Sociology professor encourages students to listen for opportunity’s knock

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Photo Credit: Audrey McNay | Daily Texan Staff

Most people might shudder at the thought of ghostly encounters, but for sociology professor Michael Hirsch, it’s just another day at work.

In a career that has covered a variety of research and included a three-term stint as mayor of Fayette, Missouri, Hirsch, who teaches at Huston-Tillotson University, has researched a wide variety of topics — from people who believe they have encountered ghosts to Indian and Pakistani relations. 

Most recently, Hirsch completed a study on cosmonauts, or Russian astronauts, and the role space travelers play in society and will present his findings Wednesday in Burdine Hall during a talk sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, or CREEES. He said he credits his extensive resume to an open mind and eye for potential research subjects.

“I’ve been a proponent of something I learned about in graduate school — it’s called opportunistic research,” Hirsch said. “You need to take advantage of the opportunities for research that present themselves.”

The cosmonaut study began during his time as a mayor, when a Russian space scientist reached out to him and other mayors across the United States after the Soviet Union collapsed.

“Evidently he got the addresses of city councils across the United States and basically sent the same letter to everybody that asked the question, ‘Would you like a cosmonaut to come speak in your community?’ to which I said, ‘Of course,’ because it was a small town,” Hirsch said. “I was always looking for ways to raise the profile of my university and also my town.”

From there, Hirsch began a research project linking role theory, the idea that people’s societal roles impact their relationships and society itself, with cosmonauts. 

The project took several years to complete and incorporates the perspectives of 14 different cosmonauts with ages ranging from early 30s to mid-60s.

After receiving his doctorate in sociology from UT-Austin, Hirsch said he still maintains close ties with the University. Allegra Azulay, special programs coordinator for the CREEES, said Hirsch has a long-standing relationship with the center.

“This relationship has deepened lately, as we, and other area studies centers at UT, have been increasing our interactions with minority-serving institutions, including Huston-Tillotson, where he teaches,”  Azulay said. “His work is valuable to CREEES students because it intersects so many different fields — Soviet studies, sociology, astronomy and history.”

Hirsch said the reason his research covers such a wide variety of subjects is because he hopes to be an experienced guide for his students.

“It was very important for me to do research in multiple fields within my discipline so I could speak with more confidence and firsthand knowledge about different methodologies, theoretical perspectives and substance areas,” Hirsch said.

For Texas State graduate student Mueni Rudd, Hirsch not only taught her in the classroom but also gave her support throughout college. She said his opportunistic outlook on education helped her in the
professional world. 

“I would not be where I am had I not had him as a mentor,” Rudd said. “I still am closer to him than even the professors I have in graduate school.”

Hirsch attributes the wide range of sociological topics he studied within his career to a willingness to explore his surroundings and advises others to do the same.

“There are so many opportunities that surround us all of the time, and you just need to see them as opportunities and ask (about them),” Hirsch said. “Sometimes you just need to grab the richness of the life around you and take it on.”