Spotlight on Faculty:  Elizabeth Richmond-Garza

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Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza has a mythic reputation as a lecturer and teacher. She is noted for her stage presence, her theatrical, quotable, and wise way of presenting information, and for her command of technology that enables her to create montages of photos, artwork, and other visual aids to help her audience better understand the lecture’s subject. With a dual appointment in the English Department and as the Director of the Program in Comparative Literature, she brings her passion to her students.

Of teaching, Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza says: “Seeing students’ first impressions of a text that you already know well has an echoing effect. I enjoy reading undergraduate papers because they allow me to revisit those texts and take stock of what I do.”

Of her purple-walled office, she says: “I knew that if I were going to spend as much time in it as I do, I needed to find it comfortable.”

Of presenting information to audiences, she says: “Some people use vinegar to make their point, others use honey. I prefer honey.”

Fascinated by language ever since she was a child, Richmond-Garza began learning Latin at 10 years of age. By the time she came to UT as a young professor in 1989, her primary languages included French, German, Italian, Russian, Greek, Latin, and English. She also has some knowledge of Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Dutch.

How did this happen? How does a person learn all of this by age twenty-five?

“I was very fortunate in opportunities,” Richmond-Garza says, “and I applied myself very seriously.”

Richmond-Garza’s parents were both professors and introduced her early to books, languages, and theater. She loved to read and because she wanted to read works in their original language, she continually picked up languages. It helped that she spent much of her childhood living in Europe, as well as in Berkeley, California.

The University of California at Berkeley allowed her to manufacture her own undergraduate degree to focus on all of her languages (“I sort of made a British degree in a U.S. university,” she says of her study at Berkeley). After graduation she went to Oxford University on a Fulbright Scholarship where she debated for the Oxford Union, the famed student debating society. Upon completing her Ph.D. at Columbia University, she was offered several positions in private universities. She chose The University of Texas at Austin, reasoning: “I believe in state education. I respected The University of Texas. I came here sight unseen.”

Of her career choice, Richmond-Garza says: “I always wanted to be a professor. I loved linguistics and debate, and I loved to travel. I was always very interested in oration and public policy. I might have been more tempted by the Foreign Service or by law school if I had grown up identifying with a single nation. But I think of myself as dual national citizen where one of nationalities is the United States, the other Europe. Any sort of diplomatic work would have forced me to identify with a single country, which would not have been a comfortable fit. The question for me was how to use all of my languages in a way that wouldn’t be dull. I chose academia because it was a demanding, high-energy, international field. It allowed me to use all of my languages on a day-to-day basis, and in a variety of ways.”

Her work at The University of Texas has indeed allowed her to do that, and it has been anything but dull. She teaches an array of classes ranging from undergraduate Plan II classes on drama to a graduate seminar on vampires. Her teaching philosophy is simple and respectful. She believes in being both rigorous and kind, in listening carefully to students and taking their ideas seriously, and in asking students how they would like to hear her criticism of their work (vinegar or honey, once again). She does this so that they will be able to use her comments in ways that will be most helpful to them.

“The students almost always want honest critiques of their work, so that they can know exactly how to continue working and improve. It is a great honor that they trust me to be honest with them.”

But even such an excellent teacher found teaching difficult at first. Richmond-Garza says:

“I was on fellowship all throughout graduate school, and though I begged my professors to let me TA for them, I still found the experience, the transition from graduate school to the first teaching appointment, startling. Cold water, warm water, whichever one you prefer—it feels like the other one. Like jumping into Barton Springs, it is lovely, but it just takes a moment of getting used to it.”

By Elisabeth McKetta, March 2008
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