2012 Master’s Mentoring Award Goes to American Studies Expert Judith Smith

Alexander McAdams and Jim Mortenson | August 29, 2012
Professor of American Studies Judith Smith


Although UMass Boston Professor of American Studies Judith Smith is turning to her own research this year, her reputation as an outstanding mentor led to her receiving the 2012 Graduate Mentoring Award at UMass Boston.

Along with two other faculty members, Smith, graduate director of the American Studies MA program, has been lauded for the dedication and encouragement she gives to her graduate students for guiding them through the MA program, for supporting program faculty in keeping up with current intellectual developments in American studies, for advising student research, and for helping students find ways to present their research professionally.

The honor is also based upon graduate student research projects, professional presentations, and scholarly work, and she will be presented with $1,000 at the Graduate Convocation in May.

When mentoring graduate students, Smith, who has been director since her 1993 arrival at UMass Boston, says that as a mentor it is important to recognize the distinction between undergraduate and graduate programs.

“It’s a huge difference from undergraduate work,” she says. “In most of their coursework, undergraduates are consumers of the knowledge, but graduate students’ primary focus is to master specific intellectual tools to become critical readers and producers of research in dialogue with scholars publishing in the field.”

Preparing graduate students for this line of study is evident in the program’s course requirements, a product of the program redesign undertaken when Smith arrived in 1993.  “When I came to UMass Boston to redesign the master’s program, we wanted to help graduate students learn to use American studies’ rich set of interdisciplinary tools for historically grounded cultural analysis,” she explains.

Smith and the program faculty redesigned the core courses to foreground race, gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality in the analysis of American culture as created by the interactions among diverse groups with unequal power. The core seminars act as a “path to help students learn to read and respond to a scholarly discussion. This is a way of getting people going, getting their feet wet so they can produce a final master’s essay.”

They also added a writing seminar for students working on their MA essays, so that students can work together as a community of researchers and help each other develop their arguments and analysis.

“They have found this to be a meaningful process. The final outcome is something they can be proud of.”

Part of the ongoing advising process for Smith is “making the implicit explicit.” This approach to mentoring, she says, focuses on demystifying the inner workings of academe, making it more accessible and less intimidating for graduate students entering a professional academic field.

“We take their ideas seriously and help them learn to develop their own questions as a starting point for undertaking systematic research, and to write and revise to produce a powerful argument based on that research.”

Smith also oversees graduate students who participate in teaching apprenticeships, which allow students the chance to collaborate with faculty in the teaching process in their preferred field. Incidentally, this also functions as another avenue to make the implicit explicit. “It’s a fantastic experience [for graduate students] to see the nuts and bolts of an undergraduate class,” she says.

Smith’s role as a mentor and teacher is “to listen hard to where a student is coming from and try to make the intellectual apparatus accessible.”

This accessibility falls in line with Smith’s mentoring philosophy, much to the benefit of American studies alumni. The access to cultural analysis, she says, is significant in alumni career paths that include teaching, journalism, law, and grant-writing and policy work for nonprofit organizations, to name a few.

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