About Steven Beebe, Ph.D.: Steven Beebe is Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies at Texas State University. He was a tenured faculty member at the University of Miami for ten years prior to joining Texas State. During his 33 years at Texas State University, Dr. Beebe served both as Chair of the Department of Communication Studies for 28 years and as the Associate Dean for the College of Fine Arts and Communication for 25 years. Under his leadership, the Department of Communication developed graduate programs in Communication Studies that have since received nationwide recognition for excellence of curricular content and faculty.
Dr. Beebe has published numerous books on interpersonal, business, public and small group communication skills, including Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others, Business and Professional Communication, Communicating in Small Groups, and A Concise Public Speaking Handbook. He is also an avid and renowned scholar of C.S. Lewis; his most recent book to be published discusses the contributions of C.S. Lewis to the field of communication studies, and outlines Lewis’ tenets for the practice of effective communication.
In addition to his academic research and leadership, Dr. Beebe was also the President of the National Communication Association in 2013, and is still active in this organization. He is also a member of the Founding Committee for the Russian Communication Association, which he helped to establish in the year 2000.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Where did you earn your bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees? What are your research foci and what classes do you teach as a Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor at Texas State University? What were your responsibilities as Chair of the Department of Communication Studies and as Associate Dean for the College of Fine Arts at Texas State University?
[Dr. Beebe] My undergraduate and master’s degrees are in what was called public address, and is now referred to as communication studies. Both of those degrees are from the University of Central Missouri. My Ph.D. is from the University of Missouri, Columbia, where I graduated in 1976. And it was about the time that that discipline was shifting from primarily a rhetorical focus to including an emphasis on social science and quantitative research. So my academic background reflects both a strong emphasis in rhetorical studies, as well as an emphasis on quantitative research methods.
My first teaching position was at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. I started there in the fall of 1976 and served there until 1986. I was on the faculty there for ten years, where I taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication, public speaking, organizational communication, and family communication. I also developed and started teaching classes in training and development, communication training, leadership, and persuasion. And while there I served as Chair of the Committee to establish the first graduate program in Communication as well as the School of Communication at the University of Miami.
The last 33 years of my career have been at Texas State University, 28 years of which I served as Chair of the Department and concurrently as Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication. When I first joined the Department, the university was known as Southwest Texas State University. My first job as Chair was to develop the Department of Speech and Communication separately from Theater Arts. Both Theater and Speech Communication had enjoyed good regional as well as national recognition. Shortly after I arrived, we separated into two departments. Speech Communication became a separate department, and Theater Arts became a separate department. And that gave me an opportunity to focus specifically on developing the Communication program, and we later renamed our program Communication Studies.
My focus was on managing a growing, vibrant department that now has gained widespread national recognition. Our master’s degree program was named last year as the number one MA degree program in Communication Studies, and we are very pleased about that. The Texas State Basic Communication course has received several awards for excellence because of our focus on the applied training and background that we give our graduate teaching assistants. When I think of the heart of any department, I think of the faculty. Not the building or even necessarily the curriculum, but at the heart of an excellent department are excellent faculty members. So that’s what I’m probably most proud of, the colleagues that I have hired and have become good friends with over the years. And I have just retired, so I’m now a Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus from Texas State University. It is a pleasure to have a continuing association with this fine department.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have researched and published extensively on topics such as instructional communication, communication training/trainers, and communication skill development. May we have more information on your research in these areas? What have been the applications of this research in academic and professional settings?
[Dr. Beebe] When I first went to college I thought I was going to be a music teacher, and so my first major was music. I was interested in performance and I continue to play the piano and organ. At its core, music is performance, and I realized that what truly interested me were the aspects of presentation, the skill development and the presentational elements of the communication process. Back then it was called public address, and so I decided to change my major to focus on this discipline.
From there, my master’s degree, and subsequently my first published article, looked at the role of eye contact in the public speaking process. While I remain interested in theory development and the application of those theories, I’ve always been more interested in applied research. What are the behaviors, the things that we can do to enhance the quality of human communication? I really didn’t find any research documenting the function of eye contact in public speaking, so I thought, “Well, let me see if I can do that.” And so that was the focus of my master’s study, and the first article that I had published in what today is Communication Education was based on my master’s thesis.
From there in my doctoral studies I continued to be interested in the kind of behaviors, the kind of skills, that optimize communication in a variety of situations, both in public communication situations and in interpersonal situations. And that was about the time instructional communication, the role of communication in the classroom, was developing.
