Steven McCornack is a Professor and Public Speaking Coordinator in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the author of Reflect & Relate, 4e, Choices & Connections, 1e, and Interpersonal Communication & You, 1e.
Photo courtesy of Steve McCornack
Q: What courses are you teaching this semester?
SM:I’m teaching two sections of our CMST101 class, which is Introduction to Public Speaking; and CMST110, which is Introduction to Interpersonal Communication and Close Relationships.
Q: What advice do you give your students who have public speaking anxiety or general communication apprehension?
SM: I take a three-pronged approach regarding anxiety and self-presentation across contexts. First, I stress that there is no such thing as the “non-nervous speaker” – EVERYONE is a “nervous speaker”! I mean, I’m nervous as all get-out on the first day of class! Second, I teach them about the nature of physiological arousal underlying “speaking anxiety” – specifically, the ANS, sympathetic nervous system discharge, the corresponding physiological and subjective symptoms that accompany such discharge (and that they can expect to feel whenever they’re in an arousing context), and the evolutionary-adaptive roots of this arousal. If students UNDERSTAND and EXPECT how their bodies will react, they then can learn how to constructively MANAGE such reactions. Third, I teach them a host of mind-body relaxation techniques (borrowed from my years of meditation and Yoga teaching) for successfully managing such arousal, including attentional focus upon a breath point, 1:2 ratio breathing, and muscular tense and release coupled with breath control.
All of this relates to three levels of anxiety and speaking competence that I emphasize from the first day forward. The first level is where most people live their lives: the level at which they are wholly beholden to whatever their bodies do in reaction to situations; and where nervous arousal impairs self-presentational performance. The second level is where you learn to expect and manage elevated arousal in a way that doesn’t allow you to appear nervous to an audience. The highest level of competence – one rarely achieved in an introductory class – is where you learn to CHANNEL this arousal constructively into your presentational energy – making you look “intense” and “charismatic” and “compelling” as a speaker.
Q: What has been your favorite course to teach and why?
SM: Oh, far and away my fave class is my course on interpersonal communication and close relationships! Students are SO hungry for trustworthy information related to building and maintaining close friendship, family, and romantic relationships – information that will help them deal with the myriad challenges that arise in such involvements. This class is a means for providing them with knowledge that has the potential to transform their lives in marked, positive ways.
Q: What advice do you have for other instructors who teach this course?
SM: Go all in. Don’t hold back. Meaning: make it personal, don’t be afraid to get to know your students, and reveal yourself in your teaching – as long as the class doesn’t become a vehicle for personal exhibitionism. For goodness sake, the class is INTER PERSONAL – it should be intensely INTERactive, and deeply PERSONAL!
Q: What are some of your research interests?
SM: I’m known in the field as a “deception guy,” and that’s pretty much true. I’m probably best known for the McCornack-Parks Model (which mapped the relationship between intimacy and detection accuracy), the concept of “Truth-bias” (a term which Mac Parks and I coined, back in the day), the Probing Effect (which documented that “probed” liars are more likely to be judged as honest), Information Manipulation Theory, and Information Manipulation Theory II (both of which examine the ways people play with information so as to mislead others; as well as the cognitive speech production underpinnings of such information control). So yeah, my principal interest is in deception; specifically, the cognitive mechanics underlying deceptive discourse production.
Q: If you could create (and teach) a brand new course for your department, what would it be?
SM: A course on Pragmatics: the study of language meaning rooted in usage within particular contexts (ala the content in Chapter 7 of Reflect & Relate, and Chapter 5 of Choices & Connections). I really dig how people use spoken discourse to spontaneously create meanings within contexts, and communication students really should be familiar with John Austin and John Searle’s Speech Act Theory, Grice’s Theory of Conversational Implicature, Dale Spender’s writings on sexism in language, and Erving Goffman’s essay on Facework (to name just a few classic works in this domain).
Q: What do you think is one of the biggest challenges students face now when they enter college?
SM: I’m not one who buys into the whole “generational gulf” argument, whereby each generation looks down at the generation below and bemoans how “fundamentally different” they are. I mean, I listen to my age-peers (i.e., individuals who, like me, went to college in the 1980’s) express shock over the “hookup culture” of our current students, and I’m like, “Wait, don’t YOU remember what YOU did when YOU were in college!?” And they’re always like, “Uh, yeah, but THAT was DIFFERENT.” Yeah, right.
Accordingly, I think the biggest challenges students face now are pretty much the same as they always were: Who the heck am I? Why am I here on this Earth? What’s my purpose? What’s my calling? Where does my passion really lie? What will make me truly happy? Our job as faculty is (in part) helping to facilitate students being able to (eventually) answer these questions.
