Tovah Ackerman, a member of Amherst’s Class of 2009, has been awarded a 2011 Gates Cambridge Scholarship for graduate study at the University of Cambridge in England. In the program’s 11 years, Ackerman is the third student from Amherst to be awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
A law, jurisprudence and social thought (LJST) major during her college years, Ackerman will earn a master’s degree in criminology. She plans to will explore what she calls the “narratives of monstrosity—such as myths, fairy tales, political speeches, newspaper articles, films and novels—and the relationship between those narratives and cultural discourse on criminality.”
“I believe that the language with which we discuss criminality in the United States—calling criminals scum, beasts and monsters—has, in part, led to public acceptance of harsher punishment,” Ackerman explained of her proposed course of study in her application for the scholarship. “To describe someone as a monster is to dehumanize them, to categorize them as an ‘other,’ unrecognizable by human standards. Once an individual is marginalized rhetorically, I believe it becomes easier to both desire and effect their physical marginalization to the outer boundaries of human interaction. Prisons provide the perfect space for this type of exile. Monsters belong in cages (or deserve to be killed), and by rhetorically eliminating any of the human elements of an individual, all inclination toward sympathy becomes null.” Familiarizing herself with Great Britain’s criminal narrative traditions, she said, will broaden her perspective and help her develop a more nuanced understanding of monstrosity and the cultural discourse on criminality. She hopes this work will lay the foundation for doctoral work she also plans to pursue on the topic in the future.
Ackerman’s interest in monstrosity and criminality builds on research she began at Amherst and her current work as a paralegal at the Federal Defenders of New York, Inc., which she said helps indigent clients in Manhattan and the Bronx fight criminal charges or receive lenient sentences. “We also work as unofficial social workers, helping clients manage a multitude of issues where the criminal justice system cannot or will not help,” she explained. “At the Federal Defender’s office I have personally seen abuses of power and disregard for human misery in the federal criminal justice system… After seeing the prisons and courts at the ground level I am determined to create lasting change in the way we think about and deal with criminality. I believe that an international study of criminality and punishment is the most promising method of understanding the strengths and flaws in the U.S. penal system and of bringing change within it.”
That commitment to transforming the system was evident in Ackerman even while at college. “Tovah believes that the life of the mind does not end with the intellectual engagements of the classroom or the library,” wrote LJST professor Austin Sarat, in a recommendation for her. “She has a broad and deep commitment to social justice… She seems drawn to a career in public service as a chance to lend herself to the struggle for justice. [But] Tovah understands that that struggle is an ongoing and difficult one; she is not naïve when she talks about her desire to work in the public interest.”
During her time at Amherst, Ackerman was the recipient of the LJST’s Robert Cover Prize for excellence. As a first-year student at Amherst she participated in the women's cross-country and track teams and then served as a research assistant to Sarat for the following three years
The Gates Cambridge scholarship program was set up in 2000 and funded by a $210 million donation by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It enables exemplary postgraduates from outside the UK who have a strong interest in social leadership and responsibility to study at the University of Cambridge, which celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2009. Between 2001 and 2010 there have been almost 1,000 Gates Scholars from more than 90 countries. The aim is to set up an international network of scholars and alumni who will have a transformative effect on society. The University of Cambridge is the top-ranked university internationally, according to the QS 2010 World Rankings.
Of the year’s scholarship winners, Cambridge professor Robert Lethbridge, provost (CEO) of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “We are delighted with our new American Gates Scholars selected in New York. Not only will these talented young people engage fully with the University and Colleges while in Cambridge, but they have also been chosen for their likely future influence and engagement with some of the world's most pressing problems. Ten years after the arrival of the first Gates Scholars to Cambridge we are just as delighted to be welcoming these new Scholars.”
Ackerman and the 29 other Gates Cambridge recipients chosen from the United States hail from 22 states and 25 colleges and universities. They were whittled down from an initial field of around 800 applicants and an interview shortlist of 80. These 30 American scholars will be joined by 60 Gates Scholars from other parts of the world, who will be selected after interviews in late March 2011.