So my doctorial dissertation focused on the role of not only eye contact, but also vocal delivery and physical delivery, and investigated the question, “How do eye contact, vocal delivery, and physical posture and gesture enhance credibility, and listener comprehension, if they do?”
And so really from those first studies, in eye contact, vocal delivery, and physical gesture, I then expanded to other variables that had interested me, to explore the topic more widely, “What are the skills and behaviors that enhance the process of communication?”
From there, I applied some of those same kinds of questions to the classroom, to instructional communication. I had been interested in the behaviors that enhance not only the quality of the relationships between teacher and student, but also students’ learning outcomes. What are the communication behaviors that optimize learning in the classroom? That was a key question on which I focused. So it really starts with my interest in communication as performance, going back to my music days, and applying that to oral communication and a variety of communication contexts, including the classroom, group communication, public communication, personal communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a communication consultant, trainer, and speaker who has helped organizations such as IBM, American Express, the U.S. Air Force, Pearson, and the U.S. Department of Education to improve their organizational communication and training, how did your research inform the ways in which you improved their organizational communication dynamics?
[Dr. Beebe] I had always been interested in the practical and applied aspects of communication theory. And the questions I asked in my research work are the same kinds of questions that organizations, businesses, government, and industries are interested in. I was first asked over 40 years ago to present a seminar for some business folks. And so I did, and it went very well. And I realized it was fun to both supplement my income as a communication consultant and also look for those kinds of essential, applied communication competencies that people want to learn about. So it came about sort of serendipitously from being first invited to present a communication training seminar.
And that has been something that I’ve been doing for the last 40 years rather consistently. I’ve never really had a website or brochures, but just through word of mouth it has become something I continue to do even in retirement, and that really comes from my interest in the questions of, “What makes a difference? What do we do, especially in the workplace and in academic settings, that enhances leadership, efficacy, learning outcomes, progress?” Some of the skills that I have focused on in particular are listening skills and methods for optimizing group and team collaboration. I have really enjoyed researching, discussing, and presenting on these topics in academic as well as corporate contexts.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Have you found that your work in corporate consulting has informed your research in the academic sphere?
[Dr. Beebe] I believe both the academic and the corporate are directly related to each other. By spending time in the corporate context I saw all the kinds of behaviors that get to the heart of what scholars are interested in. It was really from that corporate experience that I saw an application of communication theory to communication training and development, which is why I developed my first course in teaching communication training, back before there really weren’t many, if any, courses in that specific area. There were certainly no textbooks in communication training. I saw my area of research and instruction as a fusion of teaching communication methods courses and my work in organizational communication and corporate communication. And I saw a need for a marriage of those two areas: academic research and corporate contexts.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have authored and co-authored at least 12 books on the subjects of communication skill-building, business communication, public speaking, and the principles of interpersonal communication in personal and professional contexts. Could you please elaborate on how these books have impacted the teaching of communication theories and practices in higher education and professional settings?
[Dr. Beebe] The first textbook that I wrote is soon to be published in its 12th edition. I signed the contract for that book 40 years ago this year. And it was a book on small group communication. I remember my good friend and colleague John Masterson and I shared an office at the University of Miami, and we were lamenting one day about the lack of a good textbook that delved into the way we wanted to teach group communication. A book representative of the discipline as we saw it. And our textbook representative said, “Well why don’t you write one yourself?” And we both thought about it and said, “Well maybe we’ll give it a try.” So, we did, and we wrote a book called Communicating in Small Groups: Principles and Practices.
And I think that subtitle, Principles and Practices, is the theme running through most of the books that I have had the opportunity to write. We certainly want to identify underlying theory and principles, but we also want to make sure students understand the applications, or the principles and practices.
And so we have been very gratified that that’s continued to be a top selling book in the field of communication, in teaching small group communication, teamwork skills, collaboration, problem solving, decision making, those kinds of classic concepts. I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the research, as we typically revise a book every three to four years. It is a major job to revise, which means I need to keep current with the research literature, as well as some of the research I’ve done myself on identifying competent group skills and behaviors that enhance effective communication.
So from that book, once it was successful, publishers came to me and said, “Well how about another book?” So John Masterson and I were co-authors together on several projects when we were at the University of Miami, and then for the last 30 years or so my principal coauthor has been my wife, Sue Beebe.
