For a man who knew very early in life that he wanted to be a college professor, the best moments in the classroom are what Ian Smith refers to as the “ah ha!” moments. Smith, professor of English, delights in helping his students escape routine classroom exercises and embark on a journey of “unexpected connections, unplanned trajectories, and unanticipated perspectives.”
“I want my classroom to become a place of dynamic dialogue and innovative intellectual experience,” he explains. “For me, English is always going to be more than a narrowly definite textual or academic expertise. It speaks to our world, our cultural institutions, our customs, and our ideological formations with the intent to raise self-reflection and social critique.”
While Smith always knew he wanted a career in academia, it was a surprise to even him that he became an English, rather than French, professor. In fact, studying theater at the University of Paris led him to specialize in one of the greatest writers in English literature. Intense interest in staging French classics like Racine and Molière inspired Smith to delve into Shakespeare.
“Studying Shakespeare for me was an act of discovery,” says Smith. “I was introduced to his work with the kind of adulatory expectation that did not always fully invite inquiry or critique. My journey with Shakespeare began as an effort to find out, in terms that meant something useful to me, what all the fuss was about. Over time, I found in him a series of texts whose range of interests and the quality of questions raised spoke to me as a modern thinker. Studying Shakespeare allowed me to understand the significance of his period as truly early modern – that moment when a complex collocation of events transformed the world in ways that we continue to experience today. How could I not be interested in understanding the historical, cultural, and intellectual shifts that inform my life even now?”
The journey of discovery that led Smith to Shakespeare is something he likes to replicate for his students, exposing them to significant, field-advancing texts and theories. He also is a mentor outside the classroom, guiding students in their own research pursuits, which in turn pushes him to be a better professor.
“I like students to leave my Lafayette classroom knowing that they have been challenged at the highest level and can compete with students anywhere for having taken the time to be a participant in my classroom,” he says. “Outside collaborations allow for a more intense dialogue and learning experience. The challenges of trying to engage a student at still a higher level of investigation means that I have to become even more flexible in trying to respond to questions. My intellectual dancing feet have to be agile and adept.”
Smith’s latest book project, Fabricated Identities: Racial Cross-Dressing on the Early Modern Stage, investigates how actors used prosthetic devices, such as wigs, paints, soot, dyes, and black cloth, to represent Africans on stage. Smith explains that as Europe became more involved in international trade, its contact with non-Europeans increased.
“England’s entry into this world of global commerce meant that theatrical representations of non-Europeans told a larger story of economic development, its management, and self-justification,” he says. “Art was brought into the service of social celebration and economic confirmation. The nature of the contacts with people – non-Europeans especially – was radically altered and codified in material terms: People became things. Examining how Africans were represented on the stage, therefore, where black bodies were materialized as cloth, becomes a gateway into this inquiry of human commodification, one that connects to later historical developments that explicitly rendered black bodies as commodities within a plantation economy.”
Smith is the author of Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors, which explores how linguistic rehabilitation identified the African as the outsider while boosting England’s self image. His scholarly research on Renaissance studies and drama, as well as postcolonial literature, has appeared in numerous publications, including articles in the Blackwell Companions to Shakespeare: The Tragedies and Blackwell Companion to the Global Renaissance 1550-1660: English Culture and Literature in the Era of Expansion, two entries in Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature, and four entries in Greenwood Shakespeare Encyclopedia.
Smith has been an invited speaker at many conferences and forums, including addresses to University of Surrey (Roehampton, England), Modern Language Association, International Shakespeare Association, Shakespeare Association of America, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Folger Shakespeare Library (including a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar), Columbia University Shakespeare Seminar, University of Delaware, University of California-Santa Cruz, and Lavender Language and Linguistics Conference.
He is a recipient of Lafayette’s Student Government Superior Teaching Award, Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award, Daniel L. Golden ’34 Alumni Association-Faculty Service Award, and Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Lecture Award. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University.