Click the photos below to learn about some of our outstanding
Department of Communication faculty.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Suhi Choi, a professor and Associate Chair of the Communication Department, wanted to teach about how to communicate what we have lost. She introduced a new course called Grief Communication and continued to expand her area of memory studies from the perspectives of trauma, mourning and empathy.
“With both the finitude and precarity of our lives, we are all grappling with loss in varying contexts and we all have become mourners at some point,” she said.
Choi sees herself as a memory scholar — she studies how we interact with the past. While it may sound like another way of studying history, it’s actually a method of understanding who we are now.
“What memory scholarship is exploring is not the past itself but our relationship with the past,” Choi said. “If we were paying attention to how we interact with the past, we would be able to learn a lot about who we are in the present, and who we're becoming in the future.”
She teaches memory scholarship by investigating how the past is mediated through different forms of media such as memorials, museums, statues, archival images, motion pictures, testimonies and human bodies.
“The act of remembering is not only social but also deeply personal,” she said. “At the moment you appreciate a memory text, your identity is activated — so it's not like a text represents general meanings to you, but the text rather would mediate you to experience the past event so that you can identify your own specific meanings from it.”
Choi is the author of two books: “Right to Mourn: Trauma, Empathy, and Korean War Memorials” (Oxford University Press, 2019) and “Embattled Memories: Contested Meanings in Korean War Memorials” (the University of Nevada Press, 2014).
Throughout the journey of writing her books about traumatic memories of the Korean War, she noticed a lack of recognition of American Korean War Veterans’ trauma. Choi said this is because the Korean War has not been communicated well to Americans.
“And always their experience is wrapped around with the heroic, triumphant and patriotic narrative,” she said. “In that narrative, it's hard for them to communicate their own trauma.”
She is currently writing her third book tentatively titled “Phantoms of Memorial,” a critique of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
Choi grew up in South Korea and got her degree in Korean History at Korea University. She was a TV documentary writer for five years but wanted to further explore storytelling through documentary making. So, she came to New York and signed up for an MFA program in TV production at Brooklyn College.
While learning media production, she was increasingly drawn to the aesthetics of media texts, and she later joined a Ph.D. program in Mass Media and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia. She didn’t think she would stay in the United States, but then she ended up at the University of Utah.
Growing up in a small metropolis in South Korea, she felt like coming to Salt Lake was a full-circle moment.
“Once you have a family and raise your children, it becomes your home,” she said.
Promoting Global Education
Choi has served as Associate Chair in the Department of Communication for the last two years. In this leadership platform, she made a special effort to promote global education, as she has always studied and taught in an international context.
“My most memorable teaching experience happened when I, as a Fulbright Specialist, taught a summer course at the University of Haifa in Israel,” she said. “I had both seven Jewish students and five Arab students in the same classroom. Taking the course subject as an allegory for ongoing conflicts in Israel, students on both sides vehemently engaged in discussions about memory, conflict and the roles of media.”
To help U students study in a global context, Choi launched an affordable communication summer study abroad program at the U’s campus in South Korea. It is set to take place from June 21-July 21, 2023. The participating students will take a total of 7-credit Communication courses and will visit DMZ, K-Pop production sites and heritage places.
Choi said a large population of students at the U’s Asia Campus are communication majors and frequently come to the Salt Lake Campus. But, it does not always go the other way. She is hoping this program will facilitate more traffic between the two campuses.
As another project promoting global education, Choi launched refugee engagement in the department.
“We live with refugees — they are our new neighbors, new Utahns and new Americans, but we don't know them enough,” she said. “By interacting with them, our students can learn a lot about global culture, affairs, languages and life experiences.”
Choi and Mike Middleton, the former director of the debate society and now Associate Dean in the Humanities, brought the U’s nationally recognized debate team to a refugee center to teach refugee students debate skills, as they grow to become active citizens of a civic society.
