Ben Agger, founding Director of the Center for Theory, passed away suddenly during the Summer of 2015. The following is an article written by The Shorthorn, the University of Texas’ student newspaper.
Ben Agger, sociology and anthropology professor, die
Ben Agger will never know how life-changing he was to Chad Austin.
Agger, sociology and anthropology professor, headed sociology graduate student Austin’s thesis committee. His thesis includes his journey through his 170-pound weight loss and research on Body Dysmorphic Disorder—when a person becomes obsessed with imaginary defects in his or her appearance.
Through Agger’s guidance, Austin overcame his fear of food and regaining his lost weight. Austin said he wishes he could tell Agger how influential he was.
Agger died July 14.
“He accepted me for everything I was—a flawed student,” Austin said. “He let me work through what I had to work through, yet I still learned from it. I made something so incredibly dark in my life and unhealthy and made it healthy. He is a large reason for that. He’s never going to know that.”
Agger was the glue that held everything together sometimes, Austin said.
“He made me believe that the words that I wrote and the thoughts that I had were worth reading,” he said. “He helped me shape it [weight loss] into something that I can share with people, I can let people in on. That’s something that I can never ever pay him in return for. That’s something I will never forget. “
Sociology graduate student Jason Fanning took half a dozen courses with Agger. Under Agger’s mentorship, Fanning is well on his way to his goal of being the best he can, he said. The first class Fanning took for his major was Agger’s Social Theory course. This class helped Fanning chase who he wanted to become, he said.
“He offered all of us a genuine experience, one in which we were in charge of our own learning, with his guidance as the intermediary to help funnel us towards being the person we wanted to be, to follow our own passions and curiosities,” Fanning said. “Ben took the time to try to understand me.”
Agger was not only a professor, Fanning said, but also a student to his students. He said Agger took the time to learn from his students just as much as they learned from him. Learning the world through others’ eyes and experiences was important to Agger, Fanning said.
“While I feel special for the success he helped me find in myself, I am more honored to know that I am only one amongst the hundreds of people Ben nudged and nurtured towards better life paths,” he said.
Agger was a mentor to administrators as well as students. Agger hired Political Science chair Rebecca Deen in 1997 when he was the Liberal Arts dean. Agger mentored Deen throughout her career, she said. He gave advice on projects and ideas for articles.
“The thing about Ben is, I’ve never met someone smarter,” she said. “He is the most wide-ranging intellect I’ve ever met. He was so stinking smart he didn’t need much time to do things. He would come up with an idea for a book. Three months later he had it drafted. Usually it takes a year or more to write a book.”
Agger researched media, Internet, food, exercise and cultural studies, said Beth Shelton, Agger’s wife and sociology and anthropology professor. Shelton and Agger published a book together and submitted the final draft of a paper over a week ago to be published in Critical Sociology. Agger published more than 20 books and 40 academic articles. Agger earned his doctorate in political economy from the University of Toronto in 1976 at the age of 24. He came to UTA in 1994 and was the Liberal Arts dean until 1998.
“Ben was passionate about treating students kindly and as responsible people,” Shelton said. “He was so passionate about this that a few weeks ago, he ordered copies of an ethnography of college students’ lives that he put in all the sociology and anthropology faculty members’ mailboxes so they would be reminded about what it is to be a student.”
Agger ran more than 70 miles a week, Shelton said. He woke up at 3 a.m. almost every day to run. He competed in many local races and marathons. Austin initially bonded with Agger because they both had a passion for running, Austin said.
Austin and Agger decided to take a new direction on Austin’s thesis when they last met and Austin had an independent study class planned for next semester with Agger.
“He instilled in me a sense of pride about my work, my weight loss and my accomplishments,” he said. “This thesis is the pinnacle for that. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m still going to write it. I’m still going to continue forward.”
Agger is survived by his wife, Shelton; daughter, Sarah Porter; son, Oliver Agger-Shelton; and son-in-law, Michael Porter, who live Arlington. He also is survived by his sister, Ellen Agger and partner, Alleson Kase, who live in Nova Scotia, Canada.
In memory of Agger, people can donate to the Ben Agger Memorial Scholarship, which will be given annually to a graduating tennis player of Lamar High School.