Austin American Statesman

One in an occasional series. (More on this series)

"On Stage, Among the Trees: Scholars are Changing Research, Lives
with Community Collaboration"

By Rick Cherwitz, Sarah A. Rodriguez and Julie Sievers
Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, March 16, 2003

Like Rapunzel, many academics remain trapped within the tree-lined edges of their campuses. Their research, while potentially valuable to society, often is conducted in isolation. But not graduate students Chris Anne Strickling and Maria Fadiman. They are pursuing some of today's most exciting intellectual and social developments by collaborating directly with communities.

In previous articles in this series, a distinctive breed of graduate students--the citizen scholar--has been spotlighted. Here is a story of what happens when scholars become intellectual entrepreneurs, approaching community members as collaborative partners in a research inquiry that positively affects them both.

Staging New Research

For English doctoral candidate Chris Anne Strickling, "Actual Lives"--an ongoing theater workshop devoted to creating autobiographical art from the lives of disabled people--is no side project. It is where she conducts much of her research on autobiography, fiction, performance and the role of disability in American culture.

In the workshop she co-founded, Strickling guides participants as they write down their stories and then use their widely differing bodies to perform the narratives. Their art educates, criticizes and sometimes shocks audiences. "We were careful not to privilege inspirational stories of overcoming disability over less tidy narratives," says Strickling, "and instead tried to confront audiences with their own complicity in constructing a physical and social environment that converts physical difference into disability."

In the image below, Chris Anne Strickling, a doctoral student in English, creates research in action with her "Actual Lives" workshop. The work takes people with disabilities and incorporates their stories and the interaction between the cast and Strickling into her research.

The cast of "Actual Lives" theatre workshop

Strickling's research on what disability means in American society and how autobiographical performances affect people's lives studies their eloquent and dramatic narratives with the attention literary scholars pay to serious art. The performers and their stories, however, are more than the subjects of her work; instead, she cites their incisive analyses of the key problems she studies, viewing the writer-actors as experts and colleagues.

"I'm coming in as an outsider because I don't have a disability," Strickling says, "and I have to take seriously my position as the outsider. I have to sit and listen." Strickling's collaboration with nonacademics gives her an edge. As she completes her Ph.D., she finds herself at the forefront of the emerging field of disability studies, fortified by her background as a literary scholar, writing teacher and occupational therapist. She is able to chart this new path into the community only by boldly abandoning much of the academy's old wisdom. "I had to invent this myself. I wouldn't have been able to imagine the project without my university work, and yet I didn't get (the idea for collaborating) from anyone. It's a new synthesis," she says.

Rain Forest Conservation

Where Maria Fadiman, doctoral candidate in geography, conducts her research, rainforest vines replace brick office walls and palms take root where her bookshelves would stand. Her research with Ecuadorian communities aims to help them retain some control over how they manage their economic needs while preserving their home--the rainforest. Although the people who live in the forest depend upon it for survival, their economic needs have forced them to cut much of it down for logging companies. To address the problem, Fadiman collaborates with three different ethnic groups: mestizo and Afro-Ecuadorian colonists and Chachi Amerindians. She studies how they use natural fiber plants--specifically vine and palm--and how these plants might be used as market products. If she and they can figure out how to harvest the plant materials sustainably, these groups can earn money without cutting trees.

Maria Fadiman, a doctoral student in geography, works with Ecuadorians to find ways to make money without having to sell their previous rainforest.

Maria Fadiman working in the rainforest.Like Strickling, Fadiman's work requires her to let go the position of expert or policy-maker. She finds that local groups need collaborators, especially researchers not vested in a specific policy who can help them discover effective ways to confront emerging market conditions and political realities. Taking their perspective and insights seriously grants her an unexpected freedom as a researcher.

"I am not supposed to tell them what to do to immediately produce outcomes," she says. "I make sure I record what they say and what they do--their voices--not as something to be questioned or disagreed with. Although I do worry about outcomes, [this approach] gives me a role of not having to dictate what they are doing. "But I saw how some nongovernment organizations do their work: by bringing in outsiders' ideas. . . . I want to keep the options open to those groups if they want to use their own resources (rather than cutting down trees for logging companies).

"Establishing the relationship," Fadiman says, "is a huge part of the process. I have to make sure they understand that I will not merely use them to pursue my own ends my Ph.D. and research."

While the research helps her dissertation, both parties must feel invested in the work. "The Chachi Federation wanted to make sure that I was giving back information in their language for their use," she said.

Both Strickling and Fadiman admit that engaging in community collaboration as a form of research can be difficult. "It's a tightrope," says Strickling, while Fadiman muses on the complications of being a community outsider. Ultimately, however, both agree that their collaborative approach has enriched their research while enabling them to engage communities to which they feel strong personal commitments. Efforts such as theirs suggest emergent models of both research and public service, where academics partner with communities, creating knowledge and providing service "with" rather than "to" society.

Cherwitz is associate dean of Graduate Studies and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at UT, where Rodriguez is a master's candidate in library and information science and Sievers is a doctoral candidate in English.