Behind the young new face of the College of Arts & Sciences
Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, was recently appointed as the new dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, effective July 1. Her job will primarily involve overseeing academic advising and curriculum planning, but she will also work with undergraduate admissions and alumni.
After shopping at the market, the students went back to Smith’s house to make a smorgasbord, ranging from salad and pasta to beignets with bacon bits and shortbread.
“She’s very funny, very friendly, very down to earth, very approachable. She’s very knowledgeable in the kitchen, which was really helpful for us,” freshman Meredith Johnson, one of the students on the trip, said. “It was good to just get off campus and meet so many people, and to meet the dean outside the context of academic life.”
“She was really, really easygoing.”
Smith says the new position is an exciting opportunity even though she will have to stop teaching and drop her research. She will no longer be able to spend about two months of each year abroad, time during which she has encountered a range of unusual situations.
She shared a couple of them with Student Life.
“I was doing mapping and survey and just happened to walk by a set of beehives where one of the hives had been colonized by killer bees, and the owner had put on his full-on beekeeping suit and gone in to get rid of the hive, and he pissed them off, and I just happened to walk by,” she recounted. “And my local guide, who you figure is going to know, he’s like ‘Don’t move, don’t move.’ They’re just stinging and he tried dumping our water bottles over our heads and that just pissed them off more, and so I’m just like, I’m running.”
She paused from her story to walk to the opposite side of her office and grab her copy of “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook” that she bought after coming back. She opened it to page 60—a listing on what to do when confronted by killer bees, with an illustration captioned “DO NOT freeze; DO NOT swat them. Run away.”
“Finally someone drove down the road and we jumped in their car, and went to the hospital and got taken care of. I’d been stung something like 40, 50-odd times, which isn’t enough to kill you but it’s enough to make you pretty sick.”
In another experience, she ran into armed looters during an archaeological survey in Sudan.
“They didn’t want to be caught, and some of them were armed, and they said ‘Go away, and if you come back we’ll kill you,’” she said. “We could have told them there was nothing there.”
But overall, she said that getting to know people from vastly different backgrounds has really shaped her educational ideals.
“One of the most incredible privileges of the job I’ve been doing has been the chance to go somewhere like Syria and live in a village and get to know an average Syrian citizen, and to really talk to them,” she said.
“That’s probably where some of this whole multiple perspectives thing comes from, is having had the opportunity to really meet and interact with people who have utterly different perspectives on everything about life than somebody like you or me would have. Talking to Egyptian citizens or Iraqi citizens about the Iraq War was amazingly mind broadening for me; and even though I won’t be doing that any more, I think I will bring some of that to my priorities and goals.”
Sharon Stahl, dean of the First Year Center, slated to be the next vice chancellor for students, said that the diversity of Smith’s experiences was one thing that really stuck out about her through the interviewing process.
“Anyone who has been…swarmed by killer bees, who has encountered armed looters from the Sudan can probably manage being dean of Arts & Sciences. She just has wonderful experiences, broad experiences, she has a global attitude, she’s concerned about the environment, she’s a geo-archaeologist, so she’s interdisciplinary, and she’s got a great smile and she’s just a warm and wonderful person,” Stahl said.
One of the major changes Smith hopes to bring to the College of Arts & Sciences during her tenure is to adapt some courses to bring more viewpoints into the classroom.
“What I would want to see is team-taught classes, not just where one professor teaches the first half of the class and another professor teaches the second half of the class, but rather where multiple professors from different disciplines are in the classroom at the same time, engaging each other and the students,” she said. If they can communicate effectively you have this potential for real transformative learning. And I’d like seeing if we could make that happen.”
“I also think it would be fun because they’d probably fight, which is always engaging,” she added.
She said that her background in the hard sciences might also manifest in her studies-based approach. As an example, she said there are many simple proven ways professors can remove performance gaps between students of different ethnicities and genders.
She said she would also like to get more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields but noted that figuring out exactly how to do that may take some time.
“I hope if I can be a role model that’s great, I’m more than happy to be that,” she said. “I’ve been incredibly lucky; I haven’t faced anything I’ve perceived as overt gender discrimination since I was a little kid. But some of it, I actually went to an all-girls high school, and some of it for me is I just got used to being treated as a competent person in any and all regards and I came to simply expect that.”
Although she will not be able to continue teaching or serving as a faculty associate when she is dean, she hopes to continue to work closely with students as a four-year advisor, and by keeping her door open for office hours and attending campus-wide events throughout the year.
“I’ve done some of this now, but making sure that I’ll be at Relay, I’ll be at ThurtenE; Dance Marathon, you know, I’ll be there for all of those—probably not W.I.L.D. If you guys have a band that I’ve heard of I’ll come, but…I’m kind of an indie rock person,” she said.
Ultimately, she hopes that she will be able to pick up additional duties as she becomes acclimated to her job as dean.
“I dream that I will go back to teaching because I love it and I will miss it terribly, but right now I want to make sure that I can do the job of dean of the college effectively,” she said. “I’m just not sure if I could teach in a way that would do service to my students and still do the kind of job I need to do as dean.”
Smith said she never anticipated entering academia, but her strong interest in education led her to Washington University in 2002. She became an associate professor in 2009.