Introducing the 2020 Texas Ten

By Alcalde Staff | Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

The Alcalde
May 1, 2020 · 15 min read

Every year, the Alcalde flips the script and gives alumni the chance to give their favorite professors an A+. Through nominations from former students, the Texas Ten honors professors who have made a difference in the lives of Longhorns. From the musician who instills the power of music in young children to the engineer who loves to problem solve and the mathematician who is determined to see his students succeed, there is no doubt the 2020 class of the Texas Ten is one deserving bunch.

John Rumrich

Live in the Moment: Lately, he has been thinking about this quote from John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Greater than Gatsby: One of Rumrich’s favorite books is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. “It was published around the same time as The Great Gatsby, and bears certain similarities. But Hammett’s book, even though it is detective genre fiction, I find more engaging. And its cultural impact has been huge.”

English professor John Rumrich was torn between academia and joining the military when a post-graduate school offer from Fordham University made his decision for him. Rumrich says he wasn’t particularly “vocationally driven,” and didn’t expect to get a teaching job after earning his graduate degree from the University of Virginia. His backup plan? Flying planes.

“I wasn’t quite 6 feet tall, I was the right weight, I had better than 20/20 vision, and I was good at piloting,” Rumrich says. “But I promised people that if I did get an offer I would do the teaching route.”

After Fordham, Rumrich applied for an assistant professorship in the English department at The University of Texas in 1984. Thirty-five years later, he’s still here, teaching the poetry of John Milton and the plays of William Shakespeare, who are, in his opinion, two of the greatest writers in the English language. “The way that we interact, the way we behave, the way we express ourselves are so influenced by Shakespeare’s writing and by his actors and characters,” he says.

Rumrich is preparing to teach a signature course in the fall on the Beatles. From the most important playwright to arguably one of the most important bands of all time, Rumrich says he’s still trying to figure everything out for himself. It’s why he loves to teach.

“It’s not stale for me,” he says. — Emily Caldwell

Laurie Scott

Favorite music: “I love Mahler,” she says. She’s also a big fan of Shostakovich and the Beatles. “And I’ll never tire of listening to ‘La bohème.’”

In the woods: Scott was raised in New York. During winters and every summer, she retreats to a 125-year-old farmhouse she owns upstate to relax and restore antiques. “I really like wood,” she says. “I’m always looking at pieces of furniture. I like to be in the woods, I like to be around trees. And I have a violin.”

Laurie Scott practices what she preaches. As director of UT’s String Project — a program formed in 1948 to train teachers and develop young musicians — she takes a vertical approach to education, meeting with 30 young teachers every week and doing hands-on work with students of all ages. She teaches children as young as four, adults in their 80s, and many more
in between.

“I’m training [my students] to teach in schools,” she says. “So I go to schools and teach.”

In 2009, Scott helped launch Musical Lives under the String Project umbrella to bring her Butler School students together with kids at UT Elementary School. She sees the need for children to become involved in musical education as early as possible.

Part of that thinking comes from her own experience. Scott grew up harmonizing songs with her mother, who took on extra jobs to pay for Scott’s music education. She started playing the violin in fourth grade and added the French horn in high school, which took her to SUNY Fredonia, where she studied music education, then on to Nebraska, where she got her master’s degree in violin performance. Her mentor told her that if she wanted to seriously pursue string music education, UT was the place to go. She moved to Texas in 1981.

Since taking over the String Project in 2002, Scott has been able to further reinforce the importance of music education for young kids, even if they don’t aspire to become performers or music educators.

“They’re learning about themselves. They’re learning about other people,” she says. “We are musical beings.” — Chris O’Connell

Ofodike Ezekoye

Honorary Texan: Ezekoye, who grew up in Pittsburgh, became a Longhorn fanatic early on. He has been a season ticket holder since he moved to Austin in 1993. For the past 23 years, Ezekoye’s date nights (and days) with his wife have been at UT football games.

