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For Them You'd Go Back to School

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Summer 1996
Luckman Distinguished Teaching Awards
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Walter Allen, Sociology

"I love to teach," says sociology professor Walter Allen, a childlike grin animating his bearded face. "I understood pretty early the privilege and power of teachers -- I was saved by teachers." Allen, 47, grew up in segregated Kansas City, Missouri, but found "magnificent" instructors at his high school. They helped him excel in both academics and sports, and convinced him that although no one in his family had gone past 12th grade, he could succeed in college.

Allen's aspirations for his UCLA students are even higher. "Over my career," he says, "my goal is to produce 100 new African-American Ph.D.s, and 500 total. I love mentoring graduate students - coauthoring papers with them, doing joint research projects - and I start when they're undergraduates by encouraging them to go on to doctoral programs."

Allen, who came to UCLA in 1989 after 10 years at the University of Michigan's Center for Afro-American and African Studies, is currently on a teaching hiatus while serving on the demanding Committee on Academic Personnel and completing several research papers. His areas of interest include African-American families and the status of African-American students in U.S. colleges - subjects he discusses eagerly and intently, fixing the listener with a piercing gaze. One imagines that he communicates just as dynamically with students.

"I think of teaching as mutual encounter and engagement," explains Allen, whose "dizzying array" of teaching subjects has included the sociology of education, theories of race and ethnicity, and medical sociology. "I tell students that knowledge won't flow in just one direction. And I work them mercilessly and shamelessly -- because, as I tell them, each time you extend to what you think is your limit, you find there's more beyond that."

He beams when reminded of the Luckman award. "It is just magnificent," he says, employing his favorite superlative. "Teaching tends to be seen as an avocation, while research is your vocation. But teaching is central to my career -- and being recognized for that means more than I can say."

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