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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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Peter B. Hammond, Anthropology

Most teachers ask students to evaluate them; few actually use the evaluations for self-criticism. But there's anthropology professor Peter Hammond, a remarkably youthful 67-year-old, admitting that yes, he tends to talk too fast, and yes, he may be too apologetic.

"I think that's not irrelevant," he tells about 35 undergraduates in his course, Anthropology 197, titled "The Cultural Construction of Gender: Homosexuality." "A lot of us have heard for most of our lives that we're morally 'bad.' It's very hard to maintain a positive sense of your own identity. The messages that a culture gives do have important consequences for homosexual people."

For the openly gay Hammond, who's teaching the first-ever gay studies course in anthropology, even a personal struggle for esteem can be grist for his students' education. He has been a faculty member in residence at the dorms for five years and holds regular open houses and rap groups.

"I just had the feeling," he says of his efforts, "that a lot of young folks were struggling with issues, and afraid they were the only one thinking about that at UCLA."

The son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning economic historian, Hammond says he became an anthropologist to escape the prejudiced confines of his hometown, Glendale, California. He was especially disturbed when Japanese Americans from the community were temporarily interned in Santa Anita's horse stables during World War II. "As a gay man," he says, "I felt somehow that I'd be next. I wanted to understand how something like that could happen."

That led him to applied anthropology, where "you take your understanding of how cultures work and apply it to the resolution of human problems." He has encouraged students to directly apply their studies through internships in the community. His own research focuses on economic development and culture change in former French and Portuguese colonies in Africa, and as the current chair of the Chancellor's Task Force on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies, he's helping to develop a minor in that academic area.

By serving as a role model, Hammond hopes to give students what he craved growing up. "That's the way," he explains, "that you can reenact your youth -- and make it come out right."

Michele Kort is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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