Austin American Statesman

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

Creating Classrooms Without Walls

by Rick Cherwitz, Sarah Rodriguez, and Julie Sievers
Austin American-Statesman
May 19, 2003

At a time when the world faces unprecedented challenges, why are many of our nation's most capable minds in graduate school? By the thousands they enter universities, sometimes taking up to eight years to earn a degree. Many are in their physical prime, devoting themselves to libraries and labs and incurring unwieldy debts while their peers build homes and investment portfolios. Why?

In this follow-up to previous citizen-scholar articles, graduate students speak to a fundamental issue: their ethical commitments as scholars and global citizens. Their words testify to both their deeply held values and the difficulties they must overcome.

picture of Aaron ShieldBefore arriving on campus, Aaron Shield, now a second-year linguistics doctoral student, faced tough questions from his parents about why he was entering UT. "They said," Shield recalls, "'You're on this planet to do something with your life. It's good if you can find something you like and you enjoy, but it would be great if it wasn't just about you.' I was like Yeah, yeah, I just don't want to be bored."

His answer echoed a common desire among graduate students: to push their limits and grow. But Shield continually re-asked the question. It wasn't merely about motives. It was also about ethics. As Christine Beier, a fourth-year graduate student in anthropology, put it, "What can I do with my talents, my skills, my wealth as a North American, that doesn't just accrue to me?"

picture of Christine BeierFourteen years ago that question stopped Beier in her tracks. About to pursue a Ph.D. in English, she realized she didn't have an answer. She then devoted ten years to social justice issues, working odd jobs to pay bills, until she finally found her purpose. And when she did, it led her straight back to school.

"I realized that I alone wasn't going to change everything I thought was wrong with the world. Furthermore, who was I to say what was wrong?" she asked. Therefore, "I got involved with indigenous issues in Peru--human rights, language rights, autonomy, and small communities. I truly believe that by understanding questions and problems you might actually create practicable solutions as opposed to jousting windmills like I did for a decade."

Shield, too, found his purpose. "I've started working on theoretical aspects of sign languages. It became obvious to me that, because there is so little known, deaf people have suffered." The ability of theory to improve the quality of life inspires Shield. For both Shield and Beier, research matters.

For others, graduate school isn't just an answer to a question about what to do with one's talents. It is also the best place to ask the question. Sylvia Gale, a first-year graduate student in English, entered UT with two goals. "I wanted to have a forum for self growth. I also have a vision both professionally and personally. This tension between a deliberate choice, and blossoming into what this place makes you, which may not be what you anticipate, is important to me." For Gale, that has meant departing from the traditional track and accepting a job with UT's new Humanities Institute. "Being here," she insists, "is about making choices along the way that keep my goals in the foreground, not just following advisors' directives."

picture of Jessica HesterLike Gale, Jessica Hester, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in theater, allowed herself to discover new paths. Hester's career took its first turn when she married and became a stepmother. It made me want to make my degree more community-based. Now I want to teach in a school with primarily working class students to create a program so that those theater students have a way of doing their own work." Hester is inspired by her new direction: "I don't think if I stayed obsessed with academics I would have gotten to that point. Im much more excited about what I do than four years ago."

Hearing these students, one thrills to the possibilities they sense, their passion and the sweep of their vision. But no one said getting there would be easy. While outsiders view academe as an ivory tower, insiders know that universities hold a tough "real world" all their own. Students pursuing their visions frequently learn they must proceed at their own risk. To make things happen, Beier argues, you must be willing to stick your neck out.

picture of Matthew Green

How do students do that? For Matthew Green, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate who develops technology for poor rural communities abroad, it meant choosing research that didnt quickly yield funding. "I was a teaching assistant for two years which I enjoyed, but it slowed me down. The graduate adviser called me into his office and said 'We expect students like you by this point to be a research assistant.' Thankfully I did get a fellowship, allowing me to pursue the Ph.D." Since then, his advisor has wished him luck.

picture of Joshua Duntley Sixth-year psychology Ph.D. candidate Josh Duntley believes his stalking and homicide internet site is as important as his scholarly publications on the subject. Yet, notes Duntley, "When I apply for jobs one day and want to continue the work I've been doing, they're not going to give me a reward for--hey, you've had ten million hits on your stalking help web site, good for you, you're hired! It's frustrating."

In spite of these realities, students remain resolute. Everyday, between the vision and the struggle, they pave unconventional paths for themselves. In graduate school they find breathtakingly rich resources for developing their talents and discovering how best to meet their ethical commitments. Far from exemplifying the nearsighted scholar blind to the world, they have chosen to be both scholars and citizens.

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.