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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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Judith Carney, Geography

Teaching or research? Cultural geography professor Judith Carney doesn't see it as an either/or choice. She's never so inspired -- or inspiring -- as when she's sharing her current research with students. After a recent lecture on how African slaves brought rice-cultivation systems to colonial South Carolina - her current focus - Carney's students actually clapped, she recalls with amazement.

"I've been in a lot of really remote places in Latin America and West Africa, and I draw on those experiences in my lectures. I think that's very attractive to students," she says, explaining the enthusiastic response. "I also try to teach appreciation for different cultural experiences -- and students feel empowered by that."

Carney's own cultural experience is quite different from that of most academics. She grew up fatherless, on welfare, in Detroit -- without a family car, without books, and with no promise of higher education. She became the first college student in her family to earn a liberal arts degree, and then ventured out into the world. She worked as a potter, a stewardess, a waitress -- and traveled as much as she could. In Latin America, her attention was "riveted" by the rain forest and by the peoples' poverty; eager to learn more, she applied and was accepted to graduate school in geography at UC Berkeley.

Carney briefly worked in international development, but "didn't find many idealists there." So she brought her idealism to UCLA in 1989 and a few years later became the first tenured female geography professor since 1956.

Students tell me I help them think critically," she says with modesty. "I don't know how -- I just do it. A little bit of magic happens. Plus, I'm enthusiastic; I'm not cynical."

That, alone, is worthy of applause.

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