Cathy Kudlick: Focused on making history relevant

Like many a reluctant student, Cathy Kudlick once complained that history was boring.

Her teachers told the youngster she excelled at the subject, but Kudlick couldn't see how history related to her life in suburban California.

"I think the oldest building I had ever seen was 50 years old," said Kudlick, who was raised in Pleasanton.

But Kudlick, now an associate professor of history at UC Davis, grew up to be passionate about the subject.

The transformation began when she spent time in Europe as a teen-ager. Kudlick was hooked by the time she spent her junior year of college in Paris. She took a course in the history of her new city and was able to use Paris' ancient streets and buildings as her living classroom.

"(In class), I couldn't write fast enough," she said. "A whole bunch of things that had been in me came out. I couldn't get enough of history."

During her scholarly career Kudlick has since become an authority on "new cultural history," which calls for historians to look beyond names and dates and analyze events, issues and documents in their full societal contexts. The approach, she said, allows her students to recognize links to history present in their worlds.

Among Kudlick's academic specialties are the history of medicine and disability issues. Born blind from cataracts, Kudlick regained some sight after a series of childhood operations. Her vision wavers now; sometimes she can see fairly clearly, other times hardly at all.

"(My condition) made me interested in blind people, and how they dealt with discrimination through history," she said.

Kudlick's research interests came together in her recent study of Thérèse-Adèle Husson, a young blind French woman of the early 1800s. At 22, Husson authored a handwritten guidebook to life as a blind woman, which Kudlick discovered at a hospital archive in Paris. Intrigued, she and French historian Zina Weygand traversed Paris looking for other clues to Husson's life.

"She didn't run a government, she didn't lead a movement," Kudlick said, " but she had a lot to tell the world."

Among other discoveries, they learned that Husson published several novels before her death at 27 and lived a life quite contrary that which she espoused in her guide.

On Tuesday, Kudlick will discuss her research and read some passages from her book, Reflections: The Life and Writing of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France, at a talk sponsored by the Women's Resources and Research Center at 4 p.m. in Memorial Union II.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

When you tell people you have a vision impairment, they think you sit just at home and rock. I like to hike. I like to ride my bike. I'm also very much a city person. I like the hustle and bustle, the crowds.

What would be a perfect weekend for you?

It would have to involve good food, good wine and pleasant surroundings. Whether it's in the country or city would depend on my mood. And of course I would want good company.

Do you have a favorite restaurant?

I can go upscale or I can go downscale. I have my favorite taqueria. I have a favorite restaurant in Berkeley - Café Venezia. It's Italian. I'm kind of a renegade French historian because I like Italian food better than French food.

Read any good books lately?

I just finished Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. She's a beautiful and witty writer. It's so passionate. It's an appreciation of books but also of her quirks and her family's quirks.

What's your favorite place on campus?

I love the little grassy area when you enter campus from the east side near Young and Dutton halls. Trees make me happy.

What do you like best about your job?

I feel so lucky. I love dealing with students, especially about intellectual things. When they say, "I never thought of that before," that's the best thing for me. Students bring with them the best observations. It's wonderful. I love writing. I love reading.

How about the worst?

Giving grades. Dealing with bureaucracy.

What's always in your refrigerator?

Fruit, cheese and wine. •

Media Resources

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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