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2013 Dean’s Award: Laura F. Edwards

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Laura F. Edwards, Professor of History, earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to joining the Duke History Department as Associate Professor in 2001, she was on the faculty of the University of California-Los Angeles. Professor Edwards' research focuses on women, gender, and the law in the nineteenth-century south.

The nominators for Professor Edwards for the Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentoring all echo the themes of her innate ability to recognize each student's uniqueness and adapt her interactions with them accordingly. They praise her for her consistently open lines of communication, her engagement in the broader academic community that she freely shares with students, her inspired teaching, and the intellectual rigor that she demands of herself and constructively fosters in her students.

Professor Edwards' interest in the student as an individual is evident as early as a student's acceptance into the program, even before the student commits to Duke. One student, whose first interaction with Professor Edwards occurred just minutes after notification of admission to Duke, says that "Her warm congratulations, detailed reference to my application and research interests, and invitation to join her and a few other prospective graduate students for lunch on the first day of prospective students' weekend captured my attention and led me to believe that Duke's faculty emphasized mentorship more than other programs to which I applied. " Another notes that Professor Edwards sent her a congratulatory email upon her acceptance and that when she arrived for the prospective student's weekend, Professor Edwards rushed back from a conference she was attending to meet her, providing her with her personal contact information and encouraging her to contact her with any questions about the program. This individual attention had a profound effect on the student, who says "By the time I left that meeting, I was totally committed to attending Duke and looking forward to having Professor Edwards direct my dissertation."

Professor Edwards' awareness of her students' unique characteristics enables her to adapt her mentoring style accordingly, and she excels at integrating students with very different personalities into the larger academic community, as one student says "She takes disparate personalities and orchestrates supportive classes, seminars, meetings and even less formal dinners and lunches." Another student expresses this characteristic as the ability to tailor her approach to the needs of each student. Although this may mean different styles of communication with different students, she is inherently approachable and consistently available through a variety of channels. Beginning with a congratulatory email or phone call, throughout the course of a student's graduate career at Duke, and extending into the professional life of the graduate, Professor Edwards' relationship with her student continues and evolves.

This evolution is made possible by Professor Edwards' continuous accessibility, which stays constant even in the face of obstacles. As one student describes it, "I had always known that Professor Edwards maintained accessibility by providing consistently open lines of communication to all of her graduate students, but once I began working with her on multiple projects simultaneously, I learned that terrible weather, personal trouble, travel, holidays, or presenting at her own conferences never stopped her from being accessible and communicating with me or her other students of all levels." In fact, although Professor Edwards was on leave from teaching and doing research fellowships, another student notes that her accessibility did not waver and that "Aside from not physically seeing her on campus, I never noticed her absence." An additional nominator seconds this experience, saying "Whether physically present on campus or tucked away elsewhere working on her latest book, Professor Edwards is always available to her graduate students."

Not only is Professor Edwards herself accessible, she ensures that her students have access to the broader academic community and to her networks. One student notes that "She is one of the best professors to have by your side at a conference because she is quick to introduce her students to senior scholars who study similar topics." She uses conferences as one way to  "help her students learn the tools to create their own networks of scholarly colleagues across the discipline" and to teach them about presenting: "For her newer graduate students (especially those enrolled in coursework and others not quite ready to present) she strongly advocates conference attendance, which allows us to witness successful (and not so successful) presentations. Once I completed coursework, she immediately began encouraging me to present my work at academic conferences. Most of her students follow a similar trajectory—from attendance to witness and then to learning to participate, which offers a different kind of education."

In terms of academic rigor, "Professor Edwards makes sure her students are scholastically well groomed and works to ensure that they are developed professionally. She imposes high standards on her students, but she also does anything she can to help them make their mark as scholars and professionals." Not only does she provide detailed written feedback, she teaches students to look at their own work with a critical eye. In fact, one student argues that "Professor Edwards' trademark is her proclivity for offering copious and insightful comments of my work. She is, indeed, a wholehearted advocate of constant revision. The point is to strive for excellence and we (all of her students) are motivated by this mandate." As one student observes, "She sets a very high bar for her students and then demonstrates what it looks like to achieve lofty goals." Professor Edwards' nominators attest to her warmth and devotion to her students' development while continuing her own pursuit of academic excellence, serving "as an excellent model of how to balance all of the responsibilities we have as scholars."