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The collective wisdom of citizen-scholars: University of Texas at Austin graduate students empowered in wake of Sept. 11 tragedy
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked the world. For many of us, feelings of grief, anger and fear compelled us to want to act, to do something.
But first, we must understand, reflect upon and come to grips with what happened. As expected, we have countless questions. Why did our national security fail on Sept. 11? How can we protect ourselves against terrorism? Is war the only option? How do we cope with the pain and suffering inflicted on Sept. 11? How should the United States respond to the complex and volatile politics of the Middle East and Southern Asia? Can and how should terrorist plotters be brought to justice? As individuals, communities, nations and cultures, what can we learn from these events?
The University of Texas at Austin has an obligation to try to make sense of what transpired. At a time like this, the country could most benefit from the diverse intellectual perspectives a university provides. And, it may surprise you that many, if not all, of the questions above are being addressed by one of the universitys most valuable resources: its graduate students.
Not only are graduate students from programs such as Middle Eastern studies and public affairs analyzing the events of Sept. 11, but also graduate students from many other disciplines social psychology, fine arts, political theory, anthropology and statistics are contributing important insights.
The universitys graduate students are passionate about their research and are hungry for opportunities to put their knowledge to work. Graduate students from across campus believe their scholarly work is incomplete unless they can connect it to something larger. "Let us take the confusion, sadness, anger and fear that we feel as private human beings and allow them to guide our work as public intellectuals. We must begin to think as we must begin to live without a net and focus our professional attention on things that are important and meaningful to us, not as academics, but as human beings," said Richard Holtzman, doctoral student in government.
This passion was never more apparent than in a recent listserv-discussion initiated by Rick Cherwitz, associate dean of graduate studies, the week following the disasters in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. This electronic discussion presented an opportunity for University of Texas at Austin graduate students in about every department to reflect on what their discipline might bring to an understanding of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
What followed were rich and varied commentaries. In a matter of hours, Cherwitz received about 30 responses from students in the arts, sciences, humanities, social sciences and professional schools that document the enormous intellectual assets held by the universitys graduate students. "Inviting students to respond on a Graduate School listserv certainly struck a chord," Cherwitz said. "Graduate students once again said that they want opportunities to bring their varied intellectual perspectives together in one space. Moreover, it was as though graduate students were waiting for someone to ask how they could unleash their passion and expertise to make a contribution of value to more than a handful of scholars in a discipline."
This has been the theme of the Graduate Schools Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program since it began several years ago that graduate students are more than scholars: they are "citizen-scholars" whose knowledge allows, and perhaps obligates, them to contribute to numerous venues.
One of those citizen-scholars, Lori Stone, is working diligently to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. A fourth-year doctoral student in social psychology, Stone said she was affected by the terrorist attacks both professionally and personally. She and a Pakistani friend were treated with hostility at a local Austin restaurant, prompting her to begin "action research." Stone convened a special meeting of psychology faculty and students to identify how they might contribute their expertise.
"Several students have spoken with me in the last week, and all are consumed by a need and desire to offer what we as social psychologists can offer," Stone said. "One method we are investigating that we hope will help students cope with the attacks asks them to take personal and community perspectives. In other words, we ask them to write about their thoughts and feelings concerning the Sept. 11 attacks, once from their own personal perspective, and once from a larger perspective. We have evidence from previous studies that the ability to successfully process emotional events is associated with shifting perspectives."
Stone is not the only citizen-scholar doing important work in response to the terrorist attacks. Alexis Chamow, a masters student in theatre and dance, is demonstrating how performance and art add a significant dimension to our understanding of the crisis.
Chamow and her colleagues are working on a public, staged reading, based on Internet messages that have been circulating, as well as personal accounts of tragedy, survival, hope, despair and fear of what is to come next. Like many students, Chamow and her colleagues have a collective sense that they should be gathering as an artistic community to do something.
"Artists have tremendous opportunities to be useful in our communities especially during crises," she said. "Performers can facilitate the creation of necessary dialogue. This then enables audiences and performers together to build a forum that is a safe space for the exploration of ideas and emotions. This kind of environment is one where 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."
"I believe performance, live art, has a way of tapping into peoples souls and offering them deep contemplation, solace, and possibly communion, release," Chamow added.
A unique insight
While graduate students from not-so-apparent disciplines are offering unique insight, students from more obvious disciplines are also able to help us think differently about a problem. According to Richard Holtzman, doctoral student in government, " political theorists must gather their skills and the tools of their profession and offer what assistance they can." He believes that meaningful political theory should be just that, because it must rise to meet the demands of its historical moment. Consequently, Holtzman started a listserv network of his own "to facilitate discussion and establish a community dedicated to creating contextual and meaningful political theory (meaningful firstname.lastname@example.org)."
Tsim Schneider, an anthropology student specializing in archaeology, offered yet another perspective. Schneider recounted how two of the most prominent archaeological points associated with the Sept. 11 events are the erasure of the Buddhist statuary by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and recent email from the FBI circulated to all archaeologists, asking them for equipment and expertise in "excavating" the World Trade Center. "The fact that a politico-religious movement is willing to erase its past for its future is unsettling, in that most Americans are often brought up looking to the past for help in dealing with the present. The call for archaeologists has revealed to me that the monstrous events of that Tuesday will be treated by all, without hesitation," Schneider said.
These commentaries all confirm that graduate students have unique and interesting perspectives that empower them to explain complex, public problems. Their distinctive voices furnish powerful evidence for why academics must be a part of societys larger conversation and decision-making about the current crisis. Perhaps those who govern should govern only after consulting with an array of scholars in the sciences, humanities, social sciences and arts who, by virtue of their knowledge, recognize that shaping public initiatives must involve the consideration of all reasonable perspectives.
The skills and knowledge of University of Texas at Austin graduate students in areas ranging from psychology to the arts to political theory to anthropology are critical to both the short-term and long-term needs created by the recent tragic events.
"Universities become universities," said Cherwitz, "when different academic voices come together. Indeed, collective and integrated wisdom may be the most precious asset of the academy."
The ongoing cross-disciplinary discussion by graduate students is but one example of how institutions such as The University of Texas at Austin can create a collective value a value that emerges from the important scholarly work academics already do.
To learn more about the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program, visit the Website.