When she spoke at a recruiting event, Choi wanted her words to resonate with the refugee parents. She told them, “I am raising my children in a country that I didn’t grow up in.”
To further facilitate refugee engagement, Choi and the graduate students of her memory class also recently hosted a refugee forum with local refugee panelists from Afghanistan, Uganda and Sudan.
In the latest newsletter for the department, Choi noted, “Refugees are the taxonomists of human affairs. When they communicate their stories, refugees try to bring names, meanings, and orders to comprehend the incomprehensible. Like taxonomists, they thus run into a communicative quandary in that their words defy their impulse to portray human affairs as chaotic as they have experienced. Their struggle demands our attention.”
Sean Lawson, director of the Edna Anderson-Taylor Communication Institute and associate professor in communication first met Choi when he moved into her old office. They bonded because both of their areas of research stray from mainstream communication topics.
“Suhi has really been a leader and has been creative in her thinking about how we can come together, to work with this community, to learn from them, and to help this community in a way that sort of enriches all of us in the process,” Lawson said. “And so we've definitely seen that with the work that she has sort of spearheaded with the debate society.”
The department had been trying to do more community outreach, and central to the forum’s goal is hearing refugees tell their stories, in their own ways.
“The underlying idea around the forum was to have an opportunity to give voice to folks who are marginalized within our community and in a way that they can be seen and they can be heard by us and that hopefully we can learn from them,” Lawson said.
Lawson hopes this event will eventually become a series.
‘A total class act’
“From my perspective, Suhi has always been just a total class act, professional, always the voice of reason in our discussions in the department, and just always someone that I've really respected and looked up to,” Lawson said.
Choi called campus her “intellectual playground,” saying teaching is a good opportunity to challenge herself.
She said by being surrounded by young people, who bring new ideas, passion and perspectives, “you never feel like you’re stagnant.”
What is next?
“As a cancer survivor, I now look for the opportunity to translate my trauma studies in a war context into a meaningful set of applications that would assist patients, caregivers and providers to better cope with grief and loss in a medical context,” she said.
Kevin Coe, professor of communication at the University of Utah, explores how messages matter.
After growing up in Tacoma, Washington, Coe moved to Illinois to complete his PhD. Then, he worked at the University of Arizona for five years. After spending time in the desert, he was searching for water, trees and mountains — so, in 2013, he came to Salt Lake.
“The department here was really appealing because it's a big, vibrant department, a lot of faculty, a lot of students,” he said. “The campus was growing at the time and just recently entered the PAC-12.”
At the U, Coe teaches classes surrounding strategic communications, the largest area of emphasis for students in the department, according to Coe.
“It might be a buying behavior, it might be becoming aware of a brand, but the idea with most strategic communication is that there's some goal when you set out to reach a certain audience,” Coe said. “Strategic communication is about how best to achieve that goal, how to do it ethically, how to do it in ways that access various forms of data to make their decisions.”
Coe didn’t always envision himself here, though. While completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, Coe took an interpersonal communication class. “I found it fascinating,” he said. “You know, we were talking about things that really seemed relevant to everybody's lives. And I could draw connections very easily between the content and things that were happening in my life and so I started taking more communication courses because of that, and I ended up majoring in it.”
He then set his mind to sports broadcasting, with the end goal of being the play-by-play announcer for his favorite team, the Seattle Seahawks. The program at his school didn’t have a broadcast track, though, so he went in a different direction. His professors encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree in communication — he conducted research and taught, and loved both.
“And so then going on for a PhD and becoming a professor started to seem like a really good way to do things that I was finding a lot of joy in,” Coe said.
Robin Jensen, professor of communication at the University of Utah, met Coe when he was thinking about which PhD program to attend. Jensen and her husband wanted Coe to attend their school — they tried to impress him by bringing him to a theater performance.
“I don't know if we really succeeded enough, but he decided to ultimately attend the University of Illinois probably because of the amazing faculty there,” she said.
