Blonde straight hair, a black leather jacket, a pair of tight jeans with a vintage belt, and a pair of UGG boots. This description might fit an average Mt. SAC student but in this case, it’s English professor Tamara Karn. Karn, who some call “Tammy,” looks far younger than her age of 41. She loves reading literature, walking her dogs on the beach, traveling the world, doing yoga, going to the gym, and puddle boarding.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she moved to San Juan Capistrano, California in 1972. Karn describes herself as independent when she was young.
“I was about 2-and-half-years old, and I was crawling off on my own into a lake,” Karn said. “Fortunately, my clothes were caught by the barbed wire so I didn’t fall into the lake.” Karn has always loved animals and grew up riding horses.
“I started riding horses even before I could walk.”
She became the national champion of horse riding in 1996.
Those who know Karn know that she is a dog lover. Kristina Allende, department chair of English, said her relationship with dogs is a special one.
“She loves her dogs more than anyone else in the world,” Allende said. “We all love our dogs, but with Tammy and her dogs, it’s a different relationship.”
Karn has two English Labradors. Theloneous Monk, named after the famous American jazz musician, is 10, and according to Karn, has a mellow personality. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about Monk. “Monk is calculating, goofy, and he is the best swimmer.”
Her second dog, Dartha, is the total opposite of Monk.
“When I first got him I had to stop my car three times,” Karn said. “He has a curly tail, high pitched voice, loves chasing his tennis ball, and is the worst swimmer on the planet.” Karn was raised in an education- orientated family. Both of her parents went to Cornell University. Her father, Michael Berns, is a famous microbiologist and head of the Beckman Laser Institute at University of California Irvine. Her mother, Roberta Berns, is working on her ninth edition of a textbook on child development which will be out any day. Her brother graduated from Princeton University. With all these family legacies, growing up, Karn was under a lot of pressure to do well in school, but in a positive way. “My parents definitely gave me a loving, nurturing, and supporting environment,” Karn said. “But at the same time there is the atmosphere of anxiety and stress because my parents are so accomplished.” Karn chose to attend UCLA because she wanted to stay in California.
“I was sprung to the beach and wanted to experience the city life,” Karn said. Karn’s interest in teaching English did not occur overnight.
“I was first an anthropology major, then psychology major, but all took me to English.” It was during Karn’s third year at UCLA that she realized she liked hearing stories and learning about how the human mind works through narratives and human relationships. “The meaning of existence, you can learn about that through chants and literatures.” After graduating UCLA, Karn attended the University of California at Irvine for her master’s degree. During that time, she became a teacher’s assistant for an English literature class but struggled with her own writing, which led her to discover that her passion is to help others with writing. “Writing papers was extremely painful for me, so I figured out how to help others write through my struggle in writing.”
She added, “I think about the way I learn and try to tie it to help my students to develop their own writing, especially essay structure and critical analysis.”
Karn also enjoys talking about literature in a group dynamic or on an interpersonal level. “Sometimes writing on your own can be very alienating, but when I got to have the experience of being in a classroom and sharing a piece of literature and talking about the writing process, and when it became more collaborative and social, that I tended to discover what I have a passion for.” After getting her master’s degree, Karn taught at Chapman University and Orange Coast College. In 2000, she began teaching at Mt. SAC.
“I love the students here, and my colleagues are warm, amazing, and supportive. This is like my second family.” Allende described her colleague as, “fun, loving, and someone who adds excitement to any situation.”
Kathrin Palma, 20, nursing major, had Karn in spring 2010 for a linked-course of English 68 and 1A provided by the Bridge Program on campus. “Ms. Karn is very strict with the essay structure, and she tells you exactly what she wants for the essays,” Palma said. “Even though I struggled a lot in her class, it helped me become a better writer. Right now I am taking a philosophy class, and it’s so easy for me to write essays. I don’t stress about writing anymore.”
Karn not only helps students for their academic, but also mentors them. “Ms. Karn encouraged me to speak up my mind and to go to her office hour,” Karn said. Jesse Lopez, a 23-year-old counseling major, agreed.
“Ms. Karn is a critical thinker, analyst, understanding, helpful, and nurturing in a sense of mentoring,” Lopez said. Lopez is a former student and teacher’s assistant of Karn for English freshman composition honors course in 2007. He is now completing a master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach. He said Karn has a unique and interesting teaching style.
“She applies her teaching method at students regarding their different levels, and she is good at engaging them initially.” Lopez added, “She is hip, and she opens up the door of critical thinking through movies, song lyrics, and pop culture which made the class very fun.”
Karn was more than just a professor for Lopez.
“Ms. Karn was definitely my role model and a supporting mentor. She gave me the opportunity to be her teacher assistant, and she also wrote me the recommendation letter for grad school. She was always there for me.” Both Palma and Lopez agreed that although Karn’s classes are tough, it is rewarding at the end.
Karn currently has an article in progress with the New Yorker and Harpers magazines about NASCAR, the “new redneck,” and M(Nas)asculinity. A future goal for Karn is to go back to school to get a degree in classics and art history. She also wants to write a children’s book through the perspective of her dogs. “My dogs will be the metaphors for children, and a dog’s perspective of what’s true and beautiful of the human world.”
– Mikaela Zhao