Kercher sparks growth in student research, history department


Photo creds: Kyra Slakes / The Advance-Titan — Prof. Kercher teaches the significance of researching local history.

Cory Sparks, Editor-in-Chief

Pay it forward.  That’s all Stephen Kercher wanted to do. But in the more than 20 years he has taught at UW Oshkosh, he has managed to do so much more.

Kercher, a UW Oshkosh history professor and director of the campus Office of Student Research and Creative Activity,  has been heavily invested in the campus’s history and student research departments since arriving at UWO in 2000.

He was named a 2022 Innovation Champion in August by WiSys after working closely with WiSys on its Quick Pitch Program the last few years.

The well-tenured instructor said he was thankful knowing his work to further student development has been recognized by a group of individuals who he has worked so closely with.

“It was incredibly gratifying to know that people with whom I’ve worked over the years on promoting research on this campus, and in the UW system, recognize that I have brought something to that effort,” Kercher said. “I have worked with people at WiSys, a number of people, over the last five or six years. They are great people, and I have been really lucky to be working with partners in Madison who are really good at what they do.”


Kercher before UWO

In his 22 years as a professor at Oshkosh, Kercher has accumulated numerous awards for his willingness to go above and beyond when it comes to research involvement and the growth of students working under his instruction. In 2020, he won six awards for his involvement in the traveling oral history project titled Lands We Share, which was done with the goal of informing others about land, food and farming aspects that caused numerous forms of division across the state of Wisconsin. 

Years before he was lecturing in halls filled with 100+ students at UWO, Kercher was searching for answers about the world around him. He said he wasn’t able to find those answers immediately, as high school history classes were mainly based on memorization and fact regurgitation. 

“When I was much younger and very hungry to understand how the world worked, I took history courses and they revealed to me a lot about how things got to be the way they are,” he said. “It was memorization of facts, dates and names and it didn’t come to life. It was boring; it was tedious.”

However, what first seemed like a pointless routine of fact recognition turned into a passion of Kercher’s when he was shown how the facets of history intertwine with everyday life.

Kercher said that when professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign began to shine a light on how important historic events are to learning about human life today, everything clicked and his passion for history was sparked.

“When I went to college, I took history classes … and had a couple of professors who were incredibly inspirational,” Kercher said. “The way they wove together many different ways of thinking about how the world got to be the way that it is. I found the answers that I was getting through my historical studies to be most satisfying and most intriguing.”

Kercher knew that he had a passion for learning about history after his experiences at Illinois, but he said it wasn’t until graduate school at Indiana University at Bloomington where he began teaching that he realized he loved helping other people solve the questions about the world that he had growing up. 

He also said he discovered his devotion for helping other students find the key to their curiosity and answers in graduate school.

“Students [come into] my office and say ‘I’m thinking about going to graduate school,’ and I say the same thing to every single student, and that is ‘Know that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get into the profession, that the odds of making it are sometimes stacked against you,’” he said. “Then I say ‘If you really love it and you really want to devote yourself to this, you’ve got to try,’ and I think that was my mindset.”

After graduating from Indiana with a Ph.D. in history and American studies in 2000, Kercher was hired as a history professor at UWO later that same year. 


Kercher’s current projects

Kercher currently has responsibilities as the director of student  research and creative activity, the director of the Black Thursday oral history project and the co-director for the Lands We Share oral history project and initiative. In the past, he was the acting chair in the department of history in 2006 and chair from 2013-19. 

Jennifer Depew, a Stanford law student and former student and researcher of Kercher’s, said Kercher  always made sure to encourage his researchers’ ideas while connecting them with the resources they needed to succeed.

“Even though we were undergraduates, he let us know that he respected our ideas and challenged us to refine them,” Depew said. “He also connected us with funding, as well as opportunities to share our research professionally through conferences and publications.”

Depew also said that she was inspired by the professor’s pure passion for the subject. She said she noticed his investment in the material, and his curiosity within the discipline inspired some of her current work.

“I am still inspired by his appreciation for historical storytelling, as well as his willingness to explore and learn about many different topics,” she said. “I try to practice both things in my own research.”

University Archivist Joshua Ranger has worked closely with Kercher on some of his projects, and he said that while the projects themselves leave an impact on the community, he has also been impressed by the students Kercher has taken under his wing.

“I’ve supported his and his students’ research for his Lands We Share and some other projects that have dealt with this region’s original indigenous populations,” Ranger said. “Beyond his work as a historian, Stephen has been a fierce defender of student research opportunities. “I have worked with only a small slice of these students, but I have been very impressed with their level of scholarship.”

The distinguished professor said he wanted to go above and beyond being a professor at a college because when he arrived at Oshkosh, the university didn’t offer independent research projects like the ones he was able to be a 

 part of in graduate school.

Kercher decided that he wanted to serve as a spark for undergraduate students by providing them with extensive research opportunities and the chance to be recognized for their work at various conventions.

“There are many universities like this one that don’t have graduate programs, but that allow us the satisfaction of pursuing research with undergraduate students,” Kercher said. “When I got here, I think two years after I started, I worked with two undergraduate history majors on the history of polio. I really started from that point on working with students on research.”

The Black Thursday Oral History Project Kercher has led since 2007 has also made its impact on campus, as it brings a historical event where African American students protested in the campus presidents’ office in 1968 before being expelled. 

Ranger said the hard work put into recovering information about Black Thursday has been extremely impactful and strongly connects to the interests and learnings of students today.

“The 40th [anniversary], particularly, was significant because he and Jeff Pickron worked hard to reconnect with participants and observers,” Ranger said. “They amassed an over 100-interview oral history collection and through that work we received several important collections of documents and papers. This material has been a boon to the archives and the material is used regularly by students to study the event.”

Kercher said that by focusing on a more local issue, it allows students to connect with the significance of history while understanding that it doesn’t just transpire in huge cities; it can happen anywhere. He also said that by bringing this event to the forefront of the university’s attention in 2007, it instilled an eagerness in many to continue to learn about the different moving parts and context of that historical Thursday.

“I think it’s really important when teaching history, which is very remote for a lot of young people to begin with, to help them understand that history is not just something that happens just in New York City, Los Angeles, Paris or Tokyo,” he said. “Since 2008, there has been a constant appetite to make that story and its lessons widely known on campus.”

Ranger said he has taken notice of Kercher’s involvement with student research and his emphasis of highlighting local events that have impacted life in Oshkosh today. 

He also added that students who want to go into the profession and are passionate about the subject would be doing themselves a favor by taking a class with or being involved in a project run by the 2022 Innovation Champion.

“I would say if you want to do history instead of just study history, take an upper-level class or a research project with Stephen Kercher,” Ranger said. 

When students do take classes with him, Kercher said his goal is to help them understand the importance of history and how it impacts everyday life. He added that by becoming educated in this discipline, students can understand more pressing conversations happening around them.

“If it’s one thing, I would hope that [students] see that history matters, that it’s not a dead subject of a remote past that has no bearing on who you are and how you live,” Kercher said. “I would hope that a student can be somewhat transformed in a way that I was. So many important, divisive, controversial, politically charged things that we are forced to think about on a daily basis needs the context that history can provide. I think it’s a great tool.”