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Department of Communication College of Liberal Arts
Michael Sunnafrank - UMD CLA Communication

Michael Sunnafrank, Professor

Michael SunnafrankEducation

Ph.D., Michigan State University
M.A., Michigan State University

Personal Statement

I joined the faculty at UMD in 1990 after fourteen years of teaching and research at Michigan State University, University of California Davis, Arizona State University and Texas A&M University. People are often curious about my choice to come to UMD. After all, I am a Californian and, with the exception of three years at Michigan State to get my M.A. and Ph.D., all my appointments have been in slightly warmer climes. And all my previous positions have been at internationally recognized research universities, something that generally doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking of UMD.

So, why UMD? There are several good reasons. One big reason is the colleagues I have in the Department of Communication. They are all kind, funny, bright and committed to their work and to one another. After surviving the political infighting at every other department I have served and hearing stories from colleagues at most other institutions, I cherish this collegial environment. It is rare indeed and it makes my time on campus a real joy. Another reason is the strong support for research here at UMD and the high quality research being produced in the Department of Communication. While UMD might not be renowned internationally for its research, several of my colleagues in the Department of Communication, in the College of Liberal Arts and in other UMD Schools and Colleges are well-known nationally and internationally for their scholarship. In particular, many of our department’s younger faculty are fast making names for themselves with their research. These young colleagues could all have taken positions in big name research institutions but decided to come here instead. They came, as I did, because of the collegial atmosphere, the research support, and intellectually stimulating atmosphere produced by a group of department colleagues committed to exploring ideas through conversation and research.

And we all came for one other professional reason: we enjoy teaching and working with undergraduates. The focus, at the big research institutions, is on educating graduate students. This takes much time and energy and is a good work worth doing well. However, these efforts often detract from our ability to spend time working with undergraduates, something I have always found enjoyable. My departmental colleagues at UMD agree. That is why we are here. We all see young lives change before our eyes and, when we have in some small measure contributed to that transformation, we take great satisfaction in it. Personally, I have seen that countless times, many times more than when working primarily with graduate students. Moreover, many of us in the department have undergraduate research teams and find that of great value to us and to them. Several of these students are going on to graduate and professional schools and we find that greatly rewarding.

Okay, so I’ve talked a lot about valuing research and teaching here. What am I actually doing about it? Click on any of the section headings below to find out or simply mouse your way down.
Teaching
Past Research
Current Projects

Teaching

Human Communication Theory: A large lecture course aimed primarily at first-year students, giving me an opportunity to introduce students to the many areas of study available to them in the communication discipline and to the exciting theory and research delving into varied communication phenomena. Student evaluations average 5.0 on a 6-point scale for this class.

Interpersonal Communication Theory: An upper division lecture/discussion course focused on exploring theories in the area of interpersonal communication as well as research being conducted to test those theories. Almost all students taking this class are majors or minors. Student evaluations average 5.0 on a 6.0 scale.

Intercultural Communication: This course is unique in the world. The course is composed of an equal number of international/immigrant students, American “minority” students, and American students with European ancestry. We meet once a week for four hours. The first hour devoted to discussing intercultural communication topics. The remainder of time is spent on class excursions involving enjoyable activities that promote interaction between the students of varied cultures in the class. In other words, students learn about intercultural communication primarily by engaging in intercultural communication. The majority of students report this was their favorite college course and report learning more in it than in any other course they have taken. Student evaluations average 5.5 on a 6-point scale for this class.

Intercultural Communication Practicum in Hawaii: This course involves a three week trip to the Hawaiian Islands of Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii. Twenty-six students and I explore Hawaiian history, culture and the current issues facing Hawaiians. We spend time with Hawaiians and those descended from immigrant groups brought to the islands as a source of cheap labor. Tourists destinations are not on our radar during this course. Rather, we get more rewarding lessons on the “real” Hawaii as seen from the perspective of local communities. We see things no tourist would ever see and we are forever touched by the people. As an example of just how much this experience effects students, several of my former students have banded together to buy land in a rural, economically-impoverished area of the Big Island. They plan to develop a Center on the land to provide an economic engine for our local friends, to combine with Hawaiian groups to provide educational opportunities for young children in the area (an area that has the lowest standardized test scores in the nation) and to provide eco-culture tours to eudcate tourists about the true history and conditions of the Hawaiian people. Student evaluations average 6.0 on a 6-point scale for this class.

