An Interview With...
Cynthia Duquette Smith
Public Speaking, Director
Where did you grow up and what were your favorite activities as a young girl?
I grew up in Costa Mesa, California, in the 1970s. I loved playing with Barbies and those plastic model horses that weren't designed for Barbie but that she could ride anyway. I also liked to put on shows of all kinds for my parents; puppet shows, little plays, etc. They went on and on until my parents begged me to stop. :) I also had a best friend, Ross, who lived down the street. We dug big holes in his yard, climbed trees, played with Tonka trucks, and played dress up. There's a lovely photo of Ross dressed as a bride and me as the groom.
In addition to these exploits, I also read voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on: almost all the Perry Mason novels, Nancy Drew, the Anne McCaffrey Dragon series, The Egypt Game (which friends and I attempted to reenact), The Little Princess, The Outsiders, and so on. I still love reading fiction, and am even trying my hand at writing it... like I used to do when I was a young girl.
What do you do now and what is a typical day like on the job?
I am a college professor, and supervisor of the Public Speaking class at Indiana University. On the supervisory end, this means I train all of the new instructors who will be teaching Public Speaking, observe them all teaching, and provide them with feedback. I also teach Public Speaking once a year, in the fall, so that I keep up with what instructors are doing and can make changes to the course as needed.
As a college professor, I teach courses in an area called "rhetoric." Although the popular definition of rhetoric is usually "filled with hot air" or "a bunch of baloney," this is not what colleges mean by rhetoric. At a university, rhetoric has to do with things that are persuasive, and how they are designed to be persuasive. It usually focuses on how language works, but also on how movies, theatre, buildings, social movements, and much more, function persuasively. So, in my role as a rhetoric professor, I design and teach my own courses on topics other (thank goodness!) than Public Speaking. I teach a course called "Rhetoric and Architecture" which looks at how buildings shape our behaviors, attitudes, and values. I teach a course called "Rhetoric and Public Memory" which looks at how our shared memories are created and maintained over time by things like monuments and museums. I also teach a course about Persuasion, and one on Rhetorical Criticism. Both of these focus on how to take messages apart and see how they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
A typical day on the job involves catching up on e-mail, reading to prepare for class, photocopying to prepare for class, some grading of student work, teaching two classes (most semesters), and holding some office hours for students and for the other instructors I supervise. Being a professor is definitely not a physically challenging job. Lots of sitting and reading!
What were your favorite subjects in school? Were any subjects particularly difficult?
My favorite classes were almost always English classes involving language and literature. I hated math and still do. Math was like a foreign language. Even though math was very hard for me, I still did fairly well in it. I knew I had to get through it to get into college and to meet my college requirement once there. Once I did that, no more math for me.
I am so thankful for so many excellent teachers I had growing up. I still remember Mr. Spehar from Adam's Elementary, who came to my house to tutor me when I had Mono for four months in fourth grade. There was a teacher who went above and beyond the call of duty!
The most inspiring teacher I ever had, the man served more than any other to motivate me to become a teacher, was Mr. Robert Glenn at Liberty Union High School in Northern California. I've told him this in person, too! If you ever have a really great teacher, you should always tell them how much they've meant to you. Now that I'm a teacher and have had students thank me for my work, I know how meaningful it is to receive those compliments. Mr. Glenn taught Biology, and he was brilliant. I still remember the colored plastic pieces he brought in to talk about molecules and DNA. After I took Mr. Glenn's class, I got to be his lab assistant the next semester. That was the best experience. I got to see how much work went into teaching and grading, and how much Mr. Glenn truly loved his work.
In college, I vividly remember outstanding teachers like Bruce Bechtol (Geography), Sharon Yoder (Public Relations), and Bob Vivian (Public Relations). All of these professors were excellent role models who seemed to love what they did. That enthusiasm was contagious.
What was the path you took to arrive at your current position?
