Communicating with Care
Helen Sterk studies and teaches Christ-like rhetoric.
by Jane Bos Luimes '86
Dr. Helen M. Sterk stuck a yellow post-it note to her office door, informing her students and other interested parties how to reach her that day. She was out. But her office neighbor, fellow Calvin College communication, art and sciences professor Tom Ozinga, was in.
He poked his head out of his office door, and graciously offered the use of his telephone along with some insights on Sterk.
"I remember her as a student here at Calvin," Ozinga said and smiled. "The thing I remember best is a letter of protest she wrote to Chimes concerning what she felt was sexist reporting. It was a very clever, well-written letter."
A 1974 graduate, Sterk, 45, remembers it, too.
"Oh, yes, it was about a long feature written in Chimes of a woman who ran cross country at Ferris (State University), describing in loving detail how she took off her warm-up," she said. "I thought, 'What does this have to do with running?' I wrote demanding equal time."
She ended her letter, which ran in the Oct. 6, 1972 Chimes, "It's only fair, isn't it?" The issue of "fair," particularly in regard to women's voices and gender issues in public discourse, became Sterk's specialty in the study of rhetoric.
After 12 years as a professor in the department of communications studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Sterk brought her mix of feminism and rhetoric to Calvin this fall as the third appointed William Spoelhof Teacher/Scholar-in-Residence. The chair was established in 1994 by Stanley and Harriet VanReken to honor Calvin President Emeritus William Spoelhof and to bring gifted teachers to Calvin.
Detroit real estate entrepreneurs, the VanRekens (Class of ‘52) donated $1 million to endow the chair, designed to emphasize the former President's commitment to academic excellence and to the growth of a Reformed Christian perspective.
Sterk and her husband of 21 years, Mark VanHalsema, along with their two children -- Katie, 8, and Gerard, 10 -- moved to Grand Rapids last summer. She's excited to be back.
"You get a very good, solid liberal arts eduation at Calvin, as good or better than you'll get anywhere, with a real strong interpretive focus, formed by Reformed philosophy and tradition," Sterk said. "I see that as a very positive thing because it gives students a very secure base from which to launch themselves.
"All ideas are presented at Calvin in the context of a world created by God, all under the same understanding and umbrella of God's will for us. I do believe your faith is intimately bound up with the way you think and the way you work and the way you process ideas."
Sterk's own work underwent a transformation several years ago.
While earning her Ph.D. in rhetoric from the University of Iowa in1986 and after, Sterk focused six years of her professional career on challenging the status quo of masculine assumption and on the feminist critique of patriarchy.
Then in 1989-90, she returned to Calvin College to participate in a major study of gender issues sponsored by the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Sterk contributed to the resulting book, After Eden: Meeting the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (1993). The work drained Sterk.
"I felt so much energy flowing out of me by doing that criticism," she said. "Given my feminist theoretical perspective, the only position that I could see for women was to be victimized. It became very painful for me to continue that kind of research. And I think for about a year after I got back to Marquette I just didn't even want to read feminist theory because it hurt too much."
Sterk had a difficult time seeing any positive changes.
"I knew I needed to do some work that brings me energy, that helps me to feel very strong and positive about things women do well, that they're really successful at," Sterk said.
Thus began Sterk's The Birthing Project, an archive she developed that's housed at Marquette. It includes transcripts of over 100 interviews with women describing their birthing experiences. An interdisciplinary book, it contains chapters on rhetoric, anthropology, history, English and midwifery. Currently, it is under contract from the University of Michigan Press.
She hopes to empower women through this, to help make the birthing experience a positive one for all women.
This project also led Sterk toward work on a new communication theory, one that's based on care rather than power.
"The idea in this, and Christ challenged us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, is to balance a good healthy respect for yourself with a real genuine concern for other human beings," she said. "And that's what God requires of us here on earth. To me that is so revolutionary in terms of communication study because it means a more Christ-like approach. You need to know and understand your audience before you bring to them your pat, ready-made answers."
Sterk wants to research things that matter deeply to people and come up with practical ways to cope with problems. She hopes to develop a clear understanding of the way caring communication is going to look like in different situations.
That's exactly what she's been doing at Calvin, integrating her faith and feminism in a positive way. Just ask fellow communication art and sciences professor Quentin Schultze.
"Helen practices the kind of caring communication that she preaches professionally," Schultze said. "What she brings to Calvin is very clear innovation, founded on her own belief that any education is deeply relational to your faith. I think she brings a very deep savvy and a Christian discernment about pop culture, about the topic of gender. All students, even those in the broader Christian community, need help with discerning popular gender communication."
Sterk learned some of those things while a student at Calvin. After spending most of her time and energy acting and directing in Thespians, she graduated in 1974.
For the next three years, she taught English and directed plays at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Mich. During that time she married Mark and decided to continue her education at Western Kentucky University.
"It really was my intellectual awakening," Sterk said. "I realized then I had quite a gift for reading and understanding and writing, and I just loved it. It was the first time in my life I just let myself be smart. And, I think, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was married, and that I felt very secure in my marriage. I didn't feel I needed to impress anybody, and I could just relax and be myself."
After earning her master's degree in theater, Sterk taught for one year at Calvin for communication professor Jim Korf, who was on sabbatical.
"I just had the best time," Sterk said. "I almost felt like I should be paying them to let me teach there. The students were wonderful, they were very responsive, funny and focused. I thought, 'This is what I want to do. I want to teach in college for the rest of my life.' It really galvanized me to finish my Ph.D."
Sterk did just that at the University of Iowa, where her husband was enrolled in the philosophy program. Because of a weak theater program there, she switched to the area of rhetoric.
"I wasn't really thrilled about that," she said. "I thought of rhetoric as a second choice for me, but I clearly see God's hand in that move. It turned out to be the number one program in the country for rhetoric.
"They were very open in Iowa to new ideas going on in philosophy, and very connected with feminist work, especially in English and political science. They encouraged me to take courses in all of those areas. I found it a very rich place to be."
Sterk's Ph.D. dissertation, the first popular-cultural one there, was on the rhetoric of Silhouette romance novels. She earned her Ph.D. in 1986.
Now, she's back at Calvin as the third Spoelhof Chairholder.
"To be able to bring my faith into my teaching here is incredible," she said. "Students here take responsibility for their own spiritual life. There's a much more vibrant faith-life here than when I was a student. I think Calvin is the place where probably the strongest Christian scholarship in the country is going on. You couple that with a commitment to undergraduate education, and it's just unbeatable."
--Jane Bos Luimes is a sports writer for the Grand Rapids Press.