Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
School of Arts and Letters
By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—When Patricia Gettings was 22, she graduated from the University of Richmond and took a summer job in food service on a high-end dude ranch near Encampment, Wyoming.
Don’t be surprised if that doesn’t ring a bell.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Gettings said.
A beautiful nowhere, to be sure, with endless skies, puffy clouds, and rugged mountainous terrain where you might fight a bighorn sheep for right-of-way on a back-country trail (Gettings did, and lost).
Her tasks included waiting tables for guests and staff, doing dishes, cleaning and setup.
If you’re thinking baked beans, you’re off. Think more Civet of Poularde in Sonoma Zinfandel and Grand Marnier Chantilly.
As was the custom, guests sat at the same table for their entire stay. In this way Gettings became well acquainted with the family from New York City whose trout she de-boned at tableside. It happened that the father was an executive at a large advertising agency. At the end of the summer, he was so impressed with this exceptionally poised and diligent graduate that he invited her to visit the firm and consider a career in the field. She did visit, and she did consider. Three months later, she was working in the Third Avenue headquarters of Grey Worldwide, an agency that today serves one-fifth of the Fortune 500 in nearly 100 countries, as an assistant account executive on the high-profile Pantene account for Procter & Gamble.
And it had all begun with some banter over bouillabaise.
Today, as assistant professor of communication studies, Gettings uses the story to illustrate a fundamental truth: “It matters how you say things.”
And for Gettings, it matters in ways that both transcend and enrich the pragmatism of employment. There are different levels to communication, different ecosystems, if you will, to match the different roles we play as students, teachers, employers or employees, parents, siblings and friends.
In her classes, Gettings sensitizes students to all of these worlds, with their varying interpersonal characteristics and communication needs.
The final destination is an understanding of communication that is consummately effective because it is not rooted in situational utility alone, but in human insight and sensitivity.
Powers of persuasion
Communication studies is as old as Aristotle and as new as Mad Men.
The social science approach dates to the mid-twentieth century, when researchers began to focus their study on the power of persuasion.
Today the communication studies discipline encompasses advertising, public relations, health communication, rhetoric, as well as organizational and interpersonal communication, Gettings’ areas of focus.
Her primary research interests are the ways that people use communication to negotiate the overlaps between the various worlds they inhabit—personal lives, professional relationships, organizational commitments.
To translate this research focus into classroom instruction that lives and breathes, Gettings pursues a teaching philosophy that is cogent and methodical: she stresses the necessity of developing critical thinking skills and communicative competence; she helps students connect the material to their own lives; she establishes and maintains ongoing mentoring relationships.
Notes from the deep end
Like everyone else, students today live in an era of upheaval as far as communication is concerned.
Into these social and cultural headwinds, Gettings posits a conviction that sustains her as researcher and educator.
“I believe there is a set of skills that will make people more effective and successful communicators, wherever they go,” Gettings said.
Those basic skills can overcome the limitations of “concentric circles of speech communities” and help people participate in broader conversations.
Active listening is the foundation of the competencies she seeks to nurture, because it enables students to acquire a perspective, to see themselves in a matrix of relationships, be it at home or work. That mental piece is crucial to instilling a sense of the context in which communication will unfold.
Regardless of the topic of the course she is teaching, Gettings emphasizes the ability to speak and write clearly and articulately in order to communicate ideas and intentions.
It sounds simple, but getting there involves daily practice and active learning exercises.
In one exercise, students deliver elevator pitches—pithy one- or two-sentence statements of purpose—over and over, in various role-play contexts, to their classmates, and to Gettings, and then receive instant critiques.
“I’m in the circle, too,” Gettings said. “They hate that, but it’s the only way to hone that competency.”
Students learn not only to take criticism, but to give it.
“How do you provide feedback that is constructive but still communicates a need for change?” Gettings said. “It’s tricky.”
Proficiency at the fundamentals of communication is laudable, but Gettings is after something deeper: confidence.
This is especially noticeable in her public speaking classes, in which she—spoiler alert!—tosses students into the deep end on the first day, asking them to interview a classmate, then to introduce that person to the class.
“They’re shy at first,” Gettings said. “But they gain confidence, which facilitates their ability to speak in front of a group and speak well.”
Who’s on first?
Speech is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our species. Humans by their nature can’t seem to shut up. Earth and its atmosphere and even outer space are filled with their magnificent multifaceted cacophony.
That existential importance is one reason why it is important for Gettings to relate communication theory to the students’ personal experiences, then evaluate the research based on its ability to explain what happens in real life.
For starters, Gettings unmasks everyday life as one big research project, showing how we are constantly gathering and analyzing information, subjecting it to A/B testing, drawing conclusions and acting on them.
“If you ever shopped at Kroger at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, compared that experience with going there at a different time, and then decided never to go at 11 again, you have done research,” Gettings said.
And so she nudges the students toward a more holistic view.