Almost a Techie: As a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, Ezekoye had dreams of becoming an entrepreneur in the world of technology before a mentor encouraged him to try teaching. “I was in the Bay Area in the late ’80s, but somehow I didn’t figure it out,” he jokes.

Ofodike Ezekoye is a philosopher at heart. “The reason I wanted to pursue a PhD in engineering — this sounds weird — was to make sense of the world,” he says with a warm grin. “Not just the physical, the metaphysical. I was just naïve, I guess.”

Engineering was also the family business. His father, an immigrant from Nigeria, is a mechanical engineer himself. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Ezekoye toyed with the idea of earning a doctorate in philosophy, but his father urged him to consider a more “practical” discipline. Ezekoye went on to become an expert in combustion and heat transfer, publishing over 200 papers on the subject, but he still manages to sneak bits of philosophy into his hard science classroom nearly every day.

No matter which course he’s teaching, Ezekoye likes to remind his students that the real world is complicated. “One of the things that we want to do is reduce any given problems that we’re dealing with to a homework problem,” he says. “The challenge, of course, is trying to identify how to throw out the useless parts, in some sense, less important features of the problem, to reduce it to the thing that you know how to solve. I think in some sense we’re all searching for that.” — Sofia Sokolove

William Wolesensky

Longhorn Love: “This is going to sound like a cop out, but it’s the truth. Almost all my UT students are my dream students.”

Favorite Book: Albert Camus’ The Stranger. “Students know me now and they tell me that I’m one of the most positive people they’ve ever met. But I wasn’t always that way. That book captures how people sometimes feel at different times in their lives.”

Even for a numbers guy, mathematics professor William Wolesensky has had too many professions to count. The Nebraska native has worked in factories, trained horses, farmed for many years, worked at a bar, and taught computer courses in a penitentiary. Before taking a position at UT, he originally moved to Austin to run a beef jerky business. But through it all, math has been by his side. “Math changed my life,” he says.

Wolesensky started at UT in 2013 after that jerky business didn’t work out. He spent 17 years as a professor at the College of Saint Mary in Nebraska, and another three years at Doane College. He says he never expected to become an educator, though. When he was earning his master’s degree in 1987, he found himself struggling to get through the program. But one of his professors took special notice of him and encouraged Wolesensky to persevere. “There was nothing in it for him,” he says. “It gave me a lesson about life.”

Since then, Wolesensky has committed his career to helping students however he can. He says he is never happy when someone is unsuccessful. “My favorite thing to tell my students is, ‘You’re going to get tired of hearing me say this — but I know your lives are much bigger than my class. I want you to be successful in your lives as well as here.’” — Danielle Lopez

Haydee Rodriguez

Literary Greats: Some of her favorite authors are John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Robert Frost.

Beach Bum: “I’m from Puerto Rico and I just love, love, love my little island. I used to go to the beach every weekend. I love the beach and I love the ocean.”

Haydee Rodriguez had every intention of becoming a doctor. After high school, she left her native San Juan, Puerto Rico, to attend medical school in Spain. But it wasn’t what she expected. “It was just too sad!” she exclaims. “I was volunteering at a hospital and would come home crying every day.”

Still, she wanted to work in a field that allowed her to help others. She enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1983, and earned her master’s in English literature before taking a teaching position at the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ school as an English as a Second Language (ESL) specialist. That is where she was first exposed to the injustices children of color face daily in the American school system, which she says has informed her career ever since.

“It’s my passion and commitment to make a difference in students’ lives,” she says. “Teachers have the opportunity to change hearts and minds.”

After earning her PhD at UT Austin in 2000, Rodriguez decided to stay. She developed and teaches ESL methods and courses on Spanish for bilingual educators, educating generations of future teachers. She says she strongly believes teaching is an act of love, a philosophy she tries to instill in her students. And it seems to work. Rodriguez has been invited to former students’ weddings and baby showers, and she hears from students — they call her “Dr. R” — who’ve gone on to become counselors, principals, and professors all over the country. In 2017, she partially retired, though she still teaches courses. To honor her, her students, current and former, set up a GoFundMe to buy her the updated UT PhD graduate regalia as a parting gift.

