Listen Up, Speak Up
Teri Varner teaches her students to be strong communicators
Associate Professor of Communication Teri Varner is interested in exploring the different facets of how humans communicate — and that’s helped her be a better listener and a better speaker. She instills those same strengths in her students.
I have a different kind of story than many faculty members, I think. When I completed my PhD in 2003, I joined the United States Army as an Specialist (E-4/21C) combat engineer. Two weeks before my unit was deployed to Iraq for the third time, I was honorably discharged for medical reasons. I came back to Austin, started some adjunct teaching at Austin Community College and then came to St. Edward’s as an adjunct. I’ve been in a full-time tenure track position since 2008.
I have this very focused intention in just about everything I do. Being in the military helped me as a professor really think about what is important to say to my students beyond the learning objectives on the syllabus. It also helped me truly understand the power of language.
It is a very broad field of study, often misunderstood. The most concise explanation is that “Performance Studies scholars study performances.” By “performances” I do mean theatrical and musical performances — but also cultural events and self-expression.
My area of specialization is called Interpretation Performance Studies, which explores how texts are interpreted and performed by groups and individuals across cultures. I often teach classes in presentational speaking, communication theory, active listening and nonverbal communication — a wide range of topics that students need in order to be better listeners and speakers.
Currently, I am working with a colleague at another university on metacognitive listening strategies, which make students consciously aware of the techniques they use to learn languages. What is significant about this line of research is that metacognitive listening strategies have found great success in improving how students come to comprehend a second language. My colleague and I are studying how it is useful in first-language contexts.
Some of my other interests right now are non-verbal communication and health communication. In 2014, I started interviewing young adolescent teenagers living with cancer and collecting their stories of being listened to by professionals involved in their care. I am interested in having them share their experiences with doctors, healthcare professionals and healthcare entrepreneurs.
In 2015, I gave a theatrical interpretation of some of their narratives. I think presenting my research like this can result in a visceral exchange between the researcher and audience members — in this case, medical professionals and academics. They’re not reading texts; they really understand the power behind the message when it is expressed as a narrative.
I like to teach by example. I perform for my students. Literally, in my presentational speaking class, I always start the semester with a speech. Sometimes I’ll follow up with a closing speech at the end of the semester. By delivering speeches, I remind my students that I’ve done what I’m asking them to do myself. I know where they’re coming from. They see what I expect.