ECU communication professor John Howard accepted the 2011 Board of Governors' Award for Excellence in Teaching during the annual fall commencement, May 6. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

EXCELLENT TEACHING: A conversation with John Howard

By Mary Schulken
ECU Director of Public Affairs

Unless students discover things about themselves in a college classroom, teaching hasn’t taken place, says John Howard III, associate professor of communication at East Carolina University.

“Getting people to ask questions about who they are, where they are going, and where they want to be is risky and provocative,” Howard said. “Doing this well is very rewarding though.”

Howard received the Excellence in Teaching award at commencement May 6 from the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. Each year, one award goes to a tenured faculty member from each of the 17 UNC campuses.

Howard has taught at ECU since 2003. There’s no magic formula for engaging students, he said. Yet he works to make theory relevant to everyday experience, is open to learning from students and enjoys both his subject matter and the process of teaching.

Recognition only challenges him to work harder, he said.

“If I am to honor that award I have to continuously work to refine and improve what I do,” Howard said. “After all, what good is an award if the recipients of it no longer choose to practice the excellence that originally led others to determine they were meritorious of the distinction?”

Read more of what he has to say about how and why he teaches at ECU in this Q&A.

Q. What led you to the college classroom as opposed to other communication careers?

A. I began a teaching assistantship during my master’s program and within minutes of starting my first class I was hooked. I was thinking to myself, “I can get paid for this?!?!?!” I never looked back. It was my calling. I had always had an interest in helping others and in the classroom I began to see my activity as a service to my students. I couldn’t make them learn but I could create an environment where they could learn.
Q. How do you define excellence in teaching at the university level?

A. I think “excellence” is probably similar in theory across academic levels, disciplines and settings. Being passionate is a pre-requisite. Excellence requires that that passion is informed by knowledge and experience (in life and in the classroom), a willingness to learn from students, framing the material as relevant, integrating that material with other experiences, professions, and disciplines, and being willing to challenge oneself as well as others (after all, that is the place from which learning truly emerges). The philosophy I think is fairly consistent, how every faculty member does it is widely varied.
Q. What turns an uninterested student into an engaged one in your experience?

A. Relevance. Many students seem to be uninterested because things don’t seem relevant, or at least interesting. I try to use examples, exercises, and questions that reveal how material or skills have application in personal and professional settings. For example, when discussing “directness/indirectness” in conversational style and even “honesty” as a relational practice I provide examples of how multi-layered and personal these issues are. For example, when a person says, “Do I look good in these jeans?” or “I just finished putting together the desk, what do you think?” the speaker is often looking for validation rather than an in-depth analysis or critique.

Knowing the overt and the subtle dimensions of how we communicate can enhance our skills. Connecting that to the personal seems to draw students in because it seems useful rather than just academic.
Q. What are your favorite subjects and "lessons" to teach?
A. My favorite subjects are conflict, persuasion, argumentation, theory, and organizational communication. One of the “lessons” I like to teach is about how self and society are connected. More importantly, I like to highlight how communication helps create and change the self and society.
I do a segment in many of my classes on “three important questions” and I use them to draw students from thinking about the static here and now into the dynamic change of “being” to the proactive and motivated future they can make for themselves and those around them.
Q. What are the most difficult topics and lessons to teach?

A. Some of the same as above. Theory is very abstract, getting students to see conflict as good is a challenge, and helping them see how to analyze as well as construct an argument is very challenging. I think it is the challenge of tackling these issues and rendering them understandable or useful for others that drives some of my work.
Q. What do you do to prepare to keep ideas and techniques fresh in recurring subjects?

A.  I constantly revisit my topics, examples, and even my thought processes as I teach. For example, my “three questions” started as two: Who am I? and Who am I becoming? As I used these as tools to provoke thought I came to realize more and more that what drove the discussions was that “Who am I?”  was static and implied the person had arrived at some destination. “Who am I becoming?” was dynamic and allowed for change. However, it also lacked something I thought was important…Direction.

The question asks as if the person may not have agency. They may be becoming what others or circumstances wanted. So after 10 years or more of teaching with two questions I added the third “Who do I want to become?” which gives the communicator agency and recognizes that we have motivations, desires, and goals that we can pursue. Consequently, the third question is, for me anyway, the most important. What I’ve done is water under the bridge. If I am to honor my experience, the contributions of those around me, and myself I need to take all of that past and make it work for my future.

I think when I consider the significance of the award I feel very much the same. It isn’t a goal to have achieved so much as a milestone to be passed, savored, and appreciated. It isn’t a thing to be possessed but something that was given to me to honor my accomplishments.