Dr. Sophia McClennen joins SIA faculty

Professor Sophia McClennen, a researcher of popular culture, international trade policy, and cultural response to strife, has joined the SIA as an affiliate faculty member.

“One part of my scholarship asks how culture responds to crises,” she said. “Whether it's human rights violations, forced migration, dictatorship, or exile, I ask how these social conflicts are communicated via the stories that people tell about them.” She has researched cultural responses to social conflict such as that associated with war, imperialism, state formation, immigration and exile, dictatorship, patriarchy, and globalization.

“For example, most atrocities are told in stories. When you think of the Holocaust, it's nearly impossible not the think of the Diary of Anne Frank. When you think of the Rwandan genocide, most people think of Hotel Rwanda,” she said. "In my teaching and research, I ask how these iconic stories come to shape the narratives that we use to describe and understand geopolitical shifts." But all stories are not the same, she explained. Some create stereotypes and some dismantle them. When teaching these topics, Dr. McClennen wants students to understand that the benefits of these stories are always accompanied by risks such as invading someone's privacy, making a complex situation simple, or sensationalizing.

She is also a scholar of media culture and most recently authored America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy (2011) the first scholarly look at comedian Stephen Colbert. The book will be available in November.

The book claims that the comedy of Colbert has played a major role in energizing the younger generation's commitment to democratic action. “When you look at what Colbert is really doing, he's educating the public in a plain way. You can see his vision for America. But he reveals this in a complex way since he performs the character of a bloviating pundit. His character asks his audience to see the folly of much of the way that we receive news today,” she said. Dr. McClennen suggests that Colbert's satire has predecessors in other American satirists like Ben Franklin and that of Samuel Clemens. She views Colbert's program and the media associated with it as an example of post-network television and studies the way that it “amuses people to activism.”

She became interested in the topic as a viewer of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. She began to form the idea of the book after watching Colbert's address to the White House Correspondent's dinner. She was especially intrigued by the subsequent blogging that went on afterward that managed to change the way that the mainstream news reported the event.

In her classes she focuses on teaching students to appreciate that complex problems require complex solutions. She emphasized that a successful class period is one in which “students are engaged but dilemmas are not easy to resolve.”

Dr. McClennen has ties to the departments of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women's Studies within the University's College of Liberal Arts. She directs Penn State's Center for Global Studies as well as its Program in Latin American Studies. She is the author of Ariel Dorfman: An Aesthetics of Hope (2010). In 2006 she was the Fulbright Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and she has also held a Fulbright faculty award in Peru. She has taught in Chile, Canada, Germany, and Peru, and has conducted research in those countries as well as in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Spain, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.