Focus on Faculty

Hilda Kurtz

Photo of Hilda Kurtz.
Professor Hilda Kurtz studies alternative food politics, focusing on how people carve out spaces of practice in critique of the industrial food system. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Hilda Kurtz, professor of geography in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, taps into students’ curiosity in the classroom and beyond to create transformational learning experiences.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned my graduate degrees, an M.A. and Ph.D. in geography, from the University of Minnesota. My responsibilities include research, teaching and service. My research concerns alternative food politics, and more recently, organic certification. I currently teach courses in human geography at the introductory, upper-division and graduate levels. In addition to introductory human geography, I teach urban geography and critical geographies of food, as well as seminars in qualitative research methods and race and racialization. My service at the university centers on issues of diversity and inclusion. With Franklin College Senior Associate Dean Kecia Thomas, I co-founded the Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Fellows (DIG) Program, which brings together graduate students from across the Franklin College to help develop multicultural competencies for diverse and inclusive classrooms.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I started as a visiting assistant professor at UGA in August 2000. My position was moved to tenure-track once I completed my doctorate and graduated from the University of Minnesota, which I did in December 2000. The geography department had begun to develop a thematic research focus around issues of social justice, broadly construed. My dissertation research focused on environmental justice activism, and in that I could see a good fit amongst my future colleagues.

What are your favorite courses and why?

I’m not at all sure that I have a favorite course or courses. I’m very lucky to enjoy every course I teach, while appreciating the different flavor each course tends to have. That said, I particularly enjoy those courses that students may experience as transformational, which I suspect would be “Honors Introduction to Human Geography” and upper-division “Introduction to Urban Geography.” A college education should be transformational, opening students up to broader horizons than they could have imagined before arriving. In addition to delivering content as such, I focus students’ attention on developing tools for critical geographic thinking. The world is complex and dynamic; it warrants critical and supple patterns of thought. I try to cultivate such patterns of thought in my students.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

I am proud that a paper from my dissertation was selected as one of the 20 most influential papers published in the first 30 years of the journal Political Geography. I am also proud that five of my doctoral students have been funded by the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grants.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?

I study alternative food politics, focusing on how people carve out spaces of practice in critique of the industrial food system. This research focus offers insight into how ethically informed economic networks are fostered, challenged and transformed at the edges of an industrial food economy. It also highlights the pervasive power of the forces of a globalized agrifood system to shape national and regional economies and cultural practices. My current research exploring organic honey certification in Cuba seeks to shed light on how intricate and changeable networks of trust and expertise can be, in relation to economic forces.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

Tapping into and channeling students’ curiosity in the classroom (and beyond) energizes my approach to research; it reminds me that unanswered questions abound. I am fortunate to be able to teach multiple courses that synergize directly with my research interests in the critical geographies of food. Teaching these and other courses has shaped my role in several projects and resulting papers.  Most recently, I am using photo-elicitation interviews (interviews guided by conversation about photographs) as a crossover data collection method.  I have assigned students to use them in class-based research projects, and am collaborating with UGA colleagues on a project with the Atlanta Community Food Bank that incorporates photo-elicitation interviews among a mix of methods.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope that students gain competence in critical thinking about a geographically complex world, recognizing patterns of thought, conventions of argument and areas of convergence and divergence between different issue positions. I want students to gain a sense of how academic knowledge production works, how careful that work must be and how rewarding it is as well. Lastly, I want to spark students’ geographic curiosity—I want them to gain a sense of the vastness of what they do not know.

Describe your ideal student.

My ideal student is someone who notices things and wonders about them. Observational skills and curiosity are the foundations for building a geographic vocabulary with which to notice more things, ask more interesting questions about them and chart a path toward some (provisional) answers.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …

This campus is full of beautiful spaces, large and small. I enjoy walking through the Founders Memorial Garden, but do not do so very often. Who has the time? I also love Herty Field, which is on my path across campus more often. Each of these places is tended and comfortable, but are also the product of many layers of history for the institution.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to …

Spend time with my family and travel as much as we can afford to do. I also enjoy being fairly active in my church.

Community/civic involvement includes …

In January 2017, I helped start a civic engagement group called 100+ Days of Action, which seeks to open pathways for civic engagement for diverse members of the Athens community. I have been active in a sister project to that, the Stories of US Community Quilt Project. We are currently looking at ways to deepen and extend the role of community art at bringing people from different parts of the community into conversation with one another.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

Two of my favorite movies are oldies but goodies, “Hopscotch” with Walter Matthau and “The Sting,” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. In each of these, people who have been wronged by more powerful and corrupt figures fight back in a game of wits, playing, among other things, on their antagonists’ vanities to win the day.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …

I will always remember, fondly, and otherwise, the New Faculty Tour, the six-day trip all around Georgia offered for 40 incoming faculty members. I was one of three vegetarians on the trip, and I bonded for life with the other two. Pickings at the table were slim, to say the least. We all agree that it has gotten a lot easier to be a vegetarian in Georgia since then.

(Originally published on March 18, 2018)