The University of Massachusetts Amherst


Karen List didn’t know it was a dress rehearsal for retirement when she packed up her office in Bartlett Hall in 2014. Back then, UMass Journalism was moving up in the world and across campus. List, who’ll officially retire at the end of the semester after 35 years, served as the department chair from 2006-2014 and helped lead the major from a subset of the communications department to its own department, a leadership tenure capped by the move from Bartlett Hall to the new, state-of-the-art Integrative Learning Center.

That meant relocating her office and all the things in it. Her teaching awards – List’s considerable collection includes the National Freedom Forum Teaching Award, UMass Distinguished Teaching Award— naturally migrated.

But more than that, it was the little things, items accumulated over the years. All the mementos, gifts and notes from former students — physical representations of how much UMass has become home.

There were books, oh so many books, posters and photos. There were mini-flamingos, the figurines of Glenda the Good Witch, who like List was tall, blonde and looked both powerful and approachable. Both were favorite gifts for her students to give and List to receive. They were all welcoming indications for anyone visiting her office for the first time that they were visiting not just a professor, but a Beatles fan and a Dunkin’ drinker and a proud mother of two daughters.

List wanted to know her students as people, not just paper writers and test takers.

“I know something about each one of them and I work to make them comfortable enough to share their thoughts, to learn something, to open up, to be less certain, to question everything,” she said.

Her quirky office indicated that was a two-way street.

But the true treasures in the nostalgia cargo amassed over 35 years were what was in the drawers and file cabinets.

“What really was fun was going through folders and files. I found old stories that I kept. Notes I’d taken. Newspaper stories and photos,” List said. “It was really an archival exercise. … In my desk drawer, I have an essay that (former student) Jill Carroll wrote about what it meant to be a reporter. Those are the kind of things I keep. I have files feet thick of notes students have written to me. It takes you on a little trip back through where you’ve been as a teacher. So there’s a lot of nostalgia. There’s a lot of happiness. It’s virtually all happy.”

That teaching trip began at Penn State while getting two Master’s degrees and at Wisconsin where she earned her Ph.D. List taught at Missouri, her alma mater, for seven years and was given early tenure. She was on a fast track there and was even offered an associate dean position.

But she was lecturing to classes so big that Brad Pitt — yes that Brad Pitt — was one of her students and she doesn’t remember him.

But too much of the actual hands-on teaching, grading and student interaction she craved was being done by teaching assistants. 

UMass presented an opportunity for smaller classes and more personal impact. 

So List headed to Amherst. In the fall of 1988, she stood in front of about 90 students in her history of journalism class and took the first steps toward becoming an institution in the department, teaching History of Journalism, Journalism and Law and Journalism Ethics.

“I really wanted to work with undergraduate students and this was a great place to do it,” she said. 

Other than admittedly softening a little as a grader over the years, the professor walking out at the end of this semester isn’t much different than the one who arrived all those years ago.

She’s still passionate about the First Amendment, still holds her classes to high standards and still loves journalism and her students, a devotion that’s been reciprocated for decades.

“List’s enormous popularity as a teacher is deeply rooted. As a teacher and as a person she is devoid of affectation,” wrote Howard Ziff when supporting List for the National Freedom Forum award. “What characterizes her teaching and gives it both popularity and excellence, qualities that do not necessarily go together, is respect—respect for her students and respect for her discipline.”

Like an athlete famous enough to be recognized by just one name (appropriate because she was an All-State basketball player in Iowa), among UMass journalism students and alums she’s known simply as “Karen.” No more description is required.

Despite her Ph.D., nobody calls her or really ever called her Dr. List. Her students in the late 1980s and the current counterparts had similar experiences in her classroom.

“The person I was then is the same person I am now,” she said. “My enthusiasm for teaching has not waned at all.”

Through changes in mediums, technology and laws, journalism has evolved dramatically during her career. But the students who want to pursue journalism are similar at their core and their enthusiasm adds to List’s.

“They’re the same,” she said. “It’s still a really exciting time to go into journalism because they can do so many different things that weren’t possible before.”

List will be packing again soon. On May 17, she’ll teach law in the morning and ethics in the afternoon and end the afternoon proud of what and who she’s taught over 25 years at UMass.

“I consider it a privilege to have been able to share my passion for the role of journalism in a democracy with thousands of students over the years through teaching the field’s history, law and ethics,” she said. “All of my classes have been about what the First Amendment means in our democracy and the vigilance required to preserve it.”

Then the Glenda figurines, the books and all the memories will be boxed and moved home, where her office space is smaller and her bookshelves are already full. The culling will be much more difficult.

“I’m hoping it won’t be quite so hard. I still have a lot of files,” she said. “I don’t want to get rid of those things.”

Retirement will include travel. She and her husband Jay will embark on a trip through Europe that they originally planned before the pandemic.

But upon returning home, journalism will still be very much a part of her life. She’ll still be a voracious consumer of journalism, most notably of her daughter Madeline List, who covers courts for McClatchy in Miami Beach.

Karen List plans to keep raising money for the Emily List Fund for Performing Arts Therapy, which raises money in memory of her daughter who died of cancer in 2010 at age 26. It honors Emily List’s love of all performing arts. According to, it “supports theater, dance and music projects aimed at helping the sick and disadvantaged in the interest of making their lives better and brighter through the performing arts.”

List hasn’t ruled out teaching a class or two either and not just because she’s spent decades neglecting her husband’s suggestions to find a hobby. 

But she’s not thinking that far ahead yet. She’s still amending class plans and test questions to reflect the news as it happens right down to her final days. These might be her last students as a fulltime professor, but whatever fanfare the end of a year brings is about their future, not her retirement.

“I end every class with what I hope is a pretty inspirational crescendo. I don’t feel any need to have a special speech or whatever for my last classes,” List said. “I intend to do it like I’ve always done it. What I have to say about journalism and what they’re going to be doing is the most important thing I can say anyway. So that’s my plan. Be my regular me in my regular class to the very end.”

This article first appeared on the UMass Amherst Department of Journalism website

Announcement posted in Announcements for Faculty , Staff , Current students , Alumni , and Public