After 32 years at UNM-Los Alamos, history instructor Melanie Shirk is still excited to begin a new semester. Shirk recently received a certificate for teaching a full 90 semesters at UNM-LA.
“There are always new things ─ new students with new perspectives,” Shirk said. “One of the rewarding things about teaching at UNM-LA is having students from so many countries. When they take U.S. History, they bring a real interest. It makes the native-born students appreciate their own history and see it in a new way.”
Monica Misra from India took a class from Shirk. She commended her at a recent Rotary Club meeting saying Shirk is an incredible teacher who made learning U.S. history such a wonderful experience – it made her want to become an American citizen.
Shirk has been teaching at UNM-LA since the branch opened its doors in 1980. She was a visiting scholar in history at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque at the time. Shirk completed her Ph.D. in history at the University of Kansas.
Although her specialty was medieval history, Shirk found herself teaching Western Civilization, U.S. History and New Mexico History at UNM-LA, as well as the Middle Ages.
She enjoys teaching Western Civilization because her students find it so exotic, Shirk said.
“It’s fun to see students have a light bulb go on when they learn the truth about something they’ve only heard about through popular media,” she said. “History is usually more interesting than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up!”
Shirk enjoys traditional classroom teaching and appreciates the small class size at UNM-LA. Education is more than just learning facts. It’s about learning to listen to other people and to respect other people’s opinions. Learning history teaches you to look into things before you make a judgment, she said.
Shirk strives to teach her students to sort out and compile information and to present it in a readable format.
“I give take-home exams because you can always look up the facts, but students need to be able to make the facts into a coherent essay,” she said.
One of the reasons Shirk loves teaching at UNM-LA is the interesting mix of students, she said.
“I love having older students who are choosing to be in class because they are interested. We have traditional students, adults, retired people and foreign born students, and they learn a lot from each other and I learn from them as well.”
Recently, Shirk has “gone high tech,” by using PowerPoint presentations in her classes. “These days you need much more expensive equipment to take advantage of modern technology, but it can contribute a lot to the student’s experience,” she said.
“UNM-LA is such an incredible bargain for students,” she said. “You are getting taught by instructors with Ph.Ds. at the undergraduate level in a small-class setting for a fraction of the price of attending a small private college. Our faculty is why we have the highest graduation rate by far of any branch campus.”
Shirk said she is proud to be a member of the UNM-LA faculty.
“UNM-LA contributes so many worthwhile, positive things to the community,” she said. “It’s a resource for so many kinds of students. I’m grateful and happy to be a part of it.”
Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories about the people behind the scenes at UNM-LA. The UNM-LA special all mail election is Sept. 17.