We asked communication professor Sarah Erickson a few questions to get to know her better.
by Susie P. Gonzalez
Communication professor Sarah Erickson’s favorite times in the classroom are the unplanned moments where “the real learning happens.” Recently named a Kopenhaver Fellow for the development of women leaders in academia, Erickson studies television binge-watching and the media’s role in understanding sexuality and sexual violence. On the lighter side, she enjoys Diet Coke and admires park rangers. To learn more, keep reading.
You were recently named a Kopenhaver Fellow. Congratulations! Tell us about the Fellowship.
Thanks! The Kopenhaver Center at Florida International University is a program designed to empower women in academia and beyond to become leaders and visionaries who make a difference in the communication field. This year, I attended a seminar with the other Kopenhaver Fellows where we discussed the unique challenges women face in academia and were able to learn and receive mentorship from established scholars. This fellowship connects me with a large support group of other current and former fellows—including my Trinity colleague, communication professor Camille Reyes—and I look forward to engaging more with these women moving forward.
You have studied the popularity of binge-watching TV shows. What can you share about this aspect of the media diet?
One thing I can definitively say is that binge-watching is a hot topic right now in both popular media (shows are advertised as “binge-worthy”) and in academic research. It seems that this practice of viewing multiple episodes of a show in quick succession is only becoming more prominent. In my own work, I am particularly interested in how binge-watching may influence our engagement with media narratives and characters. So far, evidence suggests that binge-watching increases the strength of our relationships with media figures and thus, perhaps, the strength of the effects that media has on us.
How did you get involved in your field of study?
As an undergraduate, I was involved in the creation of a grassroots organization, Speakout Princeton, with a mission to increase awareness surrounding issues of sexual assault and rape culture on campus. Through this group, I was exposed to the idea that media play a huge role in how we understand gender, sexuality, and sexual violence (among other things). I have continued advocacy and activist work on gendered violence and my research is driven by a desire to better understand media’s role in how we understand sex and relationships. Given these interests, studying communication, and specifically media psychology, seemed a natural fit.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching? Least favorite? Why?
I love the unplanned moments. When a student who has been struggling suddenly understands a concept, or a student first falls in love with research, or class content allows perspective on current events in the world. I can meticulously plan as many lectures as I want, but the real learning happens in the moments that I do not plan. My least favorite aspect of teaching is the more administrative side—staying on top of photocopies, TLEARN, grading, etc. I would rather spend more time thinking through lesson plans or talking with students.
What do you like most about teaching Trinity students?
Trinity students are so curious. In my courses, the students ask fantastic, probing questions and demonstrate a real desire to understand the world as much as they can. Even though they do certainly worry about grades and specifics of testing, Trinity students seem interested in learning for its own sake as well.
How do you motivate your students?
This is a tough question to answer in a general way. I think for each student, it is important to understand what their values and goals are and how my class fits into that bigger picture. Overall, I would say that I try to focus on how the material we are covering either relates to their lives or will be useful in their future careers.
What are some of your pre-class rituals?
In the mornings I meditate for 12-15 minutes to try to start the day with as clear a head as possible. Right before class, I usually drink a Diet Coke and listen to music (lately, it’s been a lot of Kenny Loggins and Amy Winehouse but Pearl Jam is always a go-to.)
Who inspires you? Why?
I am inspired by so many people, particularly when I read. Right now, I am finding a lot of hope and inspiration in the work being done by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the book Just Mercy. Stevenson challenges us to seek proximity to humanity and to get uncomfortable in order to promote freedom, justice, and, ultimately, love, and mercy.
What profession other than yours would like to attempt? Why?
I think that I would really like to be a park ranger. I love hiking and being outside and the idea of living in a National Park and actively working on conservation sounds amazing to me. I’m sure there is a lot more to the job than walking around in a beautiful setting, but I think the setting probably takes the edge off.
What is your favorite sound? Least favorite sound?
My favorite sound is a tie between the sound of heavy rain on the roof and the sound my hound dog makes when she is “talking.” Least favorite sound would have to be the sound of the battery alarm on my carbon monoxide detector, but that is supposed to be annoying, so I guess it is working.
Where would you like to retire?
Whoa! I just started, I can’t be thinking about retirement yet. Although, I do love mountains, so somewhere with mountains.