December 10, 2013 Issue
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Accomplished Educator Sonja Foss Reaping Rewards from a Life of Scholarship

Accomplished Educator Sonja Foss Reaping Rewards from a Life of Scholarship

With a career spanning over three decades, Sonja Foss, Professor of Communication, is reaping the rewards of being one of the top thinkers, writers and educators in her field. In 2012, she won the Douglas W. Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar Award from the National Communication Association, and she is the recipient of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Outstanding Faulty Achievement Award for 2013. Both awards add great prestige to her reputation and are important to her, but she's not letting them go to her head. She counts the Ehninger award as one of her greatest achievements but describes Douglas W. Ehninger himself (whom she knew well, and respects very much) as a by-the-book-type academic. "By that I mean he fit the mold of the traditional communication scholar, doing standard work, and he was really good at it," Foss insists. But Foss, a celebrated feminist scholar, sought-after dissertation expert, and dedicated educator, spent her career breaking that mold, so she lets her publishing, teaching and mentoring record speak for itself.

In the span of her career, Foss has seen her society and field of study evolve, especially in the area of women's rights, and has been proud to play her part in that evolution. She says, "When feminism started it was so amazing. Bringing it into our scholarship changed everything – it changed how we did things, what we studied." Two of the pioneering thinkers in the field of feminist rhetorical study, Foss and her twin sister, Karen A. Foss (Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico), have made a permanent impact on which voices are given agency. "When I was going to school we studied speeches by great, white men pretty much exclusively. When my sister and I, and other writers of the time, started studying speeches by women and then challenged the model we were using to study speech because those models came from men's discourse, we really shook things up." Foss has seen feminism go through stages of development over the course of her career and gets frustrated when new scholars don't give credit to how much progress has been made.

Sonja and Karen Foss in China, May 2010

Sonja and Karen Foss in China, May 2010

Foss and her twin sister grew up loving learning together. "On the first day of first grade, we came home and told our mother that we wanted to be teachers. We just thought that was the best thing ever, going to school," Foss recalls with a smile. Both Sonja and Karen received bachelor's degrees in Romance Languages (French and Spanish) from the University of Oregon. Sonja laughs as she remembers a conversation she had with her sister when they decided, "We didn't want to spend our lives looking at confused faces, which is what you do when you teach languages. We had some friends who were communication majors, so we walked down the hall to the department and asked, 'Can we get a master's degree here?' and they said 'sure.'" Both Foss sisters went on to get PhDs in Communication Studies, Sonja from Northwestern University and Karen from the University of Iowa, and they have supported each other through accomplished careers in academia, often publishing together.

In fact, the sisters are currently working on the updated, 30th-anniversary edition of the book Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, one of the most frequently used classroom books on rhetoric around the globe. Because her scholarship has not slowed, Foss' publishing efforts continue at a breakneck pace. She is also working on a book chapter with Karen focusing on how to teach a new paradigm of rhetorical agency: the paradigm of constructed potentiality. This paradigm challenges the centuries-old central paradigm of persuasion in the communication discipline and provides alternative ways of thinking about how change happens. Foss looks forward to developing a class in the future at CU Denver, teaching both the traditional paradigm alongside her alternative model. Also in the works, with collaborator and Colorado State University Professor Cindy Griffin, is an elaboration of the theory of invitational rhetoric that the two of them developed in 1995. Another in-progress publishing project focusing on the issue of presence in the digital age of social media came about because of a collaboration request from a former student, who will now be her coauthor. It is not unusual for Foss to develop the kind of relationships with students that lead to collaboration— or even shared vacations—as a former student recently visited Foss and her husband at their home in Greece.

Foss instructing students in her Writing Practicum course

Foss instructing students in her Writing Practicum course

Foss' teaching career has taken her all over the country, from the University of Georgia to St. Louis University to the University of Oregon, and she remains in contact with students all over the U.S. and throughout the world. From a stint teaching at the University of Denver in the 1980s Foss fell in love with Colorado but didn't settle down in Denver for good until 1996. She and her husband had been working in separate cities and suffering through long commutes in the Midwest, so when her husband got a job offer to come back to Denver Foss gave up her tenured position at Ohio State University. Foss applied to CU Denver when the position of chair of the Communication Department became available in 1997 and remembers the university being very different in those days. "Back then it really was like the Wild West. We had crazy deans and no by-laws—no one had by-laws, in fact. It was much looser, and there were no real standards. But in the end it was actually good because it meant that we could create them and start moving in the direction that got us where we are now."