Sue and I had both started out as music majors, and then we both were taking a debate class as well as a music theory class at the same time. And then we were assigned as debate partners, and we both switched to public address communication about the same time in college. We have celebrated 45 years of marriage and, we remember even when we were dating, Sue was the champion public speaker for the state of Missouri. She had won rhetorical contests, and I was always interested in books—textbooks and and writing and skill development. And we remember very distinctly on one of our dates saying, “You know, I bet we could write a good public speaking book together.” And so when we were approached, 30 some years ago, by a major publisher to write a public speaking book we said, “Okay! We’ll do it.” And since then she has been a coauthor on several books. The public speaking book, which has been very successful for us, as well as our introductory book, Communication Principles for a Lifetime that I had written with her and another dear colleague, Diana Ivy. And we also worked together on Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others with our good friend Mark Redmond. So those are some projects that we worked on together.
Another frequent coauthor is my good friend who is now president of Colorado State University, Pueblo, Dr. Timothy Mottet. We have written several books together including coauthoring Training & Development: Communicating for Success along with my friend David Roach, as well as Business and Professional Communication. Tim and I have also collaborated on a variety of research studies in instructional communication. I have found that these partnerships have helped make me a better writer, teacher, and consultant.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your books, what are some of the primary tenets of effective communication that you discuss? And more specifically, what role does Uncertainty Reduction Theory and Social Penetration Theory play in interpersonal communication, business communication, and public speaking?
[Dr. Beebe] One of the themes throughout all of my books and my writing and research is the focus on the other person in communication. In public speaking, we talk about being audience-centered, and for our book Interpersonal Communication, our subtitle is Relating to Others. Focusing on the other person I believe is key to doing what we can to enhance the process of communication. In our communication with others we emphasize that role of being what we call “other-oriented” or “audience-centered,” or in our book Training and Development we call it the “need-centered” model of training development. So within that context, both Uncertainty Reduction Theory and Social Penetration Theory have significance. One of the primary ways in which we reduce our uncertainty in a situation is by asking questions. Through these questions, we manage our uncertainty about the other person with whom we are communicating, and also place a focus on them and their background, needs, and interests.
It strikes me that every faith movement that has ever existed, whether it’s Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, you name it, whatever faith movement has ever existed, each one has a principle that can be described as The Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or sometimes it’s called the platinum rule. So the fundamental key of all faith movements in terms of good conduct is to focus on other people. And that same principle applies outside of religious contexts. The books my colleagues and I have published do not focus on any particular religious point of view or theological point of view, but I think it’s something that faith movements have identified as a fundamental principle on how we relate to each other.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory and the Theory of Self-Disclosure are both about how we reveal our selves to others, and vice versa. Social Penetration Theory focuses on the depth and breadth of how we reveal our selves to other people. These theories really just put structure and terms around what people have been doing for thousands of years. How do we manage our uncertainty with the others? Or how do we share ourselves with others? And then, of course, one of the principles of self-disclosure is that it is typically reciprocal, where there is a sharing of information both ways in a conversation. But at the heart of any effective communication it’s about focus on others.
One definition of communication that we’ve included in some of our books is communication as, “A process of how we make sense out of the world, and share that sense with others through the creation of meaning through verbal and nonverbal symbols or messages.” So, uncertainty reduction, self-disclosure, these identify elements of what I think is fundamental about what enhances effective communication. In the classroom it’s about teacher-student communication. The effective teacher is student-centered, just as the effective public speaker is audience-centered, or the effective person in their human relationships focuses on the other person. So that’s probably the big idea that permeates virtually everything I’ve written about communication, but it’s not an idea that I invented. It’s one that I see as a fundamental principle that has existed for centuries about how human beings should treat each other.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on the courses that you teach at both Texas State University and Oxford University? In particular, could you elaborate on your course entitled C.S. Lewis: Chronicles of a Master Communicator? What communication theories, concepts, methodologies, and skills does this class teach students?
[Dr. Beebe] I’d be very happy to talk about that. C. S. Lewis has been a focus of my research for almost a quarter of a century, and I’ve been working on a book about Lewis and communication that will be published in the next couple of months called C.S. Lewis and the Craft of Communication.
That really is a culmination of my journey with C. S. Lewis and what he has taught me about communication. And it started rather serendipitously in that I first made a visit to Oxford almost 30 years ago now. And I just fell in love with Oxford. I just thought it was a beautiful, academic, culturally rich city. And I said to myself, “I need to find a way to come back here and do some studying and research.” So a couple of years later I had a sabbatical and at the time my two sons were in junior high school and we took them out of school and spent a semester at Oxford University. And it literally just changed my life.
