Get to Know HFC: Dr. Sommer Sterud embraces the joys of diversity in student learning
HFC English professor Dr. Sommer Sterud is the recent recipient of the Toerne Dissertation Award from Kent State University in Ohio.
“The Toerne Award is something I didn't even know existed or that I was in the running for. It honors Richard Toerne, a professor of English and faculty member at Kent State from 1961 to 1984,” said Sterud.
Kent State’s Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice program voted Sterud’s doctoral dissertation (Tracing Framing Processes in the Abortion Debate: An Ethnographic Investigation of a Pro-Life Lobbying Organization) the best in 2021. She was honored at an awards ceremony at the end of April.
“Faculty from all campuses and various disciplines vote on all of the English departments' (both literature and rhetoric/composition) dissertations from the previous year,” she said. “Apparently, mine won unanimously.”
Finding her passion for teaching
A native of Steubenville, OH, Sterud is the youngest of two who was raised by a single mother, a woman who was a hairdresser and went to college when she was 55, eventually completing a graduate degree. Sterud has been married to National Public Radio film critic/media personality Johnny DiLoretto for three years. She is stepmother to his two sons, Franco and Vincent.
After graduating from Wintersville High School in Ohio, Sterud enrolled in Capital University in Bexley, OH, earning her bachelor’s degree in English and professional writing with a minor in creative writing. From there, Sterud earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing with a specialty in poetry from Ohio State University in Columbus. She went on to earn her doctorate in literacy, rhetoric, and social practice from Kent State.
“I could not make a living writing poetry, so I used my MFA to travel,” said Sterud. “To support that traveling habit, I taught ESL in Ecuador. A three-month gig turned into three years, and I found my passion for teaching.”
Focusing on civic engagement
She has been teaching since 2001. Besides teaching overseas, Sterud taught at Capital and Kent State before coming to HFC. Her current research interests include the rhetoric of protest, activism, and civic engagement. She spoke about what sparked her interest in these topics.
“The state of the world in the last decade made me want to focus on civic engagement,” explained Sterud. “Before I wrote my dissertation, police shot and killed a Black man in the house across the street from my house. He was invited to this person's home as a guest, but for some reason, another neighbor called the police and reported suspicious activity. The person was unarmed. I felt like I had to use my education and opportunity to put these horrifying inequities under a microscope.”
“We know our students, like many community college students throughout the country, often face life challenges that can impact their success in the classroom. It is exciting to see Dr. Sterud's work reflect an interest in and concern for ways to help students learn and be assessed on that learning using non-traditional methods. While publishing is not a requirement for our faculty, her involvement with research that can improve student success and completion demonstrates that we can be successful in advancing the goals of our new strategic plan,” said Larry Smyrski, interim dean of HFC’s School of Liberal Arts.
“Am I Doing This Right?”
Recently, Sterud collaborated with her fellow Kent State alumna, Dr. Amy Flick, who teaches composition at the University of Pittsburgh, on an article for Academic Labor: Research and Artistry, a peer-reviewed open access academic journal published by the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University. They co-authored the article, “Am I Doing This Right?” Its impetus came from a desire to do better in terms of nurturing diversity and equity in the classroom.
“During the pandemic, I became obsessed with implementing anti-racist teaching strategies, but it was difficult, and I faced some hard truths about some of my implicit biases surrounding classroom practices,” explained Sterud. “I wanted to unpack those hard truths and investigate what really happens when you try to put theory into practice. It's not as easy as scholars make it seem in the academic articles. Trying to be fair to our students and embolden them to take control of their education is a lot easier said than done.”
Feeling right at home at HFC
Sterud joined the HFC English faculty in the Fall 2021 semester, having earned her doctorate several months earlier. She spoke about what attracted her to HFC.
“Obviously, research and professional development are important facets of higher education, but I have seen the obsession with publishing and other personal achievements turn great teachers into poor ones. I also just felt right at home from my first interview with HFC. The faculty in my area are all so smart, but they are also genuinely kind people who care about their students,” said Sterud. “In addition to the faculty, I really enjoy my students. They are all so interesting and complex, which can be challenging because I often strive to tailor my teaching to the unique needs of each class. But when you have 25 completely different and dynamic people, that sort of customization can be cumbersome – if not impossible – to do. I love that challenge, though.”
Currently, she is teaching the following classes this semester:
- ENG 094: Accelerated Learning Program: Reading and Writing
- ENG 131: Introduction to College Writing
- ENG 132: College Writing and Research
“I am approachable and want to hear what my students have to say,” she said. “I want to help them say it to more people. Also, as much as I love to write with my students, I love to laugh with them.”