David E. K. Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, has been accepted into the 2022 National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program.
Smith is one of just 35 scholars accepted into the highly competitive program, which supports scholars whose dissertations show potential for bringing new perspectives to the history, theory, analysis, or practice of formal or informal education. Fellows receive $27,500 for a period of up to two years to complete their dissertations and also attend professional development retreats.
As a student in Pitt Education’s Social and Comparative Analysis in Education (SCAE) program, Smith’s research focuses on the role of arts—specifically music—in education. His dissertation is an ethnography of two Iñupiaq dance and drumming groups in Alaska that explores the participation of other-than-human members and highlights the ways in which the arts are used to solve societal problems.
“Among the Iñupiaq people, other-than-human groups (such as animals and natural forces like mountains and rivers) are thought to be both students and teachers, and key participants in the learning process,” says Smith. “Part of my dissertation is about rethinking and restructuring how we view the participants in learning.”
Smith says one example is the way in which the Iñupiaq people look to animals to better understand hunting and fishing practices. For example, a raven might gather around a certain area and tip its wings to indicate large game is below—acting as a “teacher” to hunters. On the other hand, if a raven hears a gunshot, it learns to go toward that area because it will likely find leftover meat.
“There are a lot of songs and dances about how to learn from these natural entities,” says Smith. “It becomes this teaching and learning of how to find places and where to go. There’s also a spiritual element among the more natural forces like rivers and mountains.”
Another part of his dissertation is on the moral, social, and skill-based cultural knowledge taught through Iñupiaq song and dance. One example of this is the “Float Coat” song, which was created to teach people about the importance of wearing life jackets.
“Traditionally, this is how they’ve passed down their knowledge and taught life lessons,” says Smith. “They’ve been using that as a solution to solving and teaching modern problems through song and dance.”
Born and raised in Alaska, Smith grew up accompanying his parents as they traveled across the state to different Indigenous villages in their work as Native rights lawyers. It was through that experience that he learned about Alaskan Native communities.
Smith notes that there is a gap between Alaskan educational policy and Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning.
“There’s been a huge amount of strife and struggle within the education system in Alaska, and it hasn’t done a good job of serving Alaskan Native people,” says Smith. “Knowing these communities and talking to a lot of these people, I know that the way they’re teaching and learning and having their own educational experiences has a huge amount of value.”
“I was really drawn to come back to Alaska and help further legitimize that understanding and Indigenous ways of knowing,” he says.
Smith credits his Pitt Education experience for helping him better understand the impact he can have as a researcher.
“What drew me to the SCAE program is that it encourages you to draw on diverse perspectives outside of education,” he says. “That was important to me because I knew I wanted to do research in music, too. I don’t think there are a lot of other programs that would have given me the same freedom to pursue an interdisciplinary project like this.”
“I thought my dissertation might be too niche (for the fellowship), but I threw my hat into the ring,” he says. “I’m honored, grateful, and excited to be part of this program and community.”
The Social and Comparative Analysis in Education (SCAE) programs at the Pitt School of Education are focused on a holistic review of education, with a special emphasis on comparative, international, and developmental education. Learn more about the SCAE master’s and doctoral degree programs.
The School of Education also offers master's and doctoral programs in Education Policy, which are now accepting applications.