Was there a path? I'm sure there was, but I don't know quite how it worked. :) When I decided to get my Ph.D. I knew I wanted to be a university professor and I wanted to teach classes in rhetoric. I never planned to be a Course Director and supervise so many public speaking instructors (30 per semester) and class sections (we teach about 3000 students per year). When it came time for me to look for a job, I applied at a great many places. Finding a job as a college professor is not easy, and recently it has been particularly hard because many states are having budget problems. When the Chairman of the department at Indiana invited me up, I was very enthusiastic. After I met my future colleagues and toured the gorgeous campus (see the movie Breaking Away, filmed at I.U.) I was sold. As a graduate student, I had taught public speaking many times, and taught a number of other courses as well. So I had the experience they wanted, and was enthusiastic about working with new graduate student teachers.
When did you decide to pursue a career in public speaking (or teaching)? When did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?
I definitely never planned to still be teaching Public Speaking. It's a very important course, but it is a course designed for brand new college students. Usually graduate students do much of the teaching for this class across the country. As soon as I taught my first class in Public Speaking at Chico State, however, I was hooked completely. Teaching was the most rewarding and energizing thing I'd ever done. It was SO much fun I had to be a professor. And of course you can't be a professor, technically, until you have a Ph.D. I wanted to teach at a 4-year college, so I knew I had to have that degree. So it was teaching, rather than a driving need to research things and read thick books that lead me to earn my Ph.D. Now while I was working on this last degree, there were definitely times where I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. It takes a long time, and a lot of motivation to finish up. But it has been well worth it.
After you attain a Ph.D., do you continue formal education in any way?
Since I graduated, I have taken an undergraduate course in Museum Studies. It was a blast. There were other graduate students, but I was definitely the only other professor besides the one teaching the class. I worked in a team with undergraduates and had a great time. I imagine I will continue to take a course every now and then, and I do attend workshops related to teaching and new technology several times a year at my university. I love to learn new things, even, and sometimes especially, if they are unrelated to what I do for a living. I'm not sure if I need any other formal degrees or certificates, but being able to take classes that interest me is an enjoyable part of being on a college campus.
What careers have majors or minors in Public Speaking?
The Department of Communication and Culture is about studying human communication from a variety of perspectives. Our department focuses on film and media, rhetoric, and anthropology (or as we call it, performance ethnography). Public Speaking, or the larger field of rhetoric which it comes from, is incredibly useful for a variety of majors. We often have double majors in Communication and Culture and subjects like Psychology, Business, Folklore, Journalism, and Political Science, to name just a few. Since surveys of employers nationwide always reveal that communication skills are a top priority for their new recruits, it's easy to see why so many students take public speaking and other communication classes.
Besides speaking in front of a class, do you do any other public speaking yourself?
In addition to teaching, I give presentations at academic conferences I attend before audiences of about 20 people. I also volunteer as a docent (tour guide) at a local House Museum, where I give tours of the home to people of all ages and groups of various sizes.
My first experience speaking in front of a very large audience was at my first college graduation. It was in a gigantic auditorium and I had to explain what students in one of the majors actually studied (parents like to know these things!). This actually wasn't that hard on the nerves, since you couldn't really see the people in the audience because of the lighting. Many years later I gave a toast at my best friend's wedding, though, and it was terrifying. I mean, really terrifying. I think it was the emotional nature of the day, and again a huge crowd of well-lit people I could clearly see. :) Anyone who does any public speaking will tell you that they still get nervous. This is absolutely true. I still get anxious on the first day of class, because I'm excited to meet all of my new students. I am always nervous before conference presentations. My best advice is to just get on with it. Try to speak as soon as you can, so you can relax and enjoy yourself. Have a conversation with a friend or nearby volunteer prior to your speech to warm yourself up in a low-pressure situation.
I think nerves remain the biggest problem faced by people of all ages. They never go away, so you just need to recognize that they're part of the experience. If you weren't nervous, you'd be boring (Trust me! I've seen really relaxed speakers and they practically put me to sleep!). Talking in small groups and presenting your ideas to other people on a regular basis is one of the best ways to reduce your anxiety over time.
How can young children develop the skills needed to become effective public speakers?
It seems to me that reading aloud with a parent must be one of the best ways for children to begin developing their speaking and listening skills. In a way, reading a book to a parent or companion is very much like giving a speech. This is especially true if the book has pictures and the child shows them off to the audience! So although I don't have expertise in childhood education, it seems to me that reading aloud, or making up stories aloud, is a great way to begin to warm up a child's speaking skills. Another great way to do this, if the child wants to do it, is by participating in drama and acting. I'm positive that any outgoing aspects of my personality can be traced back, at least in part, to the time I spent acting in school productions.
