Undergraduate Academic Affairs

May 23, 2022

Stephanie Smallwood named director of Honors Program

Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Congratulations to Stephanie Smallwood, acclaimed professor and historian, who has been appointed the new director of the University Honors Program, officially beginning her term in September, 2022.

The University Honors Program, now celebrating its 60th birthday, serves as an academic core of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, bringing students and faculty from every corner of campus together for original learning opportunities focused on collaborative, cross-disciplinary curriculum, experiential learning, research and critical reflection.

Portrait of Stephanie Smallwood standing outside

Professor Stephanie Smallwood has been named the next director of the Honors Program.Photo by Dennis Wise

In the past eight years under the direction of geography professor and poverty researcher, Victoria Lawson, the Honors Program has contributed to the deepening of its interdisciplinary focus and approach to intentional community building, innovative thinking and global citizenship. As Lawson prepares to retire from the University of Washington, she expresses admiration for Honors’ incoming director, stating: “I am a huge fan of Dr. Smallwood and I am confident she will love leading within this community, as I have.”

Fostering collective and diverse brilliance

Honors by the numbers 

The UW Honors Program facilitates Interdisciplinary, College and Departmental Honors for over 1,400 undergraduates annually.

83% of Honors students come from public high schools.

100+ UW majors represented by Honors students and faculty.

70% say Interdisciplinary Honors admission is a top reason they chose the UW.

Smallwood says she’s excited by the Honors Program’s trajectory and sees great opportunities to continue expanding this interdisciplinary educational hub at our public research university. Smallwood’s vision of fostering collective and diverse brilliance aligns with the program’s long arc toward education that centers public needs and un-siloed, collaborative inquiry.

“Interdisciplinarity informs my scholarship, my mentoring, my teaching, and informs everything I do,” shared Smallwood. A narrow singularly disciplinary lens cannot adequately approach the questions which animate her work, or the questions that remain most urgent and pressing to our society today.

“Undergraduate Academic Affairs is a unit devoted to changing lives of students by deepening their UW experience,” shares Vice Provost and Dean Ed Taylor. “Stephanie Smallwood has the vision, knowledge and experience to move the program and experience of students into a future that is much in need of their potential to help make the world better.”

Guiding students in intellectual exploration

Smallwood is an associate professor in the Department of History, where she holds the Dio Richardson Endowed professorship, and she has a joint appointment in the Department of Comparative History of Ideas. She has devoted the past 15 years at the University of Washington to undergraduate teaching and mentorship on the histories of slavery, race and colonialism in the early modern Atlantic world. Guiding students in their exploration of the challenging problems that have profoundly shaped our world remains as fresh and rewarding for her today as when she began her career as a teacher-scholar nearly 25 years ago.

Her book “Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) was awarded the 2008 Frederick Douglass Book Prize; the award for best book written in English on slavery or abolition by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University; and was a finalist for the 2008 First Book Prize of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.

“The University of Washington is so fortunate that Professor Stephanie Smallwood has accepted a three-year term as director of the Honors Program. Professor Smallwood is a prize-winning historian, gifted teacher and exemplary University citizen. She will bring her gifts of shrewd analysis, excellent judgment and visionary leadership to this position,” shared Glennys Young, chair of the Department of History.

A history story

Smallwood’s interest in history began as an undergraduate at Columbia University, stemming from her involvement in anti-apartheid demonstrations. In 1985, on the anniversary of the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Smallwood demonstrated in a domestic divestment campaign. When camping out on the steps of an administrative building for three weeks was followed by a summer of disciplinary hearings, she was led directly toward learning more about the history behind the political actions she found herself engaging in.

For the first time in her life, Smallwood began to read African history — and found herself blown away. She spent the last two years of her undergraduate studies taking graduate-level seminars. “I knew then that history was what I wanted to do and study,” said Smallwood. Under the mentorship of Marcellus Blount, she was guided towards an interdisciplinary M.A. in African and African-American studies at Yale University.

Smallwood became a research assistant to renowned historian John Blassingame, who was beginning to examine the 17th- and 18th-century slave trade. During days spent in the Yale library’s microfilm room, Smallwood poured over newspapers from 17th century Maryland and Virginia, reading the announcements of arrivals of slave ships. Her time there would prove to be invaluable, as she began to piece together the literal connections between African and African-American history. “It was the first time, that past, that period, was animated for me intellectually,” she said. Transcended beyond just responding to contemporary politics, she sought out to study the entire expanse of Black history. Smallwood would go on to earn her Ph.D. in early African-American history at Duke University.

“I am incredibly excited to see Professor Smallwood’s leadership and inclusionary vision applied to the Honors Program as its community continues to grow and build connections across campus. Her support and encouragement enabled us students to reach our full potential and I know she will do the same for the many students who come under her guidance as she takes on the role of director,” shared Erin Nicole Kelly, senior.

The role imagination plays

The interdisciplinary impact of her studies and research have informed the lens for all of her ongoing research, leadership and publications. Smallwood recognizes that a key component of the role of a historian is to imagine. “The fact of the matter is that historians have to imagine, to tell stories.” She cites the fiction of novelist Toni Morrison as being in relationship and conversation with her historical research. “We have to be able to use the gifts that only a Toni Morrison can bring to the table, to guide us in how to dare to imagine. You can’t ask good questions if you can’t imagine outside of the box,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood connects the value of the Honors Programs to its interdisciplinary imagination. A program that curates small classes and dynamic curriculum where students experience, as she describes, “the freedom of when you’re not already locked into a particular methodology or a set of rules that govern a particular discipline.”

Her recent experiences teaching the classes, Honors Historical Method and Race and Slavery Across the Americas, have served Smallwood as continued affirmations of what’s possible in intimate learning environments. “Knowledge production happens best when we put different disciplinary methods in relationship to one another,” she shared. “Often our best and most innovative learning happens in collaboration.”

Our best learning happens in collaboration

Smallwood remains continually fueled and reinvigorated as an educational collaborator and mentor. Facilitating class experiences for undergraduates to engage in intellectual discovery and risk taking, Smallwood is focused on new approaches to learning that can meaningfully advance a social justice mission.

Smallwood sees her appointment as director of the Honors Program as an honor within itself. She intends to use her skills and background of scholarship and teaching in a public research university to serve students and boost their capacity to imagine, contribute and make change. “To be at a public research institution like the UW means you’re in a community of extraordinary scholars with extraordinary resources,” said Smallwood. “It’s the best possible combination of what it takes to be a scholar and for the largest impact you can have on reaching and touching people.”

Welcome, Stephanie Smallwood!