Laura Nader: A Life of Teaching, Investigation, Scholarship and Scope

Conducted by Lisa Rubens and Samuel Redman in 2013, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

Laura Nader is a distinguished professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, was chosen by popular nomination, by the campus community to be the 2013 Regional Oral History Office “Class of 1931” interviewee. This alumni endowment honors a UC Berkeley faculty or staff member who has made a significant contribution to the life of the campus, and Professor Nader more than fits the criteria.

Laura Nader was the first tenured woman in her department. She has taught thousands of undergraduates in popular courses such as Anthropology of the Law, Cultural Anthropology and Energy, Culture and Society and Controlling Processes. She has supervised more than a hundred PhD students, many of whom now teach or work in prestigious institutions. She has published research papers and co-edited books with several of her former students. Professor Nader has served on numerous department and campus committees and has taken principled public positions on many of the controversies that have arisen at Cal. And as a scholar, with ten books and close to 290 publications, her breathtaking range of interests and expertise have led her to be a visiting scholar at Yale, Harvard and Stanford, among other institutions, and a sought-after speaker, consultant and advisor for prominent national and international organizations. As such, Laura Nader is an outstanding ambassador for UC Berkeley.

During June and July 2013, two historians with the Regional Oral History Office, Sam Redman, who specializes in anthropology, and Lisa Rubens, who focuses on university history, spent eight hours interviewing Professor Nader about her life, her years at UC Berkeley, her scholarship and her extensive public service. By all rights an anthropologist of Nader’s accomplishment and stature deserves an interview of at least 20 hours; perhaps more interviews will be forthcoming. Nevertheless, in the four sessions during which the following interviews took place, we were able to capture most of the critical influences, experiences and achievements in her long career. And perhaps more importantly, we have documented Professor Nader’s razor-sharp intelligence, her vast storehouse of knowledge and vivid recall, her irrepressible curiosity, her congenial personality and the optimistic nature that undergirds her persistent battle against injustice.

These interviews were videotaped in Professor Nader’s office on the third floor of Kroeber Hall. We sat on a bench that had been in Alfred Kroeber’s office and that Professor Nader rescued when Kroeber died shortly after she began teaching at Berkeley. Nader sat at her enormous desk, a monument to her productivity and engagement. It was covered with stacks of paper, including: students’ work for her current courses; the galleys for her latest book What the Rest Think of the West: 600AD to 2012; letters from former students, some with news clippings about any number of issues she is concerned with—some she shared with us as we were setting up our camera. Spilling off her desk and stacked on adjoining bookcases were current academic journals on anthropology, sociology and other disciplines, as well as more popular journals on current politics and manuscripts that Professor Nader had been asked to review. There were also copies of her two most recent books, Culture and Dignity: Dialogues between the Middle East and the West [2013] and The Energy Reader [2010].

At 83, Laura Nader remains a force to contend with. At the end of her oral history she describes several research projects she is pursuing and reiterates a persistent theme in her thinking, the importance of having “scope” — by her definition, a fact-based, contextual, historical approach to a subject. Perhaps above all, these interviews provide access to the breadth and depth—the scope—of her life and work, as well as her warmth, curiosity, effervescence and deep commitment to her students.

See related interviews in Anthropology and University History.



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