Guidance from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on careers for humanities Ph.D.'s

Monday, December 3, 2001
Learning to Be a Citizen-Scholar
by Richard Cherwitz, Thomas Darwin and Laura Grund

Imagine a graduate-education system that begins by asking students to think about what matters to them most and then uses their answers not only to create programs of research, but also exciting and varied career possibilities. We call this approach "passion plus expertise," and it is the premise behind the "intellectual entrepreneurship" program at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the days following September 11, we had occasion to put the philosophy to work: We asked graduate students in the program to reflect on what their disciplines could bring to an understanding of the terrorist attacks. Our invitation struck a chord in a community of students who routinely think about how to use their expertise to promote political, cultural, social, and economic change.

"We have to begin to think as we have to begin to live -- without a net -- and focus our professional attention on things that are important and meaningful to us, not only as academics, but as human beings," says Richard Holtzman, a doctoral candidate in government and a student in the Texas program. He believes that political theorists have an important contribution to make to these historical times; that's why he started a new discussion list for political theorists across the country. Its aim? To get these scholars talking about September 11 and similar events, Mr. Holtzman says, and "establish a community dedicated to creating meaningful political theory."

Lori Stone, a fourth-year doctoral student in social psychology, decided to take action when she and a Pakistani friend were treated with hostility at a local Austin restaurant because of her friend's ethnicity. "My colleagues and I are consumed by a desire to offer what social psychologists can offer," she says. "We want to help UT students cope with the attacks. We're asking students to write about their thoughts and feelings on the September 11 attacks, once from their own perspective, and once from a broader perspective, and then we explore the stories together."

The idea behind the intellectual entrepreneurship program, now in its fifth year, is to help graduate students become "citizen-scholars" -- to discover their scholarly identity and decide where and how to contribute their expertise to the community in which they live. Through interdisciplinary courses such as "Consulting," "Academic and Professional Writing," and "Entrepreneurship," students get a hands-on introduction to complex public problems within a very immediate context -- the city in which they live. They learn to view themselves as intellectual entrepreneurs and to view their scholarship as an asset that is valuable beyond university classrooms and academic publications.

That point hit home for Tsim Schneider, an anthropology student in the Texas program who is specializing in archaeology, when archaeologists received an e-mail message from the FBI after the attack on the World Trade Center asking them for equipment and expertise in excavating the site. "The call for archaeologists has shown me that the monstrous events of that Tuesday touch us all," Mr. Schneider says, "and we will respond without hesitation."

Students in the program are taught that knowledge should be put to work and that intellectual activity is not complete until there is action. They are challenged to find ways to apply their expertise inside and outside of the university. A case in point: Alexis Chamow, who is pursuing a master of fine arts in theater and dance. "Artists have many opportunities to be 'useful' in their communities -- especially during crises," she said. "Performance, live art, has a way of tapping into people's souls and offering them deep contemplation, solace, and possibly communion, release."

Ms. Chamow and her colleagues are creating a public reading, to be held in the spring, about the reaction to September 11. "It's an original 'play,'" she says. "It's based on e-mail messages that have been circulating in my department as well as personal accounts of tragedy, survival, hope, despair, and fear of what is to come next." The students want to use the performance as a communitywide benefit to memorialize that day and offer their own contribution to relief efforts. "Through performance, we create with our audience an opportunity for necessary dialogue -- a safe space to explore ideas and emotions so that people who do not necessarily know each other can live, for a few hours, in a communal and ritualistic setting that allows us to cry, reminds us to laugh, and challenges our beliefs by asking us to consider views that differ from our own."

In thought and action, graduate students are proving to us, to themselves, and to our community the immense value of graduate expertise. Besides providing new ways to understand what happened on September 11 and why, the rich array of perspectives provided by our students underscores one of the core values of the intellectual entrepreneurship program -- namely, that collective wisdom is perhaps the most precious asset of the academy, and the essence of a university. It is an asset that we as academics have an obligation to share with society.

Now more than ever, universities should re-evaluate traditional attitudes about educating graduate students. We must encourage students to think more boldly and broadly about how to use their knowledge to make meaningful and lasting differences not only across the disciplinary boundary lines within academe, but also in the community at large.

To accomplish this, graduate educators must provide actual opportunities for students to work in cross-disciplinary settings and to take their skills and knowledge outside their universities. The intellectual entrepreneurship program represents a modest first step. Every day we see how graduate students and members of the community together find productive ways to use intellectual talent, experience, and passion to promote social, political, economic, and academic change. It is a challenge to integrate this kind of action into a doctoral program, but doing so gives us all the best chance to solve the complex problems we face.

You can find more information about the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program by visiting its current web site:


Richard Cherwitz is a professor of Communication Studies and founder of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at The University of Texas at Austin. Thomas Darwin is director of the Professional Development and Community Engagement Program in the Office of Graduate Studies. Laura Grund is a master's student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a graduate research assistant for the Office of Graduate Studies.