to my writing and his capacity to “get” what I was trying to say made me feel like what I wrote mattered.
Professor Roelofs was practically a mythical figure for me. He was tough and intimidating but amazingly supportive and kind as well. (He let me borrow his personal Riverside Shakespeare when mine was stolen from the coat room at Peirce Hall. This was practically a religious thing! I got to copy notes from the hands of the master). I was among the last students fortunate enough to study “King Lear” with him and I treasure that experience — to see him stand on the table in front of Philomathesian Hall and embody Lear on the battlements — it doesn’t get any better than that.
Outside of English, [Professor Emeritus of Psychology] Michael Levine and [the late Professor of Psychology] Jon Williams were certainly my biggest inspirations. I teach my “Personality” class (that has about 300 people in it!) in a way that is very similar to Dr. Levine’s class (which had about 20 people in it!).
Dr. Williams, perhaps more than anyone, shaped my life and I am eternally grateful to him — he was the person who suggested to me that, although I was applying to graduate school in English lit, I was “really a scientist.” That nudge had a huge impact on me, obviously. To this day, students who work in my lab hear about Dr. Williams, because he is also the person who modeled incredible forbearance and magnanimity for me. I made some (big) mistakes when I was working with him, and he was always kind, compassionate and understanding. Whenever anyone makes a mistake in my lab, we all get to appreciate what he taught me.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
[Psychologist] Ed Diener (my intellectual grandfather) once told me, “You can probably do it all. But you cannot do it all at the same time.” In other words, opportunities knock more than once. Part of being confident in your abilities is knowing that you can say “no” sometimes to even great opportunities that come along. They will come again.
How has your worldview evolved since leaving Kenyon?
In my years of life since leaving Kenyon and being a professor at Southern Methodist University and the University of Missouri, I have come to recognize more how very different I was from other Kenyon students in the 1980s. I was a first-generation college student at a time when no one really talked about what that meant. I came from a blue collar background and my life was very different from other students’. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know and in some ways that was remarkably helpful. I always felt like the main character of a really interesting story.
I should note, too, that my experiences at Kenyon were not always easy or pleasant. I first encountered Kenyon at a college fair, and the person manning the booth that day told me that if I needed to ask about financial aid, I should not bother applying. During my first weeks at Kenyon, a fellow student informed me that I should never mention I was on scholarship — it looked bad. And I once had a student in a seminar tell me that my description of “The Canterbury Tales” sounded like the summary of an “ABC movie of the week.” But [the late Professor of English Philip] Church, the faculty member leading that seminar, did not share that view. So, I suppose that, back then, the faculty were perhaps not as aware of the kinds of issues we think and talk about today but they embodied the ideal that has inspired my professional life, especially in teaching. Good ideas are what matter in this place.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I wish I had been more fearless and entrepreneurial at Kenyon. Too often, I waited for opportunities rather than creating them for myself. I also wish I had not been so narrowly focused on academic achievement. Yes, I was in plays and dedicated a lot of time to rehearsals and so forth, but I once missed seeing and meeting Maya Angelou because I “had to study.” That was an error!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read about the previous woman in our series: Tricia Shimamura ’11