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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Communication Studies

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Department of Communication Studies

Profiles in Teaching and Research

Professor Elizabeth Suter

Elizabeth Suter, Associate Professor


Elizabeth Suter's program of research draws attention to how context, culture and networks impact individual, relational and family identities. For instance, her research has focused on cultural assumptions (e.g., who counts as family and how families should be, conventional gender role expectations) and ideologies (e.g., heteronomativity, patronymy). Suter's research takes a qualitative approach to her study of family, relational and gender communication, making use of a broad range of qualitative ways of collecting data, including individual interviews, couple interviews, focus group interviews and surveys with open-ended questions. Likewise, she employs a variety of methods to analyze such data, such as grounded theory analysis, thematic analysis, qualitative categorical coding verified via inter-rater reliability.

Teaching Profile:

Elizabeth Suter's graduate teaching includes courses in family communication, identity and relationships, and research interviewing. Suter's program of research is centrally concerned with the communicative negotiation of identity. She has pursued this program looking at how identities are negotiated via symbolic and discursive means at the borders of relationships and families as a whole.


Suter has published articles in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Journal of Family Communication, Journal of Family Issues, Western Journal of Communication, Sex Roles, Women and Language, Journal of Lesbian Studies, The Communication Review and The Qualitative Report.


Associate Professor Erin Willer

Erin Willer, Assistant Professor


My overarching program of research focuses on the communicative management of relational difficulty within intra/intergroup contexts and how such management impacts well-being and identity. An ultimate goal of this work is to develop intervention strategies designed to teach people how to communicatively manage difficulty in a manner that will lead to improved sense of self, as well as increased individual and relational health. Theoretically speaking, my work typically is grounded in narrative theorizing and takes an intra/intergroup approach, utilizing social identity theory, facework/politeness, the expressive writing paradigm and life story research. Through a dark side lens, some of my research attends to the functional ambivalence inherent in communicative phenomena (e.g., the bright side of social aggression). With these foundations in mind, the lion's share of my research focuses on social aggression (e.g., gossip, exclusion, friendship manipulation) among girls and women. My dissertation, which is currently under review for publication, tested a narrative sense-making metaphor intervention designed to help middle school girls communicate about and cope with their experiences with meanness. Along with my colleague Bill Cupach from Illinois State University, I currently am conducting a study on social aggression in adult women's social networks, focusing on the relationship between factors such as narcissism, social comparison, face threat and forgiveness. Christy Rittenour, my colleague from West Virginia University, and I also are collecting data on memorable messages about popularity that mothers communicate to daughters and the relationship between such messages and prosocial and antisocial behavior. Building on research on the health benefits of narrative disclosure, Jody Koenig Kellas and I, along colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are conducting an experimental study. The purpose is not only to test the impact of storylistening behaviors on distress, but also to determine which listening behaviors are most beneficial to those telling stories of difficulty. My newest research extends the study of the communicative management of relational difficulty to understand compassionate care within the infertility patient-healthcare provider context. I am interested in understanding how (un)compassion contributes to patients' infertile identity and treatment distress. Examples of my research can be found in upcoming and recent publications. My coauthor, Jordan Soliz, and I published an article in Personal Relationships (2010) on social aggression in college women's friendship networks. I also have two chapters in the 2011 edition of the The Dark Side of Personal Relationships-II. One, co-authored with Bill Cupach, is on the dark and bright sides of social aggression and intervention; and the other, authored with Jody Koenig Kellas and Haley Kranstuber, is on the functional ambivalence inherent in narrative sense-making processes.

Teaching Profile:

Being a professor at the University of Denver is a dream given I get to teach unique and engaging undergraduate and graduate courses. Some of the classes I teach include Quantitative Research Methods, The Dark Side of Relationships, Gender and Communication, and Interpersonal Communication Theory. I also have had the opportunity to design and teach an undergraduate first-year seminar titled, The Adolescent and Teenage Years: Intergroup Parameters and Dimensions. In addition to this course being about two of my favorite topics—young people and identity—I also am enjoying the opportunity to mentor students in their first year at DU. As a former high school teacher, it has been especially meaningful for me to teach these fresh undergraduates about intergroup-related processes such as homophobic victimization, social aggression, hate and prejudice. I believe I find such meaning in teaching this course because it gives me an opportunity to shape engaged citizens who have the power to impact their communities in socially significant ways.

