Austin Calhoun

Going for the sparkle

Austin Stair Calhoun applies the power of new media to the study of sport and movement

It was a cold winter day when a prospective doctoral student from Virginia walked into Cooke Hall. Just the night before, Austin Stair Calhoun had learned she was accepted into the kinesiology Ph.D. program and would be offered a graduate assistantship in the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. This was her dream—to study and research with the most preeminent scholars in the nation—but she needed to see this place first.

Calhoun had played varsity basketball as an undergraduate at Washington & Lee University while keeping a high GPA, being active in Chi Omega sorority, and holding down a job in the sports information office. She followed that up with an internship in athletic media relations and master’s degree in sport administration. Then she wanted more.

“I had a short list of schools I was considering for a Ph.D.,” she remembers. “When I talked to my master’s adviser, he told me Dr. Mary Jo Kane at the Tucker Center was the best.”

Calhoun was not disappointed, and Kane immediately recognized the spark of an exceptional student. The next fall, Calhoun began her studies in Minnesota.

Research at work

Calhoun had a penchant for big ideas from the beginning. As a graduate assistant for the Tucker Center, she put her considerable skills and experience with technology to work. She mapped a new communications strategy and introduced social media to generations of center friends and supporters. She created and launched the Tucker Center Film Festival, now in its third year, to recognize and celebrate National Girls and Women in Sport Day.

The next year, as an Information Technology Fellow for the School of Kinesiology and a member of the college IT team, Calhoun helped to lead the collegewide iPad training initiative. She created a training program for CEHD students, faculty, advisers, and leadership, holding noontime iPad “un-presentations” on various topics, from communication to collaboration.

When a technology position opened in the School of Kinesiology, she was hired. On the job, Calhoun was dreaming of ways to transform the School of Kinesiology through the array of new technologies she was learning every day. Because of her exceptional contributions, she won the college Civil Service/Bargaining Unit Innovative Ideas Award for 2012.

In her doctoral program, Calhoun drew on her years of experience working in sport media— particularly with online biographies of coaches that intercollegiate athletics organizations provide their followers—to form the basis for her dissertation research focusing on how the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) athletic community is represented. She conducted studies on how Web content is created and constructed for online coaching biographies of college female coaches in particular, contrasting the abundance of heterosexual family narratives with a near-absence of same-sex family narratives. Then she investigated the explanations from the viewpoint of sport information professionals.

“I am equal parts passionate about researching women’s sport and helping faculty integrate technology into teaching and learning,” says Calhoun, “and my dissertation combines these passions.”

This year, Calhoun was hired as the School of Kinesiology’s director of eLearning + Digital Strategies, a position created to keep the school competitive and at the forefront of learning technology. She hopes to motivate the kinesiology community to engage with the constant stream of exciting new ideas in technology, such as a new telepresence tool called the Double.

“I’m inspired by the magic in technology and media, that ‘how does that work?’ moment when you make a website or post to a Google Site for the first time, or watch the Double in action,” Calhoun says. “There’s a certain sparkle when that happens. And with a clear strategy, that sparkle can be brighter and more consistent.”

Technologies and traditions

Calhoun is now in the last stages of writing her dissertation while also teaching yoga classes, enjoying married life made possible by voters of the state of Minnesota this year, and discovering the joys of parenting Grady, born to Austin and her wife Kate in August.

“My greatest reward is my relationships with people,” says Calhoun. “They are the conduit for every single thing that has happened to me here at the U of M. They are the professors trying a new iPad app, the coordinators creating interactive orientation materials, my teammates pushing the envelope right off the table.”

She compares the traditions and history of academe with those of the yoga practice she loves.

“It’s inspiring to be part of a tradition that is several thousand years old and exhilarating to think you can make something old and rich become new and fresh,” she says. “I like to think I’m doing that with my life in all facets—whether I’m using technology to enhance teaching and learning, playing Icona Pop during sun salutations, or using my research to effect change for the LGBTQ community in sport.”

Read more about doctoral student researchers in the School of Kinesiology and Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Update: Austin Stair Calhoun completed her Ph.D. in 2014.

Story by Marta Fahrenz | October 2013