Laura Harris Hales

Graduating with her master’s degree in history, student plunges into the world of research

By

Rachel Bunning

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Laura Harris Hales grew up on a dairy farm in Idaho with her large family who all shared a love for knowledge. Her memories consist of running barefoot in the grass, lively discussions at the dinner table and living in the country.

“Think Laura Ingalls Wilder and ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” said Hales. “Despite our closeness to the land, a college education was in the milk we drank. My dad worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a soil physiologist and my mother received her master’s degree in English as a nontraditional student. She was emphatic that her daughters graduate from college before pursuing any other endeavors. She did not need to coax, though, the desire to learn fills my soul and never seems to satiate.”

Hales is graduating with her master’s degree in history with a focus on North American history from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. She stumbled into the world of history unexpectedly about seven years ago and hasn’t turned back.

“I married an amateur historian who has written extensively on the history of religious groups that broke off of the Latter-day Saint Church after they ceased endorsing polygamy as well as on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy,” said Hales. “Shortly after we married, we collaborated on a condensed version of his three-volume tome on Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages.”

This led her to opportunities for speaking engagements, memberships in historical associations and academic conference presentations. A few years later, she invited some respected Latter-day Saint history scholars to collaborate on an anthology of Mormon history topics.

From her research in polygamy, she started a podcast called LDS Perspective Podcast.

“After a presentation in Sweden on Joseph Smith’s plural wives, one of the male audience members bemoaned the fact that there was practically no material on the topic available in his country,” said Hales. “By that time, my husband and I had put together a website that provided essays in written and audio formats. He asked me if I would be able to do the same for other Mormon history topics. When I began my podcast, there was nothing in that medium for those looking for nondevotional material on Latter-day Saint history.”

“The confidence gained while working on my anthology gave me the nerve to seek my first grant to begin producing my show and to get people to listen to it. The response has been more than I ever could have imagined.”

We caught up with Hales to ask her about her time as a graduate student. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I attended an academic conference about three years ago and realized that I only had limited options in the field without a history degree. I sold the prospect quite easily to myself. Studying the past has always been an avocation. As a teenager, I would drive to the library, retrieve the bound vintage newspapers from the shelves, and gingerly turn the yellowing pages as I read about life in the 1900s. My undergraduate and first master’s degree diverted me from those inclinations, but my public history work steered me back to a familiar path.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: It was a bit surprising to learn the extent to which scholars dispute history. It distills down to a matter of perspective. We do not always know the entire story, so ongoing research adds little brush strokes to a giant portrait of the past.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I had started an on-site program at a local university and the faculty and students did not quite know what to do with me as a nontraditional student. The staff at ASU never made an issue out of my age or questioned my ability to make valuable contributions to the field of history. In addition, I appreciate sharing discussions with cohorts who have a bit of professional experience.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Catherine O’Donnell taught me some great writing tips. First, she suggested that a light touch is best when critiquing authors’ works, such as in book reviews. Second, she reinforced the importance of simplicity in providing clarity instead of crowding sentences with clauses. Both pieces of advice have improved my writing.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Subscribe to Grammarly Plus. It is worth the money. It catches common grammatical errors, and it gives excellent advice on rewording awkward sentences. A history degree is essentially a writing degree with fantastic subject material.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In the immediate future, I plan on polishing a couple of papers for publishing in academic journals. I will also volunteer on a research project headed by several respected historians. I am hoping the internship will open some doors for me.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Curing COVID-19 would be fabulous.