Select Page
Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Shira Schwartz

Ask Shira to explain her research and she lights up. Her voice and face animate. She starts speaking faster, and her excitement is contagious, which has a little something to do with the nondescript conference room we’re in. Shira studies academic space, work space, and the social and spatial relations of learning, something applicable to everyone who’s gone to school or worked in an office. And she’s got a big job ahead of her, considering her ultimate goal: “I’d like to change the culture around learning in this country.” (No pressure.)

Her interest is deep seeded. “This has been my passion since I was 14. I went to a traditional, Orthodox all-girls Jewish school and always saw inequality in the access to education available for me and my male peer counterparts. From a young age, I knew I wanted to change that. I wanted to open up learning for Jewish girls and women, and as I moved into different academic spheres, I became concerned with how educational spaces could become more accessible to anyone pushed outside them. I attribute who I am today and my passion for learning to growing up in a Jewish culture that placed a high social value on learning for learning’s sake. It’s something we engaged every day as a practice of communal living, and the content we studied was deeply connected to how we lived our lives. But at the same time, growing up in this culture with its vast gender inequities lit a fire in me to expand educational access, because as a girl I wasn’t given the same opportunities or taken as seriously as the boys and men in the room.”

She thinks of her research broadly as a comparative study of academic and work space. Shira explains, “My study of collaborative learning environments brought me to co-working spaces because of the similarities I saw between the pre-modern and contemporary Jewish schools, known as yeshivas, and co-working spaces. Yeshivas are set up as noisy spaces of intellectual exchange and collaboration. They are very different from modern libraries and traditional university spaces. I grew up in active, social learning environments and felt that missing once I moved from the yeshiva into the academy. I recognized an analog in the nascent world of co-working, where people from different lines of work, would work together in a shared and open space. Co-working spaces can sometimes look and feel a lot like yeshivas. The first time I walked into a co-working space I thought, ‘wow, this is a yeshiva for work!’”

Comparative Literature might not seem like the natural fit for this work, but that is the beauty of her field and the interdisciplinary nature of graduate education at U-M. She explains, “I was interested in finding connections between different disciplines, and I chose U-M because of the radical interdisciplinarity that the Comp Lit department fosters. We are strong not only in literature but in critical theory, cultural studies, and ethnography and we really take seriously the questioning of norms and disciplinary boundaries. And with the support and faculty of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, Comp Lit seemed like a department that could help me bring all of these fields together. It is a good space for rethinking what disciplines are and how much different disciplines can actually hold in common when looking at a problem, undertaking all that lineal work that is often ignored. It’s a good place to push boundaries and it’s a field I’ll never outgrow.”

There’s also a local and regional connection to Shira’s work, “I am interested in why people want to work in social spaces, why the current economy seems to necessitate this type of work. I’m specifically interested in the way this West Coast genre of work space, that includes hacker spaces, incubators and maker-spaces, has become more prevalent in Midwestern rust belt cities, like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit—the cities that were once the great Maker Cities of the U.S., the industrial cities that manufactured our goods. I want to determine how cities along the rust belt are appropriating these “new work space” models in juxtaposition with the economic history of what work has looked like here in the Midwest.”

She is also concerned with academic spaces based on her experience and what she sees on campus today. “Here, students often work in a solitary fashion and that can make it hard to work and can make our work less relevant. This is particularly concerning with humanities students because there is a trend to consider these fields decadent or irrelevant knowledge. There is this question of how to sustain humanities education in the 21st century, especially as tenure track positions have become so scarce and our work has become so specialized. I want to help rework graduate education to become more connected and relevant, and to help knowledge become a greater source of connection between different kinds of people and places. When I look around the university, I don’t see a space for collaborative graduate student work or a hybrid role where we hold all these things together.”

That is how two projects came together to design an innovative co-working space for graduate students in Detroit. She says, “I always wanted to explore making a space like this. Whatever school I’m in, I’m always thinking about how to make the learning experience more vital.”

In July, Shira is launching an academic co-working space at the U-M Detroit Center called Detroit City Study. She says, “The goal is to create more infrastructure for education in the city both for community members and city students, and to really activate knowledge as a source of connection. There are so many grad students doing research in Detroit but they don’t have enough infrastructure there to support them or to connect them to one another or to the community, and that also inhibits more students from getting interested in the city. I want to use this space to re-evaluate the university-city relations and to build educational bridges between different types of city students and residents. There are so many people conducting community-based research in Detroit and this will help build the capacity to really engage the community while doing it.”

She continues, “I see Detroit as a vibrant place where research happens; people come from all over the world to work here. On the other hand, we need to think about urban research as a site of public pedagogy and think if we are doing research in Detroit, what is our connection to the city and how can we make this space a center of community education as well? I want to devise a game-changer, to think about this as an education space rather than just a research space, something we can engage, not just use.” With over 50 students interested in the work-space even before the doors open, there is promise for a successful pilot program.

She sees this project as related to research on work in general, whether it be academic or industry related. “It becomes harder and harder to break down the division between work and learning. Both boil down to a kind of innovation, or ‘making.’ I love working at the nexus between the academy and work space. From a worker’s rights and justice perspective, there is a lot to be said about making the workplace more humane and a place of real innovation and collaboration. At the same time, with the decline in tenure-track positions at universities across the country, there is a pressing need to re-value academic labor as a critical form of work in our society—to re-value knowledge itself, and to create new economies that can support scholars, intellectuals and educators. Making our work more relevant and connected to community is the first step in that process.”

And with the University of Michigan as a resource, she thinks all this is possible: “U-M is massive. What that means is that no matter where you go, there are people working at the top of their field. So when you spend 6-7 years getting a Ph.D. and over time your interests take different directions, it is really awesome to know that no matter where your work takes you, there are people to support you. As my project has grown in focus, I’ve been able to incorporate people from business, design, architecture and more. That has made me a better scholar.”

When asked what she does for fun, she quickly smiles and says, “This. I’d like to be involved in the creation of new and innovative learning spaces for the rest of my life. I think this is extremely relevant in and out of the academy.”