At that time I really didn’t know much about C. S. Lewis other than that I’d heard him quoted quite a bit. And I thought well, you know, I think Lewis lived here in Oxford. Maybe I should learn a little bit more about him. So I picked up a biography of Lewis, read it and thought he was just a fascinating person. And I thought well maybe I should read some more about Lewis. I’d never read The Chronicles of Narnia until I was in my mid to late 40s. But as I continued to read Lewis, I saw all of these applications to words, and meaning, and language, and relationships. And then, in 2002 when I was on a second sabbatical at Oxford doing some research on Lewis, I found a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, and it was in Lewis’ handwriting, and I just didn’t know what it was.
It wasn’t catalogued and it wasn’t listed as any particular, special manuscript. So I thought surely it must be published somewhere. And so I tried to find it, to see if it was published, and to my disappointment it had not been published, which meant I had to tediously transcribe his handwriting. It was a manuscript about language. Within it, he gave definitions of language and meaning and talked about the kinds of things that my colleagues and I had ben studying about communication.
Well it took me seven years to finally figure out what it was. What I realized after doing some additional research is that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien had planned to write a book together called Language and Human Nature. In essence it was going to be a book about communication and communication behaviors. Tolkien was a famous philologist interested in language and then I realized that Lewis too was interested in language. So much so that they were going to write this book together, but it was never published and everyone thought it was never written or never started.
What I had found was the opening chapter that Lewis wrote for this book. I had it published, and my experiences learning about C.S. Lewis form the basis of my own course that I’ve been teaching for the past 15 years, both at Texas State and at Oxford University called “C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of a Master Communicator.”
And for that course, on the very first day of the class, I give students the syllabus that has the two questions that will be on the take-home final exam already listed on it. I want them to know what the whole course is about, so that’s why they get the final exam questions at the start. The two questions on the exam are really the two questions of the entire course. The first is, “What did C. S. Lewis say about communication?” So when they read Lewis, I want them to look as I looked for what Lewis said about communication, language, meaning, and words. And the second question is, “What did C. S. Lewis do that made him such a popular and effective communicator?”
Lewis is one of the most popular writers of the 20th Century. Netflix recently announced that Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles are going to be made into a new series of movies. His books sell in the millions. The Chronicles of Narnia has sold over 100 million copies. So that second question is about, “What did Lewis do that made his works so compelling? What does he know about communication we should learn as well?” So those two questions form the basis of the book that will be published early next year about Lewis and the craft of communication. And that’s been the focal point of my course, as well as a few articles I’ve written about Lewis and communication.
The book is organized around what I identify or what I claim are Lewis’ principles of communication. They’re not necessarily principles that Lewis said explicitly, “Here is X principle of communication,” but in reading Lewis’ works I’ve identified five things that I think makes Lewis an effective communicator. Why are we still reading C. S. Lewis? Why are there over 500 C. S. Lewis societies that still exist? Why do people still feel the need to read Lewis’ works? Each year there are conferences held internationally about his work. The next Oxbridge Conference will be held in 2020 in Oxford and Cambridge. Why are people still gathering to talk about Lewis? Well one of the reasons I argue is not only did he have good ideas, but he also knew how to connect those ideas to us. He knew how to talk to us, in an engaging and even conversational way, and he is still talking with us through his writing.
The last chapter of my book is called “How to Communicate like C. S. Lewis” where I answer the questions, “What are the communication techniques that Lewis used that we can emulate to be effective communicators?”
So even with this book that I have just written I’m interested in communication behaviors that enhance the process of communication, and I think C. S. Lewis is a good teacher. He was primarily known as a professor of medieval and renaissance literature, but I argue that he was an excellent professor of communication, given how much he has written about communication, language and the effective words, especially spoken language. In fact, his definition of language heavily emphasizes oral or spoken language. My interest in Lewis continues, and I enjoy reading him and talking about him in lectures and presentations that I have given and plan to give in the future.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a scholar of communication skill development and training/instruction, how would you say this area of scholarly study has evolved over the past two decades, and where do you see it going in the future? What role do you believe communication technology advancements will play in reshaping interpersonal, group, and organizational communication?
[Dr. Beebe] I’m very optimistic about communication study in the future. I’m optimistic because the study of communication and language and messages has been around for centuries. The very first curricula in medieval universities were about the Trivium: rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar—essentially, a curriculum about communication.
