Five questions for Constance Staley

Passion for language, devotion to student development drive UCCS professor

Five questions for Constance Staley
When she was 22, Constance Staley moved to Colorado Springs with her husband, whose first job in the Air Force was teaching Air Force Academy cadets to fly. She loved Colorado. As a child of a military family, she spent her early years in Europe, and the Colorado mountains reminded her of her home in Salzburg, Austria. Several years later, her husband joined the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy. While he earned a master’s and doctorate in English on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, Constance earned graduate degrees in linguistics and communication.

“Our two young daughters, who are now established professionals, have since thanked us for ‘allowing them’ to go to graduate school with us. Our home was always filled with stimulating ideas and invigorating conversations about literature, art, music, science -- you name it -- and learning became a way of life for all of us.”

Those years in in Colorado Springs “allowed me to establish a career at UCCS, helping to build our fledgling campus, which then consisted of a few buildings and a dirt parking lot, into the booming, thoroughly impressive place it is today.”

Staley is a professor in the Department of Communication, teaching undergraduate courses in business communication, conflict management, professional speaking, and a graduate seminar in training and development.

Except for brief excursions -- designing and delivering management and supervisory training for an East Coast Fortune 500 company and teaching as a Fulbright Scholar in the former Soviet Union – she has spent her entire career at UCCS.  “Along with our chancellor, I was a founding member of the communication department, and while earning my Ph.D., I commuted back and forth -- taking classes in Boulder and teaching four or five classes a semester in Colorado Springs. Those were the days!”

Staley has directed the UCCS Freshman Seminar Program for 20 years, or approximately half of her career. She’s also a prolific author and conducts organizational training; her honors include an “Outstanding Teacher Award,” which she won in 2000.

1. How did you choose this career path?

Going to 10 schools in 12 years as a military child, I had what I consider to be a superb education, one filled with many first-hand, multicultural experiences.  My teachers were highly talented, but it wasn’t individuals who shaped my career path, it was my passions. I took a course in Greek and Latin derivatives in high school and a consuming linguistics course as an undergraduate that helped me realize my true love of language.  I vowed that I would continue my graduate work in linguistics, which I did.  I then decided to pursue a Ph.D. in communication because I thought the breadth of the discipline might offer more applications and opportunities. Interestingly, as a college freshman, my speech professor asked me to stay after class one day.  He recommended that I consider speech as a major.  I politely responded by asking “Whatever for?” and chose a “practical” major my parents had recommended.

Ultimately, he was right. While all faculty believe their disciplines to be the most fascinating things on the planet, my thousands of students over the years have convinced me that mine actually is!  Communication is imminently applicable, and students realize that the quality of their communication affects the quality of their lives.  I now give workshops or keynote presentations at 15 to 20 campuses or conferences per year, and I’m passionate about speaking before audiences of faculty or students. Besides the words of wisdom from my speech professor as a freshman, I realize that my passion for communication began in fifth grade when our teacher required us to give a 10-minute speech to our peers every week and a 30-minute speech once a month.  I consider those early learning experiences to be fortuitous preparation for what I now love to do.

I became interested in Freshman Seminar at UCCS because my husband was teaching ID 101: Introduction to Intellectual Inquiry (now, Freshman Seminar) after his Air Force career ended, and he invited his freshmen to our home for breakfast for their last class.  As I listened to the students talk about the impact the course had on them, I realized that my classes lacked the collaborative learning community they had created. That one event changed the course of my career.  I began teaching Freshman Seminar and soon thereafter began directing our program, and I began to speak and write about teaching and learning, and about motivating and engaging students.  My current research foci have allowed me to put my original passion for the communication discipline to good use.

2. What is the mission of the Freshman Seminar and how has it changed over the years? How are classes selected?

The idea for a first-year seminar came from a faculty retention committee in 1990, and the original seed funding was provided to the individual campuses by a former systemwide president. UCCS was a young campus with an entrepreneurial spirit, and the program began to grow under the leadership of Professor Tim Tregarthen from the Department of Economics. I took over the directorship from him a few years later.

Simply put, the mission of the program is tri-fold: to help students develop their academic, personal and (campus) community goals. However, since the UCCS faculty voted to include Freshman Seminar in our recent General Education revision as the Gateway to General Education course, its mission will now include specific, articulated goals reflected in the revision plan. This fall, approximately 85 percent of entering first-time freshmen elected to take a Freshman Seminar course.  Next fall, all first-time freshmen will enroll in a Freshman Seminar course.

