October 4, 2010
Creating Knowledge, Teaching Motivate Comm Prof
When Associate Professor Erica Scharrer (communication) was an undergraduate at SUNY Geneseo, she was sure that broadcast journalism was her future. “The next Diane Sawyer, I’d tell people,” she says. “I ran my college TV station, worked at the college radio station in news, and did multiple internships. I even got a job right after graduation as news director for a small radio station in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Turns out, Scharrer didn’t enjoy the work. “The hours were brutal, the pay was abysmal, and the stress was high,” she recalls. “Because the station was automated I had to do some very technical things to break in live and play all my clips, all before 6:00 a.m.—and I was the only person there! But I really didn’t like intruding into people’s lives after accidents, fires or other tragedies. I found it ethically questionable to be asked to avoid covering DWIs or other infringements for certain ‘special’ people. And reporting on small town politics, essentially covering the same stories as the local paper, wasn’t particularly meaningful.”
The solution for Scharrer: travel the country and then go to graduate school, still in communications but with a focus shift. “That was a dream come true,” she says of her time at Syracuse University. “I got to ask critical questions about media-related issues, gain experience in teaching, which I love, and learn about theories and research methods to begin the process of knowledge creation—a prospect I continue to find thrilling. I love the process of choosing a topic important for society, designing information gathering techniques, and seeing the project through to data analysis and interpretation.”
Scharrer began her affiliation with UMass Amherst in 1999, a year after earning her PhD. “The university’s research focus and the excellence of faculty in the Department of Communication were a major draw,” she says. “Also, some research-intensive institutions view undergraduates as time-consuming obstacles to things they’d rather be doing. Not so here! We have world-class researchers here, but we are also dedicated to excellent teaching, advising, and the progress and welfare of our undergraduates—and graduate students too! I love this combination,” says Scharrer, who served for the past four years as director of undergraduate studies for the department.
Doing work that matters in the world is important to Scharrer, whose interests surround media ethics, media content, the media’s impact on gender role socialization, and the influence of media violence on desensitization. “Children in the US devote 7-8 hours a day to the media. People spend 4 hours a day just watching television,” Scharrer explains. “I study opinions about media, the messages that people receive when consuming media, and the effects of media consumption on individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. So, all of my research has real-life applications. For example, my studies of gender messages that audiences may receive from commercials or television programs have social and cultural implications, as does my work on the potential of violent media to desensitize. By addressing issues like these, we can make advancements toward a more just society.”
Scharrer has published in many prominent journals and coauthored several books, including Media and the American Child (2007). Most recently, publishers Wiley-Blackwell invited her to edit a volume on media effects in a series on media studies. “They have given me complete autonomy to determine which topics should be covered, assemble the table of contents, invite scholars from around the world to contribute a chapter, and edit their work for consistency across chapters.”
“One of the hallmarks of my teaching is the incorporation of community-service learning,” Scharrer explains. “In my Media Violence class (offered every spring for seniors), for example, my students design a curricular unit of exercises and discussion questions for 6th graders on the topic of violence in the media. In a series of visits to the schools, they deliver the unit, facilitating exercises and responses to discussion questions. Back in class they reflect on the children’s responses, on their interactions with the children, and on what these early adolescents seem to think and know about media. I’ve gotten great feedback from my students; some have written me years later to let me know that they chose a career in education because of the experience.”
Scharrer has been receiving quite a bit of recognition for this work, which she has advanced in her research: a top-paper award at a conference, published articles, and a nomination for a Distinguished Outreach Award last year. A few years back, Scharrer received the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Outstanding Teacher Award, and she has been nominated twice for the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
To students who are interested in studying communication at UMass Amherst, Scharrer says, “You will work with and learn from renowned researchers, award-winning teachers, and noted activists and practitioners in the field. You’ll learn practical skills, like research literacy, public speaking and presentation, academic and creative writing, and video production. You’ll also learn cutting-edge theories and concepts about media and society and face-to-face communication. We have large lectures and small seminars; introductions that provide a broad survey of the topic; and advanced courses that allow you to engage in your own project. The Communication Department is an outstanding place to develop as a scholar and a citizen.”