Jensen called Coe a “rare scholar,” saying not only did he write a dissertation during graduate school, but he also wrote a book.
“[He’s] just a really hard working person who set the standard for others in terms of doing great work and also being a very nice and community-oriented individual,” she said.
The Intricacies of Communication
According to Coe, the more specifically we think about communication, the more interesting it becomes. While Coe is teaching, he also discovers more about his own media habits. When he had children, for example, the streaming content he engaged in changed.
“My situation changed, so my usage changed, and then presumably, the effects changed, and those things are all tied together,” he said.
Coe studies aspects of the changing presidency, including how elements of the information environment, such as social media, evolve.
“When I started studying the presidency, around 2004, social media didn't really exist in any meaningful sense,” he said. “And so I've been studying the presidency over a time where we've really dramatically transformed the ways that people consume information, including information about politics and the president, so forth.”
Coe has collaborated with University of South Florida political communication professor Josh Scacco since 2014, seeking to write one or two papers. They ended up writing a book, called “The Ubiquitous Presidency,” which explores the media environment a president operates in.
“I love studying that stuff,” Coe said. “I love studying the changes in a familiar institution like the presidency, and as the information environment changes, how they engage the changes as well.”
Both Coe and Scacco made a visit to each other’s institutions to write together and share ideas with students. These sorts of collaborations, according to Scacco, are “helpful in terms of being able to enrich student experiences at each of our institutions.”
Jensen said we are lucky to have Coe at the U.
“I think everyone who comes into contact with him is impressed by his thoughtfulness and kindness, and also his intellect and drive and that has been the case through grad school, and to this day,” Jensen said.
To Coe, the most exciting aspect of teaching is the students.
“And I always feel lucky to continue to be exposed to people who are thinking and growing and changing,” he said. “That's always been an exciting aspect of this job. And I'm sure it's what will keep me doing it for a long time.
Andy King, associate professor in the Department of Communication, has been a professor for just over 10 years. He is interested in communication because it helps us understand how we make sense of everything around us.
“That's always fascinated me, just from the perspective of it's something that we all do often as people, yet we're not terribly good at it,” he said.
He came to the University of Utah because of a specific role allowing him to work both with the Department of Communication as well as the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He’s been here for 10 months, and does research in a wide array of areas spanning the cancer continuum: prevention, detection, survivorship and treatment.
“My appointment provides me an efficient path to engage in interdisciplinary research and work with physicians or with epidemiologists and work with other researchers in allied fields that make really important contributions and improve cancer control research, and I hope that the work I do improves the work that they do as well,” he said.
He also grew up in the Midwest, so the Utah mountains were a plus.
Much of the work he does surrounds the area of public communication, exploring concepts such as how people find out about changes in recommendations for screening, or how people engage in conversations about preventive actions as well as communication inequalities.
“And how as health communicators, we can do more to put out information that's helpful and useful for people to make, we hope, better decisions, decisions both that they're happier with and that will contribute to their good health moving forward as it relates to cancer but also other health topics,” he said.
While King didn’t always know he would be in the communication field, he isn’t surprised he ended up here.
His undergraduate degree was in English education, but he had been involved in radio throughout high school and college.
“I had a professor who sort of approached me one day and was like, I think that you've got an interest in persuasion that maybe you want to go to grad school, but before that conversation I had never thought of it,” he said.
King is currently working on a project funded through the National Cancer Institute that looks at the public communication environment, specifically how people talk about colon cancer screening.
“What we're trying to do with that project is figure out what colon cancer screening messages are most likely to resonate with certain subpopulations, to contribute to improvements in screening rates for those populations,” he said.
The project includes social media monitoring through various computational approaches as well as crowdsourcing approaches “for evaluation of the messages,” he explained. They then are doing a randomized controlled trial to test what was found in the first two phases.
