Thursday, February 9, 2012

Students rally to keep Deb Smith teaching at Macalester

 Originally published in The Mac Weekly.

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Despite consistent rave reviews from students, there is no position at Macalester next year for Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Deb Smith.

“I’ve never seen any professor get the reactions that Deb gets from her students,” said Shahar Eberzhon ’12, a Sociology major who, along with Patrick Murphy ’12, has started a campaign to keep Smith teaching at Macalester. “I really honestly believe that not having her here would be a great loss.”

Smith has worked in the Sociology department for the past four years, retained as a visiting professor as each of the tenured Sociology professors left on sabbatical. The next sabbatical in the Sociology department is not anticipated for two years, which eliminates Smith’s current spot in the department.

“Next year, with no faculty from the Sociology department on leave, we do not have any courses to replace,” Provost Kathleen Murray explained. “There are four full-time faculty lines available in the Sociology Department and all are currently filled by tenured faculty. Adding a line would require the faculty in the department to make a request to the Allocations Committee. The Allocations Committee gives strong consideration to enrollments when considering requests for additional lines in a particular department, and enrollments in Sociology do not suggest the need for additional faculty.”

This was Murray’s response to around 20 letters in support of Smith that were sent to her and other figures involved in the process of hiring professors.

The letters were just one facet of a student-run campaign to keep Smith teaching at Macalester next year. Eberzhon and Murphy also created a Facebook page in support of Smith and posted three Youtube videos featuring testimonials from two dozen students in support of the professor.

(Editor’s note: Murphy is a Managing Editor for The Mac Weekly. Two other editors, Hazel Schaeffer ’12 and Anna Pickrell ’14, have participated in the campaign in support of Smith.)

“I know this is not the answer you were seeking,” Murray added, “but I hope that knowing why she is not being continued will be helpful.”

As Murray anticipated, organizers are not satisfied with this response.

“I’m kind of disappointed that we have not been able to enter into any real dialogue with anyone in the administration or in the committees over this,” Murphy said.

Murray is willing to meet with anybody concerned over the issue.

“I’m always happy to do that,” she said. “But we should forewarn them that they are going to hear what I said in the email response to their pleas.”

“It’s sort of a catch-22,” she noted. “We try to get the very best people we can when we have these temporary appointments, and they are bound to find their way into the lives of our students. It’s hard when they’re not here anymore.”

The evidence of this “catch-22″ lies in students’ admiration of Smith and their determination to keep Smith around next year.

“Her enthusiasm knows no bounds!” gushed Hannah Rasmussen ’14, a Sociology minor. “Her passion for sociology inspires her students. She is totally invested in changing the world through changing the way her students perceive the world.”

“Not only does she make extra office hours freely and arrange coffee or lunch chats between classes, but she opens herself to the students personally as well,” said Morgen Chang ’11, an alum who majored in Sociology. “This made a huge difference in my confidence level while at Macalester: Not once was I ashamed to propose an idea or question a concept with her.”

“I want to hear that people are making an effort to create a change,” Eberzhon said. “I want to hear that people are trying to work their way around these rules to make this work.”

The Sociology department could formally request another tenure-track line to create a spot for Smith in the department, but such a request is unlikely to get far with the Allocations Committee of EPAG.

“To request another line, a tenure-track line, you have to have a larger student involvement both in [Sociology] courses and as majors to make a legitimate claim,” explained Khaldoun Samman, the Chair of the Sociology department. “It’s obvious we don’t [as a major] have enough to request a fifth line.”

Nevertheless, the organizers of the campaign are hopeful a place can be found for Smith. One possibility they are pushing for is a departmental shift. Professor Corrie Hammers of WGSS is expected to go on sabbatical next year, and her courses have some overlap with the content of Smith’s – Hammers teaches Sociology of Gender; Smith Sociology of Sex. Murray declined to comment on this possibility, citing Hammers’ ongoing pre-tenure review.

Samman has similar hopes.

“Maybe there’s a way we can keep her for a time, because in a couple more years we are going to go on a new four-year cycle [of sabbaticals],” Samman said. “We were hoping we could find ways- maybe shared with departments that have sabbaticals that teach gender and sexuality courses that she is known for. We can [hopefully] think through ways [to do] that, and maybe the administration can help us out, keeping her for those two years.”

“The worst case scenario is that we lose her for those two years and then she moves on,” Samman said.

Smith, for her part, has declined to lobby for her own retention.

“The larger workings of the institution are a little bit opaque for me,” she said. “I don’t really know how it works.”

Smith does not know where her next job will be. In her cramped office full of books, diet coke and Barbie dolls, Smith sobers when discussing her future employment.

“It’s an odd position to be in, when you experience what you do as something that gives you more than you give. I absolutely am in love with this [job], in a way that I can’t explain,” she said. “I am deeply moved to see what everyone is doing with the campaign. I’m surprised and moved and just floored by all of you [students], because you’re amazing.”

The campaign to keep Smith at Macalester would suggest that the feelings are mutual.

“Deb shares her limitless knowledge and passion for [sociology] with all her students,” Chang noted. “The widespread support for Deb at Macalester is only proof of this legacy and the influence she has had on our college and post-college careers.”

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