Communication is more than transmitting information. It is informing a patient that she has a terminal disease without seeming insensitive. It is suggesting to a workaholic spouse that it may be time for him to retire without seeming ageist. It is coming together as a family to have a conversation about mental health with a father, son or sister who has returned from active duty in Iraq with signs of PTSD, without appearing to doubt his or her strength.
Gettings’ scholarship has handled all these communication challenges, and then some.
Whether requesting maternity leave or notifying a volleyball player that she hasn’t made the team, such conversations are difficult because they are so real. They cut to the bone. They are far more common than job interviews. And they are inevitable. And for this reason it is good if we know how to handle them, how to make them productive by making them responsible and compassionate.
Helping students connect material to their own lives helps them become better—more person-centered—communicators.
A prime example of Gettings’ innovative approach is an assignment in her course on empirical research methods. It is essentially an exercise designed to test donation solicitation strategies, and is based on a classic social psychology case study from the 1960s.
Sounds dry enough. But in the hands of Gettings, it becomes transformative.
Students were challenged to collect donations for a nonprofit organization of their choice. They chose the Down Syndrome of Louisville. They learned about the organization, informed them of their intention, and gathered the materials they would need. They then fanned out across the IU Southeast campus, asking students, faculty and staff for donations in two ways. First, they said what they were collecting for, and asked for a donation in the standard condition, then repeated the question to another passerby in the experimental condition, but added “even a penny would help” to the request. They ran statistical analyses to test hypotheses, wrote a research report to detail findings, then made a real donation to the organization, which Gettings matched.
Total monetary gain: $50.
Total pedagogical value: Incalculable.
The assignment included all the hallmarks of solid communication research: literature review, experimental design, data gathering, analysis and interpretation of the data, results and conclusions, and the formation of recommendations based on the evidence gathered during the assignment.
But it didn’t feel like research.
“They said it felt weird, gathering data and money from strangers—but exciting,” Gettings said. “It was great to see them work through the steps of the research process, and fulfilling to see them get it–to understand why communication research might be important in the real world of someone’s life.”
An open book
To take a course with Gettings is to set a mentoring relationship in motion that may extend well beyond the semester or even graduation.
From Wyoming through New York to Indiana, and a few places in between, mentoring has been decisive in Gettings’ own life, so it comes as no surprise that she seeks to replicate its benefits for others.
That relationship begins with the classwork—the innovative classroom exercises that coax personal stories into view, and fold them into the process of shaping communication.
That invitation to share glimpses of personal lives is reciprocated by Gettings, who brings her own experiences into class for reflection, context and impact.
It makes for good teaching. And it also helps to build trust, an important element in a field that requires a high degree of vulnerability.
“My openness creates a dynamic wherein students not only feel comfortable asking questions when they do not understand an aspect of course material, but also to keep in touch with me once the semester is over.”
Mentoring has always been a two-way street for Gettings, but this exchange has become even more important and impactful since she joined IU Southeast.
In particular the university’s high percentage of nontraditional students bring life perspectives to class that enrich the instructional environment.
Whether it is a workplace issue, a question of taking care of one’s parents in old age, or the challenge of readjusting to civilian life after deployment, many IU students are familiar with communication situations that are discussed in class.
For Gettings, that makes discussions livelier, assignments more relevant and impactful, and her own views more informed.
“It’s cool to be able to learn from the experience of my students and to incorporate those experiences into the classroom conversation,” Gettings said.
It also pushes Gettings to grow as an instructor, challenging her to rethink classroom management in light of students who have full-time jobs or parenting responsibilities, to consider workarounds such as online tests with flexible open-and-shut times, or more bespoke late policies.
Note to self
Apples don’t fall far from the tree, but sometimes they roll around a little before settling in.
Gettings’ parents were educators. Her father is a professor of English, her mother a special education instructor. Home life was built upon the family’s passion for learning, with summer vacations structured around themes that the family explored through readings, discussion and travel. Gettings recalls one summer when it was all about the Civil War, complete with a trip to Gettysburg.
As much as this intellectual curiosity was encoded in her DNA, Gettings was determined to be anything but an educator. Advertising was a good fit for a high-verbal woman with a lot of initiative and a penchant for deep dives into data.
Her career took off. At Grey she rose to account executive, conducting quantitative and qualitative consumer research and managing TV and print campaigns for brands like CoverGirl and MaxFactor. Then it was on to Element 79, an agency in Chicago, where she developed advertising for clients such as American Family Insurance and Quaker Oats.
But after a while, something was missing.
Sometimes the most important communication is the one you have with yourself. Gettings began to accept her curiosity, her desire to transform and be transformed by her calling. As a result of these heart-to-self conversations, Gettings came “home” to teaching.
Teaching has proved to be the right fit for who she is: a scholar with a lifelong dedication to teaching and learning who derives profound personal and professional fulfillment from inspiring others.
“Teaching for me is a way of giving back,” Gettings said. “I am passionate about what I study, so in the classroom I am able to really share that excitement with students, and encourage them to feel it, too.”