“I'm excited about the project because we're trying to improve how we go about studying the public communication environment in a way that I hope will help us as health communicators to be better at selecting messages and engaging in communication with the public about a variety of cancer topics in the future,” he said.
Kim Kaphingst, professor in the Department of Communication and director of cancer communication research at the HCI, met King when he joined the department. They currently do research that combines their two specialties, with Kaphingst studying the communication of genetic information.
One of their new collaborations is analyzing tweets in English and Spanish that may contain misinformation about cancer and genetic risk.
“Andy has a really great area of expertise,” she said. “And I am thrilled he's here.”
King said he loves being able to research and discover new things about how people communicate health information.
“I love being able to teach and mentor emerging health communicators and health communication researchers, who I hope will go on to do more than I can imagine doing,” he said. “I also appreciate being able to engage in service to the university, the academic community, and the local community that, hopefully, contributes to improvements in population health.”
Kent Ono, professor of communication at the University of Utah, has always been interested
in the field.
He did debate in high school and college, but majored in economics then English in his undergrad. He then became a journalist.
“And then I got a flier in the mail that said ‘Hey, if you would like to get your graduate degree, a master's degree, you can come study with us at Miami University in Ohio, and get paid,” he said.”That's the first time I ever learned that going to graduate school didn't have to cost money.”
He thought, “why not?” After completing his master’s, he learned he loved the field of communication and went on to pursue a PhD. He went to the University of Iowa, the top rhetoric department in the country, at the time.
He worked at the University of California-Davis in the department of rhetoric and communication, and gravitated toward Asian American studies. He then went to the University of Illinois to become the first permanent director of the Asian American studies program and was a professor in communication there.
He worked for a year at a research center called the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society — then he came to the U.
One of the main reasons Alison Yeh Cheung, assistant professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, chose to do her PhD program at the U was to work with Ono. They both specialized in Asian American rhetoric.
“He knows so much about this topic, but he's also really good at explaining it,” she said. “Because sometimes, there might be a really smart person, but it's kind of just in their minds, but he's also really good at walking you through these different ideas. And then also showing you or like giving you a sense of how you can implement it yourself.”
She said Ono has also been supportive and checking in on her, even though she’s been gone from the U for a few years.
“He's always really thoughtful, not just academic wise, like how you're doing or even job wise, but personally, he'll check in as well,” she said.
Ono is currently writing a book called “Racial Epistemologies,” about how we know what we know. According to Ono, we have ideas about race but we don’t know we’ve learned them.
“If we don't want those lessons that we're born with, what lessons do we want to have?” he said. “And to kind of offer some ideas around people who’ve thought about this, who spent maybe their whole life thinking about how we should change the way we think about race. So this book is an attempt to feature those people who’ve thought about what should we be learning and how does it offer us a different pathway?”
Ono is also currently writing a book with Ammar Hussein, associate instructor in communication. The book argues that in a lot of international communication, there are miscommunications in addressing conflict and common goals.
Ono loves the field of communication as a whole, and thinks we don’t talk about communication enough.
“Teaching students is completely different because they already know it's important, usually, but teaching people who are making communication mistakes or, you know, not resolving conflicts well or not dialoguing well or not understanding turn taking or anything,” Ono said. “That's much more of a challenge, but a really important part I think of what's going wrong today.”
He’s interested in all aspects and types of communication, from journalism to health communication. He became president of the National Communication Association in 2020.
“If you could say things are going wrong today in the world, I think a lot of it is because of communication,” he said.
Because there are limited communication opportunities in high school, he said people come to college and don’t even know they can major in communication.
“So when they get here, I'm really intrigued by how they find us,” he said. “Why are we often the largest major on campus if students don't even know we exist when they come in the door? How does that happen? So what's super intriguing to me is students realizing kind of what I realized, right? That they know it's important.”
Students come to college and try out a few classes in the department. They maybe get excited about what they learned and declare communication as a major.
