was awarded Educator of the Year for her work at Macalaster College, despite having only begun her work as a professor 10 years ago. TKS sat down with Smith to talk about her journey to Knox.
The Knox Student: Tell me what brought you to Knox.
Deborah Smith: I’ll give you a little background. I was teaching in the sociology department at Macalester College. I’d been there since 2005. I was covering sabbatical leaves up there and there were no sabbatical leaves, so I was looking around. I had heard of Knox and it popped up they need a one year coverage for a faculty member who is on leave, I’d heard good things about the school.
TKS: What did you think of a school that is not quite so selective, in comparison?
DS: I was looking forward to that. I came down here to visit. I was floored by the warm welcome I received — not just from faculty in the anthropology and sociology department, but from the dean of the college — an incredibly warm welcome from [Dean of the College Larry Breitborde]. I met [President Teresa Amott] and assistants in the office were wonderful to me. Everyone I met was friendly, welcoming, down-to-earth.
TKS: In what ways have you seen community values present themselves at Knox?
DS: Some examples? First, I received three messages from individuals wondering when I was coming down so that they could help me unpack my car. One person even laughed and said “Hey, Larry will come over and help you unpack.” So already I saw something unusual, which was this active willingness to help. It wasn’t limited to some segment of the population at Knox. It seemed to be a shared sentiment in the community that we all help each other. I was blown away in terms of policy: the visiting faculty have more or less the same rights as tenured faculty, [and] you can go to faculty meetings, apply for research funding. What Knox seems to do is very consciously and deliberately try to minimize power differentials. And it’s not just a community of those who work here; it’s a community that includes the students.
TKS: What is your education philosophy?
DS: I did receive excellent training in pedagogy in my graduate program [at the] University of Minnesota. I taught at the University of Minnesota and was very kindly awarded with best teaching assistant of the year at the time, but I can’t say that I applied any philosophy. Teaching at Macalaster for four or five years — whatever my teaching philosophy is, it might have worked: Macalaster awarded me Educator of the Year. I am very keen on active learning, very keen on collaborative learning, I am also a fan of Paulo Friere, of democratizing the classroom but more than anything — number one, it’s service; I am doing service. Period. And number two, I have to care, not only about what I’m teaching. I have to care about every single person in that room. And that is, I think, my first order-principle. There’s room to care here.
TKS: Have you always wanted to be a teacher?
DS: No, I don’t know that I have. I’ve had a very eccentric life course, and I came into the world of academia late in life. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years. And prior to that, I did a number of other things. But I’ve always been passionately in love with scholarship, with inquiries about the world. I waited tables, I was a model in L.A., I acted a little bit. I did public relations, but I think this is my calling.
TKS: What sort of research have you done in your field?
DS: Again, a little eccentricity here. The earliest research I did was on environmental social movements. My doctoral research enters the question of the global service economy. So, economic restructuring at the global level and the rise of service work. And I’m very, very interested in how work, in this new economy, is organized and controlled — it’s changing so much. I’ve also done research in the shifting nature of work in global cities, and I am quite interested in the broader question of women and work. And working downwards to something more specific: marginal and shadow economies [and] occupations within the city.