The Communication Department thrived under Foss, who chaired it off and on for a decade, and it has continued to flourish since she stepped down as Chair in 2007. Current Department Chair Stephen John Hartnett has aspirations to make CU Denver's Communication Department the strongest of its kind West of the Mississippi. Achieving lofty goals like this will rely on the expertise and dedication of top-notch faculty like Foss. As Hartnett says, "this department's commitments to social justice, civic engagement, communication activism, and globalization are all intimately linked to the feminist ethos Sonja brought to this campus fifteen years ago. Moreover, whether it is working with undergraduates, or advising MA theses, or doing departmental and campus service, or diving into the community, Sonja's leading-by-example has set some of our key norms: that advocacy should be kind, that engagement should be graceful, and that teaching should be fun."

In 2007, with her co-author William Waters, Foss wrote the seminal book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, solidifying a brand Foss had been building for decades. Thirty-five students have benefited from having Foss direct their dissertations or theses, but hundreds more have gotten help through her publications, public speaking engagements and workshops. "When we first moved back to Denver in the 90s and I didn't have a job, I starting doing these week-long retreats, and people would come from all over the world and spend a week working on dissertations, and that evolved into these workshops." Now universities often hire Foss and Waters to advise faculty on publishing, hold scholars' retreats, give seminars on advising graduate students for advisors, work one-on-one with PhD candidates, or hold webinars on topics focused on writing.

When it comes to writing a dissertation, Foss has one central piece of advice, "You sit down and you DO IT." With determination and willing advisors, Foss counsels that a dissertation can be done in six to nine months. She cites herself and her 400-page dissertation on the Equal Rights Amendment as an example: "In my second year of coursework I had a little bit of free time, so I thought, 'I'll write my dissertation.' And so I did. I got my PhD in two years." She encourages students to sit down before they begin writing and get a clear picture of their whole project. With that accomplished, Foss says one can break a dissertation down into very small, manageable pieces and then just start accomplishing those pieces one at a time.

Foss touched the lives of many students in her role of advisor, instructor and mentor. Gordana Lazic, who now teaches in the Communication Department, says her life was forever changed by Foss. In 2007, Lazic came to the University of Colorado Denver to pursue her master's degree in communication. She feels Foss was instrumental not only to her decision to join the CU Denver community all the way from Serbia, but also for her decision to remain after graduation. Lazic says before she ever met Foss, when she was still applying to the program, she knew she was a special kind of educator. "I was largely influenced by her prompt, invitational, unassuming and warm correspondence. Little did I know at that time that these qualities were merely a surface, entry point into Dr. Foss's thoughtful pedagogical system designed to teach, educate and assist, often in unconventional intellectually rigorous ways." Lazic says, "I am absolutely honored to know Sonja, and I owe her and her intellectual support not only for my career, but also my smooth transition to the U.S. society and culture."

Fellow alum Lacey Stein agrees, "Sonja Foss, simply put, is an educator of the highest caliber." Six years ago, Stein enrolled in Foss' graduate-level courses at CU Denver, but she says she received so much more than the anticipated classroom instruction. "Dr. Foss became my mentor throughout the entirety of my master's degree and remains a significant influence in my life as I begin the final steps of earning my doctorate." Now studying for her PhD at the University of Denver, Stein says, "Dr. Foss introduced me to the theories and methodologies that would allow me to explore my passions as a budding communication studies researcher and scholar. On a personal level, Dr. Foss has modeled for me the ways in which our philosophies and worldviews can be reflected within our individual relationships. Because of Dr. Foss, I know the kind of educator I hope to become within my own academic career."

While educating students on how to get their dissertations completed is satisfying (and she still has a hand in it – she is currently co-directing a dissertation at Marquette University), it is also time consuming. Being at a university without a PhD program allows Foss to focus more energy on her own scholarship and teaching. This semester, Foss is teaching a brand-new course called Writing Practicum, in which undergraduate students work on their honors theses, master's students work on their theses (or the proposal) and one PhD student is working on a piece for publication. Working with a group of students this diverse in one classroom requires many hours spent instructing and advising outside of class and plenty of individual attention and mentoring.

When coaching students who are looking to become academics themselves, Foss has one primary piece of advice, "but it maybe is not good advice," she says with a chuckle. "I would say just don't do what everyone else is doing. Have a little courage." Her hope is that her students learn from her to become original and find their own voices. When Foss started in the field of communication study, it was dominated by conventional thinking. The future of rhetorical study relies on fresh eyes, like those of Foss, to break down boundaries and to build a wider vision. She admits that following her own advice has gotten her into trouble in the past, but ultimately she still swears by doing things your own way. "That's the only way to do it. And it's the fun part."

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