Past Research

I have conducted research on may topics during my career. One early line of research looked at the effects of defendant extra-legal characteristics (physical attractiveness, race) on juridic decisions. An important finding from this line of research was the discovery of strong race-crime stereotypes jurors bring to the courtroom, stereotypes that may influence decisions they render. This research has been cited in U.S. Supreme Court cases and in Case Law in many states.

Another major line of research questions the common sense belief that similarity between people increases attraction and positively influences relationship development, a belief that is generally shared by scientists studying this topic despite considerable evidence to the contrary. My theory and research in this area supports a very different set of conclusions. I do find that people tend to the common sense belief that similarity matters and make relational choices based on that belief. But I also find that, despite that belief, when given the opportunity people who are dissimilar are as attracted to one another in beginning communicative relationships as well as in long term relationships as are similar partners (this finding has strong positive implications for the development of intercultural relationships). My research also indicates that dissimilar partnerships are at least as satisfying relationally as are similar partnerships.

In 1986 I published Predicted Outcome Value Theory (POV). In a nutshell, the initial theory can be summarized as follows. Individuals forecast how positive or negative relationships with another will be (predict outcome values). More positive forecasts will increasingly generate communication attempts to develop the relationship while more negative will result in increasing attempts to curtail the relationship. The theory was first used to challenge Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975), a still important theory in our field. The tests conducted demonstrated the greater accuracy of POV in predicting individuals’ communicative behavior and their assessments of relational partners.

Current Projects

So what am I up to these days? I continue to work on research testing POV but my interests have expanded into other areas as well.

On the POV front, I recently published (with co-author Art Ramirez) a test that demonstrated POV formed during initial interactions between strangers was strongly related to relationship development, attraction, and communication patterns in a much later stage of the relationship (nine weeks later). This was the first demonstration that first impressions have such a strong lasting effect on relationships. That research was picked up and reported on the BBC, ABC, USA Today, among other press outlets. I currently have a theoretical piece submitted to an academic journal that extends POV to explain romance loss. Essentially, I argue that unusually high initial POV assessments, as occur in the infatuation stage of romantic relationships, produces unrealistically positive behaviors which will later be partially or totally abandoned by partners (as their “dark side” begins to emerge), resulting in dissatisfaction with the relationship and partner and, quite possibly, relational decline. Another piece I have submitted to an academic journal looks at how surprising events in ongoing relationships influence partners’ POVs and the relationship. Positive surprising events were found to increase POV and improve relationships in the short term, while negative surprising events were found to have an opposite effect and, when the surprising event was highly negative, a more lasting effect on relationships. I am at work on two further related studies related to POV and surprising events, one of which tests an innovative method for studying surprising relational events while the other examines the effect past relational turbulence on how being respond to surprising events.

It has now been 25 years since I collected the data which demonstrated the existence of race-crime stereotypes. I am strongly considering recollecting that data. Much has changed regarding race in the United States during the last quarter century. However, exercises I have my students engage in each term using the materials used in that first data collection indicates that race-crime stereotypes have strengthened during this period. I think it important to test this in a formal study.

The past few years saw me trying my hand at fiction. I published two short stories in an anthology series about supernatural experiences in Hawaii. Both stories were based on experiences my students had while taking my Intercultural Practicum in Hawaii class. Four more such stories have been written and the anthology series editor plans to use them in future installments of the series. This was a lot of fun for me, trying my hand at a different writing style was very “freeing.” Of course, my students enjoyed reading their stories in print.

I have written a fictional novel, “Three of a Human Kind” that is set to be published this year. It is an act of social protest employing broad cultural, philosophical and historical perspectives to critique greed-driven government policies impoverishing American and world citizens, policies revealed as chronic historical patterns in all empires. This work was motivated by my growing discontent with the way our world is going and the central role of my own country, corporate interests and citizens such as myself (sitting by and letting it happen) in that movement.

Contact Information

Office: 457 A.B. Anderson Hall

Phone: 218.726.6363

Email: msunnafr@d.umn.edu