“I have lots of joy from what I have done here,” she says. — D.L.

Tatjana Lichtenstein

Worldwide Classroom: Every summer, Lichtenstein takes students to Europe for three weeks as part of UT’s Frank Denius Normandy Scholar Program on World War II where they visit places like London, Normandy, Warsaw, and Berlin.

Sunny Days: Lichtenstein, who was born in Denmark, was an undergraduate in Copenhagen and earned her PhD in Canada. She says she’s “never going back to winter.”

Even as a child, Tatjana Lichtenstein was drawn to learning about the Holocaust. “I’m really interested in people, how they behave, and how they see their world,” she says. “Studying the very dramatic event, you learn a lot about people’s behavior.”

And that behavior, she stresses in all of her classes, is more complicated than you might think. Lichtenstein doesn’t like to draw direct parallels — “you just learn about the past and then you don’t do it again” — but instead asks her students to think critically and put themselves in the shoes of everyone involved.

In her class Poland and the Second World War, she asks students to imagine themselves living in Poland during that time and discovering that their neighbor is hiding Jews in the basement of their building, an act punishable by death for all residents. She then breaks the students up into two positions — helping the Jews versus not — and has them decide how to act. Lichtenstein says it’s a chaotic conversation at first, but then it begins to crystallize for the students just how many unknowns there were, and how difficult things were to navigate. “This topic is so easy to make statements and easy moral lessons from,” she says, “but it’s actually very complicated.”

It’s also dark and can be a challenging place in which to dwell. But Lichtenstein is driven by how fundamental history is to justice. “For crimes committed against people with little power,” she says, “political power structures cannot hold people accountable. But as I’ve been teaching this subject, I feel much more strongly that history — teaching about people and their decisions and bringing them to light — can.” — S.S.

Curran Nault

Dream Student: “A student who is curious and willing to take risks and try new things. And students I can help who have been disadvantaged by academia and haven’t had the same opportunities.”

Outside the Classroom: In 2013, Nault founded OUTsider, a nonprofit arts festival dedicated to supporting the artistry of disenfranchised creatives. “It makes me a better teacher,” Nault says, “because I have this on-the-ground experience working with queer artists in different ways that informs how I talk about those issues in the classroom.”

In 2006, Curran Nault moved from San Francisco to Austin to pursue a PhD in radio-television-film. As a graduate student, Nault, PhD ’13, co-created the first-ever radio-television-film class focused on LGBTQ issues: a class in Queer Media Studies. It was so popular with students that UT asked him to return after graduation to continue teaching it. His career — and curriculum — as a professor has evolved from there. He’s developed classes on queer TV, Asian-American film history, and global trans media, among others, and in 2018 published his first book, Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture. Nault came of age during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, a moment, he says, “where the LGBT community was becoming visible but generally in this negative kind of way.” Despite that, he was the first out gay man in his high school. “I kind of grew up having the possibility of creating something, but that space not existing quite yet,” Nault says. “So, by the time I got to UT, I had a lot of practice in terms of creating my spaces.”

Now, he works to encourage his students — especially the ones who feel marginalized — to do the same. “If you don’t see it, build it,” he tells them. “The best way to find a community is to make a space where that community can then come to you.” — S.S.

David Prindle

High Hopes: “When I was 10, I had two ambitions: to be president and to win the Nobel Prize in Literature,” he says. “I still have hopes for literature, but the other isn’t working out very well.”

Oh, Yoko: Prindle’s teaching style is partly influenced by the book Grapefruit by Yoko Ono. He picked up the book one day and realized that her art consisted of persuading the audience to participate in the creation of art, whatever it was. “And I thought, you know, that should be true for education too.”