All the courses will meet general education goals relating to critical and creative thinking, academic professionalism, information literacy, and oral communication.  However, the courses will still “meet students where they are” and help them transition into the academic challenges of university life, both in terms of the cognitive domain and the array of noncognitive variables that get in the way of learning.

They will still be compelling multidisciplinary courses that generate excitement and pique curiosity. instead of titling a course “Courtship Rituals in Modern American Society,” it might be called “The Mating Game,” even though the content is identical.  Sometimes the ideas for classes “come to me” at random moments because my Freshman Seminar radar is always operating, and sometimes individuals or groups of faculty come to me with an idea.  Since most of the courses are thematic, I look for disciplinary connections when inviting faculty to teach.  For example, we once had a Freshman Seminar called “Trial and Error,” a course about major historical trials, some of which contained “mistakes” made either by the prosecution or the defense, or trials that resulted in a verdict which has since been reversed.  We teamed faculty from history, psychology, English, and theater. At the end of the course, the students reenacted a famous trial.  Hands-on, realistic learning experiences like these have an enduring impact.

As a group of instructors focused on 18-year-olds transitioning from high school, Freshman Seminar instructors have learned a great deal about what it takes to engage today’s digital natives and what constitutes an active, creative, academically robust learning experience.  And the great thing about Freshman Seminar is the vibrant faculty development that prepares instructors to teach, and the opportunity to learn from other faculty in teaching teams of two to four individuals from other disciplines.

This fall, 93 of us will work with approximately 1,400 first-year students in 29 different courses with multiple sections.  As the program has grown, we have expanded the types of courses we create; some are now more related to majors, and some are related to the professional schools and career fields.  We spend two full days with our students before other classes begin, and then continue weekly class sessions for 11 weeks.  Once the semester begins, half our class time is “common time,” with all the sections studying a particular topic meeting together, and half the time is spent in small groups of fifteen with an instructor and a Junior Teaching Assistant (JTA).

In the early days of Freshman Seminar, we tried to balance each course by inviting one faculty member each from arts/humanities, social science, and natural science to teach together.  But because of student demand and rapid growth, we have had to leave those exact specifications behind and adopt a more general multidisciplinary approach.

3. You've written several books detailing how to be successful in college.  What advice do you give to students?

Come January, I will have published 13 books, most of which are about college success.  My most recent books have a carefully chosen title, “FOCUS,” because I think that’s a big challenge for many students.  Although I’m an avid technology fan, I also know that multi-tasking is a myth.  The research is mounting, and most researchers agree that what appears to be multi-tasking is really switch-tasking.  When a student working a set of math problems constantly bounces out to answer texts, check Facebook “likes,” tweet random thoughts, and post photos on Instagram, his academic performance suffers, and it will take him a significant amount of time (often 25 minutes or more) to repeatedly reconnect with his original math task.

Attempting to multi-task results in errors, lost time, and stress. Today’s college students are digital natives; technology has always been a part of their lives, and they’ve spent many hours attached to an electronic device, which, researchers fear, may be impacting their social skills. These students often say they prefer texting to talking.  My books are about strategies to help students do their academic best by learning how to focus on their academic priorities.  It’s about knowing when to zoom in and focus and knowing how to handle distractions.

Literally thousands of students over the years have taught me to connect with them in the classroom in ways that are very “organic” and creative -- ways that are very different from what I did for many years as a traditional lecturer.  And these active learning strategies are used throughout my textbooks, which heightens their appeal to students.

4. What are some of your favorite outside activities?

Free time is in short supply for me, but any free time I have is dedicated to my family.  I enjoy relaxing at my cabin in the mountains with my fly-fisherman husband, playing games with my boy-girl grandtwins, and giving my 89-year-old mother, who lives far away, her “tuck-in” phone call every evening.  Other than that, life for me is a blank canvas, and I love to decorate it -- by illustrating my presentations with artful PowerPoint, visiting art museums in every international city I visit, or decorating my home with meaningful art.

5. Do you have a motto that you live by?

I have always tried to model the importance of having passion for what you do, such that it warrants your very best effort, and it doesn’t even seem like work!  I was a first-generation college student with no educational role models, but I have always had a strong work ethic. What I love about my work at UCCS is not only getting to teach alongside some of the best people on campus or work with bright, creative students, but I truly value the way my career has “come together.”  My discipline-based teaching informs my research on teaching and learning which I apply to my writing which is connected to my faculty development work across the country which informs my Freshman Seminar work at UCCS.  The common elements are students, teaching, and learning. I research those things, write about them, speak about them, practice them -- and continue to learn myself.  I sometimes close presentations with Andrew Carnegie’s famous quote, “My heart is in the work,” and for me, nothing could be more true.

Photos courtesy of UCCS