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Professor recognized for service

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Notre Dame faculty recently acquired another academic accolade when Vania Smith-Oka, assistant professor of Anthropology, was honored with the Center for Public Anthropology’s Ruth Benedict Global Citizenship Award last week.

The national award, which honors 1 percent of introductory Anthropology faculty across the country, recognized Smith-Oka for her continued involvement with the Center’s Community Action Project (CAP). Smith Oka said CAP actively engaged students in ethical issues within the field of Anthropology.

Smith-Oka said she first became involved with CAP when she began teaching at Notre Dame in 2006. The project includes students from Notre Dame and 60 other universities and colleges, she said.

“I heard about [CAP] through another person who really enjoyed working with the program,” she said. “My students have been involved with it in some shape or form almost every semester I’ve been here.”

Smith-Oka said students discussed a different anthropological question related to research and ethics each semester. Last semester’s topic covered the role of the Institutional Review Board in the research process, she said.

Smith-Oka said CAP provides her undergraduate students with an outlet for critical thinking and a pathway into the world of anthropology by requiring them to write pieces about the issues presented in the project.

“I like the fact that [CAP] is applied. It gets students involved in real-world issues outside the classroom,” she said. “The project changes every semester to make students feel that they’re involved in something larger than themselves.”

Past students have examined a wide range of debates, including the controversy involving anthropological rights to the material remains of an indigenous group in the Amazon, Smith-Oka said.

CAP now focuses more on large-scale ethical issues within research procedures, she said, and this broader scope of discussion enhances the anthropological learning process for her students.

Smith-Oka said her Notre Dame students share their work with students from around the country, so the peer review process functions on both a local and national level.

“[CAP] is essentially a self-sustaining project because students grade each other’s work and participate in blind peer reviews,” she said. “I find it’s a good learning process to learn through peer review and evaluation.”

Though Smith-Oka is actively involved in CAP, her day-to-day work on campus relates to research on the way large-scale health policies and institutions shape reproduction and motherhood for low-income women, especially those in Mexico.

Since she became a faculty member at Notre Dame, Smith-Oka said the University has supported her goals as both a teacher and an anthropologist.

“[Notre Dame] has helped support me at all levels, from grants to teaching and mentorship to infrastructure, and they’ve always been supportive of the more engaged or applied side of my teaching,” she said. “This award validates the teaching approach I have in general.”