Aaron P. Donaldson, PhD candidate

Aaron P. Donaldson, PdD Candidate


My research dwells on the ethical implications that sit at the intersection of language-use and perception. I earned an interdisciplinary MS at the University of Oregon in rhetoric and education where I studied ethics-based approaches to rhetoric (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, Booth) as well as psychology (empathic accuracy and metaperceptions), and foundational neural-sensory development. My doctoral study consists of surveying the fields of embodied cognition and affect as they interact with contemporary and traditional understandings of human "symbolicity." I believe that the attitudes, postures and symbols that we activate to engage the world exert very literal (and often very problematic) influence on the "material" nature of our experience, and I aspire to interrogate those influences within the discourses of race, health care, consumption, history and argumentation. I am currently working to develop an ontology and pedagogy for human communication that draws on ethics-bound theories of the Other (hooks, Levinas , Buber, Conquergood) to help us remain sensitive to these fluid realities in the practice of our everyday lives.

Teaching Profile:

Teaching is at the heart of the human experience. I feel strongly that the primary obligation for any so-called expert is to make themselves and their material as available and applicable to the public as possible. Aside from the basic communication courses I have taught at DU (Speaking on Ideas That Matter, Small Group Communication, Communication in Popular Culture), I have more than ten years of teaching experience in academic debate and speech including a 2009 National Parliamentary Debate Association National Sweepstakes Championship. I encourage every member of the community to take an early, active, and (most importantly) diverse interest in oral advocacy and deliberation, and I have explored multiple co-curricular formats to that end including: parliamentary debate; policy debate; Lincoln-Douglas debate; British parliamentary ("Oxford") debate; impromptu, extemporaneous and platform speaking; as well as solo and duet dramatic interpretation. I attempt to structure class time more as a discussion among experts-in-training rather than as a transmission-driven attempt to learn "facts." I encourage everyone to genuinely and exhaustively take up any and all efforts to "make sense" of the world, and I believe that our willingness to engage those efforts has a profound effect on "the world" as we see it.

Paige Dvorak, communications major

Paige Dvorak, COMN Major

Why a communications major?

I decided to major in communications after reading the class requirements and descriptions my sophomore year. I took a gamble and registered for three communications classes in one quarter, and I fell in love immediately. Initially, I was drawn to communications for the culture aspect, and it seemed to line up nicely with my other major—psychology. They complimented each other, and my communications classes were able to look more in depth at the influence that culture has on social interactions and popular culture..

How did this degree help me with my work in a psychology lab this summer?

This summer, I received a grant from DU that allowed me to work in a social psychology lab preparing and running a study examining the influence of children’s television shows on ideas about gender stereotypes in young girls. Though this project was based out of the psychology department, it was heavily influenced by my communications classes: COMN 1700--Fundamentals of Intercultural Communications and COMN 1600--Communications and Popular Culture, These two classes had a profound impact on me and the way that I view the world, and also served as inspiration for this project. Through these classes, I learned how the media influences the way that we see the world and how one must be a critical viewer of television programs, advertising, and films. I also learned about the gender inequities that permeate our patriarchal society. Therefore, I became extremely passionate about what perpetuates gender stereotypes, and have pulled heavily from my communications degree in examining this in my project.

How has communication studies impacted my future?

As I am entering my last quarter of communications classes, I feel a profound sense of nostalgia. Throughout the classes in my communications degree, I have grown immensely--partially because I have continually been challenged. Sometimes the challenge was simply facing my fear of public speaking (a skill that has dramatically improved), but other times the challenge was more personal. I have gained new information and perspectives, and thus have learned to embrace many new lenses through which to see the world. It has helped me to be a more open-minded person, taking into account an individual’s multiple identities and experiences that have shaped his or her world. Because I have learned how to more effectively communicate with others, I feel a sense of confidence entering new environments that I previously did not have. This is a skill that will benefit me in every facet of my future, from my personal to professional life. I firmly believe that if everyone took at least one communications class, the world would be filled with more open-minded people, which would foster a more just and benevolent society.