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Words to Live By

Distinguished teacher and English professor Daniel Birkholz empowers students to rethink the world around them and to live life to the fullest.

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Growing up in the postwar suburbs of Minneapolis, English professor Daniel Birkholz felt disconnected by his cookie-cutter surroundings. “I grew up in the kind of neighborhood where all the houses are two-bedroom ramblers, and if you spend the night at a friend’s house, you know where the bathroom is because it’s designed just like your house,” he remembers. The lack of history and monotonous architecture made him feel detached and restless. From an early age, Birkholz yearned for something different, something expansive, and he found it by escaping into books.

When he was in seventh grade, he started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The fantasy story and characters captured his imagination, and he became enamored with the medieval world so different from his own. “Pretty soon I wasn’t reading fantasy medieval literature, but the real thing. Everything that I could find in my junior high school library — Beowulf and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, stuff like that,” he says. With a voracious appetite, he consumed all the antiquarian texts he could. By high school, he knew that he wanted to be a professor of medieval literature. As a first-generation college student, dedicating his life to academia was uncharted territory, but he was determined not to let go of his dream. “I had a calling,” he says. “It was a strong sense of this is where I was finding meaning.”

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Birkholz went on to earn his B.A. from Carleton College in Minnesota, an M.A. from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His pursuit of knowledge took him on adventures around the world, searching for rare texts across Iceland, England and continental Europe. At times he found himself climbing through cathedral libraries into dusty rafters on a quest for manuscripts, most from a millennium ago. He jokingly compares the work to being Indiana Jones, but without the masculine stereotype and cultural appropriation. He lived out his childhood dreams decoding texts from the original language in distant lands. With each project, he felt more inspired as he connected to a richer past.

As a professor, Birkholz wants his students to live their dreams and find deeper meaning in the world around them. “I don’t expect or pretend that everybody should be interested in my crazy stuff, but I try to show the potential of what it can offer,” he says. “If I do it right, I want them to figure out their different version of that, wherever it takes them.” A model of passion and curiosity, his teaching has earned Birkholz many accolades. He has been awarded the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award, the Raymond Dickson Centennial Endowed Teaching Fellowship, the Silver Spurs Centennial Teaching Fellowship, the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award and the English Department’s Outstanding Service Award. This year he was inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Birkholz found his way to The University of Texas at Austin by following the path of his wife, Julia Mickenberg, after she was hired as an assistant professor of American studies at UT. “It was her dream job,” he says. “I wanted to do anything to support her.” That meant giving up his dream job at Pomona College, a small liberal arts college in California. Luckily he was able to land a position at the university as well, as an assistant (now associate) professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts. “I have been trying to make UT into a small liberal arts college all these years,” he says laughing.

One-on-one attention is what Birkholz is known for by his students. Former student Claire Chesney wrote the following in her Academy of Distinguished Teachers recommendation letter:

“Dan’s classes defy all of these expectations and stereotypes that accompany big research universities. Dan knows all of his students personally and invests his time and efforts into us as people. … His compassion for his students is simply a part of his classroom culture.”

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Birkholz teaches a range of classes within the English Department, including upper division courses about medieval literature as well as introductory survey literature courses. His classes have a reputation for being challenging but worth the effort. Students translate texts from Old and Middle English and wrestle with hidden meanings in riddles and stories. “A certain amount of my students have already been converted to this stuff before they meet me. The other ones are thinking, ‘No, I have never thought twice about the Middle Ages and why would I care?” he says. “I almost prefer teaching students that don’t have a taste for the period, because then if and when they get into it, it is fun to show them that this material they didn’t think was interesting is really fascinating.”

Birkholz teaches to empower. He wants his courses to provide students with the critical tools to think for themselves and pursue excellence in their work. A great example of that is one of his favorite classes, Text and Contexts, a course for first-year students in Liberal Arts Honors. The introductory course is structured to teach methodologies to understand and study literature. It is a survey class but more about process than content. Students are taught to fish, so to speak, for themselves. “He created a space that welcomed and encouraged the breed of frustration essential to the challenge that bolsters enjoyment and breeds passion,” wrote former student Sydney Bartlett in her recommendation letter for Birkholz’s induction into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Working with college-age students is exciting, says Birkholz, because of their fresh perspectives and thirst for opportunities. Teaching keeps him connected to his own passion for learning, which has defined his life. He is not just a teacher but a mentor to many in their own journey of self-discovery. “I see my job as modeling a combination of enthusiasm, rigor and possibility. Teaching is showing people how to teach themselves, how to learn, how to ask questions and how to find new kinds of meaning in the world around them.” His largest lesson he hopes to impart to his students is the goal of living to the fullest measure, by always seeking new directions and asking new questions. He says they should not settle for anything less.