We’ve been studying communication for a long time, and in fact we spend most of our day communicating. That is why I believe people will continue to study communication—because of the integral role it plays in almost every aspect of our lives. One of my core goals when I served as President of the National Communication Association was strengthening the basic communication course, which most typically focuses upon the development of communication skills—that is, the enhancing of communication effectiveness, either in public speaking situations, or in a variety of contexts including interpersonal and small group, collaborative settings. That course remains very healthy, and so that’s another reason why I see communication as a field of study and practice that will continue to expand and improve.
The discipline of communication studies has broadened considerably since it broke away from the National Council of Teachers of English in 1914. It originally broke away because of an emphasis on skill development. English teachers were focused primarily on writing, but there was a group of individuals who said, “I think there are some things that are unique to communication when we speak to others orally and have an oral presentation.” So they broke away in 1914 and today that organization is known as the National Communication Association, which is the largest and oldest national, academic organization that focuses upon communication. And that organization has expanded its focus considerably.
Where it used to be focused just on public speaking, today frankly that’s only one focus of what it does. It focuses upon communication in all its various forms: traditional media, social media, electronic media, all types of communications that are pervasive in our lives, as well as the academic study of these forms of communication. Political communication, technology in communication, family communication, corporate communication—all are highly relevant and will continue to be so for as long as human society persists.
And for those considering a career in communication studies, the world needs people who can communicate effectively, and so I encourage those people to consider looking at how communication is taught and can be developed and enhanced. And that to me is the focal point of what we do in communication studies. More contemporary approaches to communication studies can intersect with critical cultural studies to give us insight into the role of culture and help us to examine power issues and diversity issues that are vitally important to improving the relationships we have with each other. So I think the future looks very good for communication study.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to serving as president of the NCA in 2013, you are a founding member of the Russian Communication Association, and co-directed the first Russian Communication Association Conference. Could you tell us more about this Association, its mission statement, and how it connects to your work in academia and industry?
[Dr. Beebe] I had an opportunity to visit Russia in 1993, shortly after the fall of Communism and the fall of the Soviet Union. We were traveling with an entourage from my university, and I would introduce myself as a Professor of Communication, or a Professor of Speech Communication. And almost all the Russian academics with whom we were meeting—rectors, or presidents, of the universities and deans, and other colleagues—most of them really didn’t know what communication studies was about, because in Russia I learned there was no corollary focus on the study of communication.
And that would be understandable, under Communism. Communist governments wouldn’t particularly want to teach critical inquiry, how to evaluate and critique rhetorical messages. That was not a focal point of Russian academic study. Certainly there were rich traditions in philology and language, but not particularly in communication and media. So I thought it might be interesting to do what I could to help facilitate the development of Communication Studies as a discipline in Russia.
I made some contacts through some colleagues that I have with the Russian government. Working with another colleague we secured a grant. We worked with the American Embassy in Moscow and established a network of relationships with several colleges and universities in Russia, which eventually led to the founding of the Russian Communication Association.
The Russian Communication Association was not founded by me, but I participated in sharing information and working with several Russian educators. I did serve as an international member of the Founding Committee and as co-director of the very first Russian Communication Association conference that was held in 2002 in Pyatigorsk, Russia. I have enjoyed my relationships and working with my colleagues in Russia to share information about curricula.
Today with the internet, information is so much more freely available than it was 25 or 30 years ago when I was first sharing information about communication in Russia. Back then, there were very few books about communication available in Russia, let alone any published in Russian. Today, happily there are many resources available, and so it is my great pleasure to be a member of the Founding Committee to develop the Russian Communication Association. I have made 15 trips to Russia over the years giving lectures and conference talks, and participating in the Russian Communication Association.
My motivation was primarily to help enhance democracy, to be quite frank about it, because I thought one of the ways to enhance democracy is to teach people how to critically evaluate and listen to messages. I think that need exists not only in Russia, but also in a variety of places in the United States and throughout the world.
So my motivation continues. Underneath it all is the question, “How do we help others communicate better, listen better and think more critically?” My motivation was to share information about communication with an area of the world that had been deprived, frankly, of the study of communication, speech communication, and rhetoric. And I’m very pleased to see the development of Russian Communication Association and Russian communication studies today.
Thank you, Dr. Beebe, for your excellent insight into the integral role that instructional, business, and interpersonal communication play in our daily lives!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.