Meet the MAT@USC Faculty: Melora Sundt
What is your name and what do you teach?
My name is Melora Sundt, and I teach the Framing Experience course in the MAT. I typically teach in the higher education program (not the MAT), but I enjoy teaching about writing, which is a focus of the Framing course, hence my connection to it. I chair the design team for the MAT, and wrote the original syllabus for the Framing course. It has since become a collaborative effort among all the instructors to upgrade the course, so I can’t say I’m the author, really, anymore.
How long have you been with the Rossier School?
I started working at the Rossier School in 1997, as the Assistant Dean of Students, overseeing all admissions, recruitment and student services for the School. I also taught in the master’s program for student affairs administrators. The Rossier School was a very different organization then. I became an Associate Dean in 2001 (and a clinical professor), and started in my current role as Associate Dean for Academic Programs (so I oversee all the degree programs offered by the Rossier School) in 2006.
Before becoming a professor at one of the best Education schools in the country, what did you do?
Before I became a professor, I had a career in student affairs administration, and managed some grant-funded research projects. I actually started my work in California in student affairs at USC, working in the residential life program. I then went to UCLA (sh!!) and became an Associate Dean of Students, doing mainly student disciplinary investigation and adjudication. I learned a lot about students who violate the student conduct code (i.e., assault, cheating, shop lifting, etc). I went back to get my PhD at UCLA while I was working there, and once I got the degree, I left and worked on those grant funded projects I mentioned. Those projects allowed me to travel throughout Central and Eastern Europe at a time when few Americans were venturing in that direction. I left that job to work on a grant-funded project at RAND (indirectly under the direction of Dominic Brewer, who is now my Associate Dean colleague here at the Rossier School — note to anyone paying attention: be good to everyone and do your best work. You never know when the people you supervise may one day become your boss). I started teaching as an adjunct at USC, and came to the attention of the then Associate Dean, Estela Bensimon, who hired me as the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. When the new (current) Dean, Karen Symms Gallagher, arrived, she reorganized her administrative staff, and hired me as a faculty member/Associate Dean and I’ve enjoyed working with and for her ever since. Long answer to a short question! But the bottom line is that, like many people, I do not have a straight and purposeful career path. I do what seems interesting to me.
What originally inspired you to teach?
I come from a long line of English teachers. My Dad and both sisters are currently English teachers at private schools in Maryland and Virginia (I am originally an East-coaster, too). My mom was an English teacher until she went back to law school (while I was in college), became an attorney and then a judge. So I grew up around teachers, and living on the campus of a private school. I played school in the empty classrooms (the biggest thrill was finding colored chalk to use on the blackboards). While I went into student affairs originally, and love that line of work, I always wanted to teach, particularly at the college level. UCLA wouldn’t allow anyone who did not have a terminal (i.e., PhD) degree to teach, so I went back and got the degree so that I wouldn’t be held back from doing something that I thought would interest me. I taught in the graduate program at UCLA before teaching at USC, and love working with graduate students. I’ve had a chance to also teach a the undergraduate level, and really enjoy that as well.
Did a teacher change your life? If so, who and how?
Rather than a teacher, it was a school, meaning that it was the collective efforts of several teachers and a different kind of school environment that made a difference for me. When we moved to DC when I was 7, my parents enrolled me in a sort of alternative private school. This was in the 1960s and the faculty there were open to all kinds of different methods of teaching. We had sleepovers at school, we made genuine tee-pees and totum poles. We took week long trips to other cities. We trekked through the woods and studies the ponds around the school. But my favorite part was a time when we got to pick our own curriculum from among choices the teachers had identified. They called it “featherstoning” I think after the person who initiated the practice in England. The teachers blended grades 4 and 5, and put up a washboard, marked off into a matrix by class time and topic, and hung hooks for washers in each “cell” on the washboard, indicating the spaces available in that “class.” We each had washers with our names on them, and we hung them on whatever cells we wanted so long as there was room. Guitar was one of the topics, and i hung my washer on that cell every chance I could, and I learned to play the guitar and compose music. My parents put what little money we had into buying me my own guitar at the end of that year — what magic that was. I still have (and play, although not as well as I used to) that guitar. School became wonderful then.
Are you working on, or have you recently worked on, any research that might be of interest to future teachers?
I do work in the area of violence prevention – mostly trying to understand all aspects of sexual violence, for all ages. What profiles are there of perpetrators, what are the most effective prevention programs for schools and colleges? How can we better meet the needs of victims? How do we change the attitudes that support sexual violence? This work has a lot to do with how we think about gender norms — what it means to be masculine and feminine. A lot of what we think about gender roles gets solidified in schools – by how teachers, parents and peers reinforce norms, positively and negatively. So I’m interested in that socialization process, too. Teachers are extremely influential in setting the norms for students — it’s amazing how heterosexist, and traditional, most books, projects and assignments are in school. I’d like to see us free those up from the norms that are doing damage to both boys and girls, and have long lasting effects that most of us don’t anticipate — in other words I see what we do in schools as being related later on to why it’s so hard for victims to come forward, and why we so often blame victims for being assaulted.
How did you get involved with the MAT@USC?
The Dean asked me to chair the design team, when the idea of both redesigning the MAT, and putting it online, emerged. So I have been with this edition of the MAT from the beginning. It has been a wonderful experience — I get to be as creative as I can imagine because of the collaboration with the technology brilliance in our partner, 2tor (the company that creates the technical side of the platform for the MAT).
What are you most excited about with regards to the MAT@USC?
The chance to make the best program possible, with no restrictions or boundaries. We never get to do that normally. We’re always compromising because of time or cost. We haven’t had to do that with this program.
What have your experiences been like with students in the MAT@USC? Just wonderful. They bring so many different life experiences to the program. They bring enthusiasm and intelligence – they are such a pleasure to get to know. I’m surprised and pleased by how well I get to know many of them through the platform.