Faculty in Focus: Professor Sean Ward

Professor Sean Ward of the English department is a fresh face on St. Olaf’s campus, having just defended his dissertation last spring. However, he has already found St. Olaf’s community to be rich with passion.

“There is an earnest attempt by the students at St. Olaf to try and understand texts and cultural objects that are very different than their own, and I appreciate the courage that students have shown here,” Ward said.

Ward grew up in western Montana, in both the college town of Missoula and in Helena. Though he was surrounded by literature from a young age, “the only reason I got into literature at all was [because] at a very young age, around five or six, I started listening to rap music,” Ward said.

From this seed Ward knew he had found something that would bloom into a growing love.

“The first time I listened to rap I understood that I was going to have a lifelong relationship with that musical form,” he said.

For his undergraduate degree Ward attended the University of Montana, which opened his eyes to academia and inspired him to become a professor.

“I discovered I wanted to be a professor while I was taking a 20th Century British and Irish Literature course,” Ward said. “The professor (Robert Baker) had presented literature in such a way that it came alive to me in such a way that it never had before. If there was one thing in my life I wanted to do it was be in a place where I could make literature come alive for other people, and continue to stay alive in me. That class was truly the initial spark.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree Ward moved to Toronto, where he received his masters.

“I initially went to the University of Toronto to study rap music,” he said. “My focus has shifted somewhat, but next semester I am teaching two courses on hip-hop culture.”

Ward saw Drake perform in his early days opening for Mos Def.

“I knew [Drake] from Degrassi and I was at a Mos Def concert buying scalp tickets and saw Jimmy from Degrassi come out of a car and I wondered, what was Jimmy doing there?” he said, “It turned out he was opening for Mos Def, and got booed off the stage. This was when he was very young in the game, but he tried to freestyle and it didn’t go very well.”

Ward’s passion for rap and literature comes not just from the music itself, but also from what the lyrics teach.

For his Ph.D., Ward attended Duke University and wrote his dissertation on war and literature.

“I think that literature and music present to us models of how people have lived together in the past, how we live together in the present and how we may live together in the future,” Ward said. “It is the social and political conscious and unconscious ideas that I’m most interested in.”

As a professor, Ward gets most excited about working with students and faculty.

“I think the opportunity to get very close to literature and other cultural forms socially together with students and faculty is the most rewarding part of being a professor,” he said. “Not just aesthetically how a text works, but the politics and social vision it gives. I love the social aspect of reading and discussing with those around.”

Ward brings new life into the classroom with his passion for community and discussion. He will teach a Topics course entitled Life After Total War during interim, and then will teach a Topics course on the 20th-century British novel and a first-year writing course on the hip-hop generation in the spring.