|When Qualls's friend, American Studies Professor Cotten Seiler, left for a Fulbright in Hong Kong, Qualls offered to baby-sit Seiler's electric bass.
In a neat, book-lined office on the third floor of Denny Hall, a historian eats his lunch. Periodically taking a forkful of a green salad from a plastic container that sits on a lightly cluttered desk, he consults quickly with a student who’s applying for a grad program and chats about the best practices in history research—all at the same time. He never misses a beat.
Karl Qualls is associate professor of history and chair of the department and a contributing faculty member in Russian-area and Judaic studies. He’s a specialist in the area of Stalin and post-World War II Russia.
Qualls says that cutting-edge research in history means finding new material, like primary sources, and asking questions that have not been previously posed. For example, he recently “found” about 2,000 files on Spanish orphans, who were brought to the then-Soviet Union as a result of the Spanish Civil War.
While another Russian historian has reported in a “very mechanistic” way on the little-known files, Qualls will bring a new perspective to the material, using the facts and figures of the youngsters’ lives in Soviet orphanages to create a social and cultural analysis.
“History is an art, not a science. It’s about interpretation,” he says.
In his quest for this new story, Qualls, who is fluent, by varying degrees, in Russian, German and Ukrainian, plans to teach himself Spanish and make the orphans the topic of his second book. His first tome, based on his dissertation and being considered for publication by Cornell University Press, explores the reconstruction of Sevastopol, an important Soviet port city that was devastated by World War II.
Qualls says that at a large research university, he would have continued to study the topic he began as a doctoral student. But Dickinson has given him freedom to investigate pathways to which he has been drawn by his natural curiosity.
His wanderings have been supported and even encouraged by the college. When he came to Dickinson in 2000 as a visiting professor, Qualls was expected to teach a course in modern Italian history—not his area of expertise. But he taught himself what he needed to know, and it led him to his latest scholarship.
In studying Italy, he investigated another European mid-century dictator, Benito Mussolini, which led him to study the Spanish dictator, Franco, which led him to the Spanish orphans.
During his second year in Carlisle, when he became a tenure-track professor, Qualls attended a summer workshop on the Holocaust with Omer Bartov, a leading expert. This opportunity led to a new perspective on the German history he teaches.
As a contributing faculty member in Judaic studies, Qualls is part of a team that includes Andrea Lieber, the Sophia Ava Asbell Chair of Judaic Studies and associate professor of religion. One of the group’s aims is to add studies in secular Judaism to the curriculum. Using a $150,000 Posen Foundation grant, faculty members are exploring Jewish Secular Studies: Enriching the Jewish Studies Program at Dickinson College.
While Qualls is a historian at heart, “Faculty are part of what helps shape the person students will become, not only in their intellectual life, but also their ethics, their character.”
His teaching and enthusiasm has connected with students: he received the 2004 Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching, given annually by the senior class to one faculty member. The award wasn’t given because Qualls is a pushover in the classroom, though.
“I have high expectations. If you asked my students about me they would tell you how I harangue them about writing,” he says with a laugh. He views his job, in part, as a mission to take students with abilities who may not have been forced to achieve, previously, and give them the push they need to meet all the potential that he sees.
“We are their families for four years. We help students take healthy risks from an intellectual and physical standpoint. If you don’t take risks, you don’t grow.”
He says that the college expects faculty members to take intellectual risks, too, and has been very supportive of his forays down different routes. For Qualls, the next growth spurt is already in motion. Despite short stubby fingers, he is teaching himself to play the electric bass—a treat he gave himself for earning tenure.