• Derek Sweet, Associate Professor of Communication Studies

    "If I'm not running, swimming, or drinking coffee, I'm probably celebrating my love of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy."

Derek Sweet

Critical Experience, Influences Before Luther

While studying for his PhD at the University of Denver, Sweet taught courses at a variety of institutions, such as Metropolitan State College of Denver and Colorado State University.

“By the time I started at Luther, I’d already been teaching for over ten years,” he says. “During that time I was fortunate to have some excellent teaching mentors, both professors and graduate colleagues, who were willing to share their knowledge with me. Those hectic years taught me the importance of balancing my time between teaching, writing, and relaxing. I’m a better teacher, scholar, parent, and partner for having had those experiences.”

The Liberal Arts Makes Lasting Impact

Sweet earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech communication at a large public institution (Colorado State University). “As part of my degree I studied not only rhetoric, mass media, and interpersonal communication but also took a wide variety of courses in composition, political science, history, philosophy, literature, and science,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at the time but I was learning the importance of a liberal arts education. I earned my PhD from the University of Denver, a smaller, private school that celebrates the liberal arts values of creative inquiry, critical thinking, and responsible citizenship.”

While he received an excellent education from both schools, he felt the more intimate class sizes at the University of Denver offered a glimpse into the life of a liberal arts professor. “To this day,” he says, “I believe a person who is broadly educated in the liberal arts tradition is well equipped to participate in meaningful public dialogue and fulfill the duties of responsible citizenship.”

The Intersection of Rhetoric and Pop Culture

As a rhetorician, Sweet studies the way communication provides a means to influence, negotiate, and transform ourselves, others, and the world around us. “My recent work concentrates on the intersection of rhetoric and popular culture,” he says. “It looks at how varied popular culture texts such as film and television invite audiences to engage contemporary political issues.” One of his recent pieces, for example, explores how The Avengers film offers audiences a new way of thinking about post-9/11 U.S. anxieties and foreign policy. He’s also committed to dispelling the myth that popular culture is just entertainment.

Sweet’s current research focuses almost entirely on how popular culture texts call audiences to consider what it means to live in a state of continuous warfare. “Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been involved in a startling number of military operations via traditional warfare, special forces operations, air campaigns, and drone strikes,” he says. “Given the widespread use of U.S. military power in the Middle East, I’m perplexed by the lack of public conversation.”

He’s thankful that a variety of science fiction texts (e.g. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Trek: Into the Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Edge of Tomorrow, The Hunger Games) all explore how a constant state of war affects the broader culture. “While most of us will never see combat, we’ll undoubtedly feel the effects,” he says. “As a rhetorician and popular culture critic, I feel compelled to point out how a wide variety of texts contribute to our ongoing cultural dialogues concerning the notions of justice in relation to war.”

What’s Most Rewarding About Being a Luther College Professor

Sweet appreciates the freedom he has at Luther to embrace his identity as scholar/fan. “I’ve talked to numerous colleagues from other institutions who receive little or no support for courses centering on significant popular culture genres or trends,” he says. “These colleagues marvel when I tell them I receive nothing but support for such classes as COMS 185: Kryptonite, Cowls, and Caped Crusaders and COMS 239: Hyperspace, Hobbits, and the Hellmouth."

He believes that teaching classes centered around superheroes, science fiction, fantasy film, and television allows him to celebrate his own fascination with popular culture as well as share that passion with like-minded student fans.

In addition to teaching communication studies courses, Sweet is a member of:

  • National Communication Association
  • Western States Communication Association
  • Popular Culture Association

To date, every piece of his own published scholarship started as a conference paper for one of these professional associations.

I am an avid runner and swimmer. I’m also a self-avowed coffee connoisseur. Few things in life compare to a carefully crafted cup of coffee. If I’m not running, swimming, or drinking coffee, I’m probably celebrating my love of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy.

—Derek Sweet