“They realize they have a passion, an intellectual passion, a learning passion that they want to spend a lot of time getting to understand and know more about, and for me, that's just absolutely fantastic,” he said. “And I think that's exactly the difficulty with our society, people don't know communication exists.”
Mark Bergstrom, associate professor in the Department of Communication, has been at
the University of Utah for 28 years.
He went to Carroll College in Helena, Montana but wanted to be a chemistry major, so he continued his studies at Washington State. In chemistry, Bergstrom preferred “bringing things together over blowing things up.”
“I just loved organic chemistry,” he said. “I loved solving puzzles and I loved synthesizing. I like putting things together.”
He eventually became a double major in communication. He thought at some point he might become more involved in technical, scientific writing.
“My passion for communication and relationships won out in the end,” he said.
He decided to go to graduate school at the University of Montana, in the department of interpersonal communication.
“And then I completed that degree and discovered I wanted to be a lifelong student, and completed my PhD at the University of Oklahoma — that's as far East as I wanted to go,” he said. “And I made great choices along the way. Utah was my first job out of PhD school.”
He wrote his dissertation on mother-daughter conflict across the lifespan.
Interpersonal communication means different things to different people, depending on how they study it, and Bergstrom is a relational scholar.
“That means that I firmly believe that how we actually communicate our utterances, our nonverbal behavior, all of our behavior, in streams of actual interaction, affects our relationships,” he said.
He views interpersonal communication as relational, and he is committed to a lifespan perspective.
“My main area of study is communication and aging — it's one of the things I brought to the department in the University of Utah,” he said. “The department didn’t have anybody who studied aging and communication across the lifespan.”
Bergstrom said his students really enjoy his Communication and Aging course, and it’s one of his favorites to teach.
“So the argument there is that our interpersonal relationships do as much or more for our ability to age successfully as any of our biological processes,” he said.
Bergstrom has always viewed himself as an advocate for social justice. He finds older adults to be a really fascinating group to study through an interdisciplinary focus. Older adults, according to Bergstrom, face a lot of institutional barriers.
“One of the most interesting things about teaching undergraduates and graduate students about older adults, is it's the really only case that I can come up with where we have prejudices against older adults, and that means that we have prejudices against our future selves,” he said.
At the U, Bergstrom served as a dean in different capacities for the College of Humanities for 12 years. He now runs the Taft-Nicholson Center, the U’s branch campus in Montana. He spends half his time in Utah, and the other half in Montana.
He called the Center a “jewel in the crown of the university,” saying it has an environmental focus with a mission to bridge the gaps between different disciplines to “help understand, solve and promote advocacy for the environment.”
“Our environmental problems are so large now that one discipline alone is not going to solve problems,” he said. “So we're really a place where scholars from all across the campus come to work on pressing environmental issues.”
The Center’s Artist in Residence Program just received a grant to be endowed in perpetuity. For 10 years the program has hosted artists from all over the world from a wide range of skillsets, including poetry and academic writing.
Bergstrom said he enjoys watching students’ transformations at the Center.
“When you're immersed in a beautiful environment, the transformation seems to happen a lot quicker,” he said.
Robin Jensen, professor of communication, met Bergstrom when she moved to Utah about 12 years ago.
“Mark and I have offices next door to each other, so I have a first-hand account of how hard he works,” she said. “When he is not at the Taft-Nicholson Center, he is in his office in LNCO working with students, preparing his next classes, and talking with collaborators concerning the Center and his health communication research.”
She said Bergstrom’s work with the Center is “second to none.”
“He and his wife Carol have single handedly revived that space and made it into a mecca of research and environmental justice work,” she said. “I can't tell you how many people have let me know the pivotal role the center has played in jump-starting their research via its fellowship program.”
What most people don’t know, Jensen explained, is “Mark and Carol do everything from refurbishing buildings and plumbing to overseeing meals and local parades in their roles. They are the heart of that place and have formed a beautiful community of engagement and growth for all to enjoy.”