Did you have to overcome any obstacles on your career path?
For me, the biggest obstacle on my career path so far has been keeping up my motivation when I was finishing my Ph.D. It took a very long time, and I often wasn't sure I was going to make it. Fortunately, my teaching always went very well! If it hadn't been for the fun of going to teach my classes, I'm not sure I would have kept my focus on the ultimate goal--to be a college professor.
Times, fortunately, are changing. It is becoming more common for women to become professors, although there are still far fewer of us than our male counterparts. I am blessed tremendously with a husband who completely supports my career path. We met when we were both freshmen in college! He has lived with me through 2 graduate degrees, and he knows how it works. Clearly, there are only so many colleges. We can't realistically pick up and move just "anywhere" or I won't be able to find a job. In our situation, this means that my job "leads." If we want to move, I have to find a new job. Of course he could find one that pays buckets and buckets of cash, and that would work... but realistically, if I want to keep teaching my job needs to lead us to new locations. This is exciting, and alarming at the same time. It's a lot of responsibility, but it works out very well in our relationship. I know several friends who have had to, at least temporarily, actually live in another state than their husband/wife for their first academic job--that's how tight the job market is. I am very glad, therefore, that my husband is a graphic designer and NOT an academic. I am positive I could not make a choice to separate for the sake of anyone's career.
On the positive side, there are a great many colleges and universities in many lovely locations. The trick is seeing if they teach the kinds of things I am trained to teach (for instance, whether they even have a communication major) and then seeing if they happen to have a job opening. Oh yes, and then there are the other 100 folks who are applying for that job... So it does pay to be an optimist!
Did you ever want to become anything else?
Oh definitely. I wanted passionately to become an actress when I was in high school. I was in a musical in 8th grade, and then several plays in high school before the outstanding drama teacher left and the horrible drama teacher arrived. After that, I quit doing theatre. Much later, as a Ph.D. student, I took classes in the performance of literature and performed a number of poems and collections by myself and with friends during this time. It was fabulous! I love being on stage!
I might someday like to do community theatre as time permits. I do play the piano, but recitals terrified me. I took ballet, tap dancing, and piano as a child. Even though practicing the piano was not something I enjoyed, I am profoundly grateful today that I had the opportunity to learn. Today, I can pick up music and basically sight-read it if it's moderately difficult. This enables me to enjoy the experience a great deal, even if I'm lousy at memorizing.
I know that performing for me has been a very positive influence. I chalk up part of my outgoing nature to these early experiences entertaining an audience. I definitely chalk up much of my enjoyment of teaching to my love for entertaining an audience.
If you could go back and relive your life to this point, what would you change if you could?
High school was a particularly stressful time for me, but also a good time. I just wish I could have relaxed and enjoyed myself. I wish I hadn't spent so much time doing my hair (you know, the big 80s hot roller hair). I wish I hadn't spent so much energy worrying about what other people thought of me. I wish I had been bolder--like the person I became when I left high school behind and went to college. As far as I know, I have not made decisions I deeply regret. I do wish I kept in touch more regularly with old friends, but that's easy enough to change. Even though I have had some very painful experiences in my life, chief among them the death of my father due to cancer, I know I have learned from all of those experiences. I might not know today what it is I learned, and I might still be angry about the past, but eventually things will take shape more clearly and help me to embrace the future.
Do you have any advice or wishes for students reading this interview?
Don't be afraid to be uniquely you. Explore things that excite and entertain you, even if those things aren't always understood by your friends or others around you. If a new experience makes you a bit nervous, that's normal. Don't avoid new experiences hoping the nerves will go away, or you may end up avoiding something really fun and rewarding. And, at the risk of being too preachy, if you love someone or care about them as a friend or role model, by all means tell them. Taking time out to appreciate others is a great experience for both parties.
Do you have a favorite quote?
"Nothing is certain but the unforeseen." ~ Chinese Fortune Cookie
- 31 July 2004
1 August 2004
© 2004 - Imagiverse Educational Consortium