David Prindle grew up in Southern California arguing about politics with his family at the dinner table. In 1968, he was a politics major at UC Santa Cruz when a professor asked the class to write down where they would be in 10 years. He wrote down, “assistant professor at a state university.” From there, he received his MA in political science at UCLA and his PhD from MIT, and by 1976, he had manifested his dream, winding up at UT.

He teaches classes that, today more than ever, could be divisive if not for his core values. One is Introduction to American and Texas Politics, a class where he says it’s important to be nonpartisan while remaining critical and telling the truth. Recently, before giving a lecture on the 2016 presidential election, Prindle gave his class full disclosure.

“Half of you are going to disagree with me. That’s OK,” he told them.
“You won’t be punished for disagreeing.”

At the end of the day, Prindle loves his job, which is reflected in his teaching philosophy. “Being a college professor is fun. Dealing with ideas is fun. College is fun, or it should be,” he says. “Of course there’s anxiety mixed in there, too, but I try to show the students that I’m having fun. That’s No. 1.” — C.O.

Martin “Randy” Cox

Accidental Educator: “I was all set to go to law school actually. I graduated in ’91 and got offered an assistantship to get a master’s degree in the College of Communication, so I thought, ‘Law school can wait,’ and never got back around to going.”

Eclectic Taste: “I read an awful lot of trash. I read science fiction, fantasy, war. Over the years, the book that has always stayed with me is Friday by Robert Heinlein.”

A self-described Longhorn through and through, Martin Cox, Life Member,
has been in love with UT since his junior year of high school. Little did he know he’d spend nearly three decades of his life on the Forty Acres.

Cox got his undergraduate degree in 1991 and his master’s in 1994 from UT before accepting a teaching position in Boston. That only lasted five years — he was back in Austin before the end of the decade and hasn’t left since. Currently a professor of instruction in the department of Communication Studies, Cox also coaches Texas Speech, UT’s official competitive speech organization housed in the College of Communication.

Careful to point out the brightness of UT’s student population in general, Cox says there’s just something special about the students on the speech team. “They want to be surrounded by new, complex ideas,” he says. “It just makes it that much more rewarding.”

Cox’s coaching philosophy is all about meeting students where they are and trying to push them as far as they can go. He wants the best for his students and devotes his whole heart to everything he does.

“If you’re going to commit to something, it has to be important to you,” Cox says. “If it’s going to be meaningful at all, then it has to be done with a sincere passion.” — E.C.

Michela Marinelli

Mind Bender: Her favorite book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. “It makes for a great story.”

Truth is King: Marinelli’s favorite quote comes from John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” It’s her favorite because her course is all about truth, and the beauty of truth.

Michela Marinelli used to live in Rome, where she grew up looking at the Colosseum out her window. She has also lived in Bordeaux, France, and Chicago. Marinelli says that while it was a bit hard to move to Texas back in 2013, she has come to love Austin and UT.

“Texas is different, right?” Marinelli says. “When I come here, my blood pressure goes down.”

Her ideal student, Marinelli says, is curious, willing to explore new things and be uncomfortable — they don’t just expect to get everything right the first time around. Most importantly, they’re willing to explore a new possibility.

“One thing that I do love is when I see that shine in their eyes, when they get something and they see the application of that in their life,” Marinelli says. “It’s very rewarding.”

As Marinelli, an associate professor in neuroscience and psychiatry, sees it, students need this type of curiosity and drive to survive her difficult Analytical Skepticism course. “I hold my students to very high expectations,” Marinelli says. “The course is extremely hard.”

Despite this — or maybe because of this — students often walk away from the class with a totally new perspective. “Some of the comments they’ve written, I printed them just to remember,” Marinelli says. “They’re like, ‘You changed the way I see the world.’” — E.C.

The Alcalde

alcalde.texasexes.org

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