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Professor receives prestigious anthropology award

Teresa McCarty, Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education Policy Studies and co-d
November 29, 2010

Teresa McCarty, the Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education Policy Studies and professor of applied linguistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Social Transformation, and co-director of the school’s Center for Indian Education, has been honored with the most prestigious award in the field of educational anthropology at the annual meeting of 
the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans Nov. 19. McCarty was presented with the George and Louise Spindler Award for 
Distinguished Scholarly Contributions to the Field of Educational 

A world renowned expert in language revitalization and recovery, and longtime champion for culturally and linguistically responsive learning environments for Native American students, McCarty has been a member of the ASU faculty since 2004, when she became the first to hold the Alice Wiley Snell endowed professorship.

In presenting the honor, Award Committee chair Harry F. Wolcott, professor emeritus in the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology, praised McCarty’s decades of leadership in efforts to improve education for Indian youth and recalled his first interactions with her when he was a visiting faculty member at ASU.

“Thirty years ago, the then associate dean for research in the ASU 
College of Education, Leonard Cahen, invited me to come to ASU 
for a semester to teach a course in the new field of Anthropology and 
Education," Wolcott said. "Among my students was a young woman named Terri McCarty, 
an anthropology graduate student who had already been involved in Indian 
education. Now, three decades later, we pause to celebrate her 
accomplishments and contributions to that field and to demonstrating 
what anthropology can offer to the field of education, for Terri has 
made this her life's work through her teaching, writing, mentoring, 
and years of collaborating with others in efforts to improve 
education for Indian youth.

“Her numerous books and articles serve as 
testimony of her efforts,” he said. “She has been especially instrumental in 
the development of the Council on Anthropology and Education, serving 
first as editor of Anthropology and Education Quarterly and most 
recently as the council’s president. As Alice Wiley Snell Professor of 
Education Policy Studies, her constant efforts to infuse Indian 
education with anthropological sensitivity and insight have earned 
her the well-deserved George and Louise Spindler Award for 
Distinguished Scholarly Contributions to the Field of Educational Anthropology.”

“To see Terri McCarty earn such a distinguished career award in midlife confirms the confidence that we at ASU have in her,” said Linda Lederman, dean of social sciences in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Our college is anchored in improving excellence, access and impact, and her work significantly addresses all three. Dr. McCarty exemplifies our commitment to use-inspired research that improves the lives of people in Arizona communities and makes an impact globally.”

McCarty says she is especially humbled and touched to be receiving the award honoring the field’s founders, though quite surprised that it should come now, while she’s still serving in the role of past-president to the Council on Anthropology and Education.

But the timing also has made the experience even more thrilling, McCarty said, because of the personnel involved in bestowing this year’s award.

“Harry Wolcott, the award committee chair, became a mentor to me, serving on my graduate committee. And this year’s president of the Council on Anthropology and Education, Bryan Brayboy, who I had the privilege to mentor during his early days as a graduate student at Penn and assistant professor at the University of Utah, is now a close colleague. [Brayboy co-directs ASU’s Center for Indian Education with McCarty and is Borderlands Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Social Transformation.] Both Harry and Bryan have been so influential in my life. To have them involved in presenting this award brings together 1.5 generations of educational anthropologists for whom ASU was a nexus.”

McCarty’s passion for research, teaching and activism in Indigenous and language-minority education and policy was ignited while she was an ASU graduate student hired to work as a liaison between a Native community and the public school district serving their children. She vividly recalls her first day at the school. The learning conditions she found induced “a visceral response to blatant injustice that would be a driving force in my work with Native communities,” McCarty said.

“This was a district receiving per capita monies for tutors to work with Native children to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate instruction, so the program had sufficient funding,” she said. “I expected to find, at the very least, a tutoring center, but they were given no space. It was January, and the ‘tutoring’ was going on outdoors, where the children and Native teacher assistants hired to help them were sitting on a stone bench in a cold breezeway. It was a very frontal confrontation with institutionalized racism.”

After completing master’s and doctoral degrees in social-cultural anthropology at ASU, McCarty worked with ASU’s National Indian Bilingual Center and then for the Indian Education Unit of the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix before launching her professorial career at the University of Arizona in 1989. During her tenure there, she served as professor and head of the Department of Language Reading and Culture, interim dean of the College of Education, and co-director of the American Indian Language Development Institute. McCarty returned to ASU in 2004 to accept a professorship endowed by Richard and Alice Wiley Snell in education policy studies.

Reflecting on what the Snell professorship has meant to her career, McCarty says: “The impact has been huge. It positions you differently – not just with additional financial resources – but in leadership roles within and outside the university. It’s enabled me to do more work internationally with Indigenous people and speakers of other ‘lesser used’ languages, most recently in Russia, Ireland and Latin America. These experiences broaden your network and give you an international lens from which to look back and reflect on what happens here in the United States. And, of course, with any gift comes an obligation and desire to give back. The Snells are totally devoted to the concept of ‘paying forward’ and that’s how I view the work I’m able to do as a result of their gift.”

Indeed, paying it forward characterizes a good deal of McCarty’s work, perhaps most notably with her students. She considers her work with graduate students one of the supreme joys of her career, and her 26th doctoral advisee graduated last spring. At any one time McCarty is serving on three to five external doctoral committees in addition to those she chairs. Some of the most gratifying work, she said, is seeing Native students earn master’s and doctoral degrees.

It is a fine testament to McCarty’s influence and abilities as a mentor that she chaired the doctoral committee for the individual awarded this year’s Council on Anthropology and Education Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. Rucheeta Kulkarni, an ASU doctoral alumna in educational leadership and policy studies, was presented with the highly competitive award at the same meetings of the American Anthropological Association where McCarty was recognized. 

McCarty admits that the Spindler recognition has given her an opportunity to give pause and take a few moments to really appreciate the life that she’s been privileged to enjoy – filled with work that she loves and incredible people she’s connected with along the way. 

“With a predicted loss of 90 percent of the world’s language diversity by the end of the century, it feels very special to play a small part in a global effort for sustainability of linguistic and cultural diversity,” said McCarty with a sense of urgency and purpose, but also tremendous admiration and gratitude.

“You work with young people and elders and Native educators to support them in taking a language forward as part of a community’s continuing cultural identity. You become part of an extended global family of people involved in language revitalization, who recognize what language means to cultural communities. You walk this path with many people who are with you and part of the work. I love my work, and the work is the people.”