Of course, there ARE huge differences between people of my generation and the students of today, most notably, the hyper-connected way in which they live their lives through technology. But if you look at WHAT students are doing with their technology, it’s pretty much the same as it always was: who is doing what with whom, and why.
Q: What motivates you to continue teaching?
SM: Unquenchable and enduring passion regarding the transformative nature of communication knowledge. Learning about this stuff completely changed my life. I want to pass that legacy on to others.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous students counsel on course evaluations, “Don’t ever lose your passion!” I always find such entreaties irksome. Why? How could I EVER lose my passion for this? How could someone NOT be passionate about this material!? It is SO cool! And to see how your teaching positively impacts students – Oh man, I get excited just THINKING about it, as I’m writing this!!!
On a personal note...
Q: How do you spend your time when you're not teaching?
SM: When I’m not teaching, I’m generally working on research (e.g., designing studies, collecting and analyzing data), working collaboratively in a mentorship fashion with students, and writing. I love both research-related writing (e.g., journal articles and reviews) and textbook writing. I suppose it’s self-indulgent of me to want to do both, but the writing styles and corresponding bandwidths are SO different, that I like the challenges and variation that each provides – and I don’t think I’d ever be happy just doing one and not the other.
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
SM: Oh man, here we go. My single biggest personal passion (other than my family) is MUSIC. Relatedly, my top long-term hobby is high-end audio. I listen to digital audio as background music (e.g., streaming on my laptop, as I write this), but if I’m going to listen FOR REAL – that is, sit and listen to music for an hour, uninterrupted, as a focal activity – it HAS to be analog. My current front end is a Well-Tempered Amadeus GT turntable with a Grado Statement cartridge, running into an Audible Illusions M3B tubed preamp, an SMcC Audio DNA-225 amplifier, and Aerial 7B speakers. Everyone and anyone who enjoys music owes it to themselves to invest in a decent listening system – just make sure you that you’re spinning vinyl up front, and have vacuum tubes somewhere in the system chain!
Other personal passions include martial arts (I’ve studied and taught various forms of Karate and self-defense for more than 30 years), Yoga (I’ve taught beginning and advanced classes for the last 15 years, and currently teach here at the UAB Rec Center), Kona coffee, Single-malt Scotch (especially the “Islay” malts, which are known for their intense smoke and peat flavors), mechanical watches (I’ve been slowly building a collection of Swiss mechanicals over the last 20 years), and target pistol shooting.
Q: If you hadn't pursued a career in higher education, what career path do you think you would have chosen?
SM: Musician. I played keyboards and drums in bands for years – everything from prog rock (back in the day) to hard-core punk (10 years ago). My most recent band – Stooge City Liberation Front – still has live tracks available on MySpace, if you can believe it! Just Google “Myspace Stooge City” and there we are! (I played drums). Stooge City was comprised of a bunch of faculty and grad students, and we would have kept going if our bass player, Jayson, hadn’t have had the bad form to finish his doctorate and get a real job as a professor! For shame!
Q: What was the last book you read?
SM: I’m always reading multiple books, so it’s tough to say what the “last” book is. I recently re-read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (which I excerpted in Reflect & Relate 4e). Excerpts from most of my fave books end up in MY books; such as Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (also in Reflect & Relate), and Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which was in R&R 3e). My fave fiction book ever has to be Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m also a HUGE H.P. Lovecraft fan: stories such as The Thing on the Doorstep; The Colour out of Space; The Shadow over Innsmouth; etc. In terms of non-fiction, all-time faves which are almost always somewhere near my nightstand include Leakey’s The Sixth Extinction, Gleick’s Chaos, Festinger and Schachter’s When Prophecy Fails, and Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
Q: What book has influenced you most?
SM: The Majjhima Nikaya. I read Sutta from it every night, and never travel without it.
Q: Where is one place you want to travel to, but have never been?
SM: Thailand, so I can see the temples first-hand, and hang with Theravada monks – especially those of the “Forest” tradition.
Q: When you sit down to listen to music, which artists or genres do you go to most?
SM: My tastes are ALL over the place. Albums and artists that are pretty much in constant rotation on my turntable are (in no apparent order): Radiohead (fave band of all), FKA Twigs, Death Cab for Cutie, Rush, Sufjan Stevens, Beatles, Arcade Fire, Yes, Little Dragon, Supertramp, Phantogram, Purity Ring, Pink Floyd, Sade, Santana, Genesis, Divinyls, Elton John, Pretenders, Kate Bush, Sex Pistols, Annie Lennox, Smashing Pumpkins, Jimi Hendrix, Beach House, DIIV, Tori Amos, King Crimson, Sundays, Soundgarden, Sinead O’Connor, Missing Persons, Sarah McLachlan, Tool, Megadeth, Cocteau Twins, Helmet, Paw, Quicksand, AC/DC, McCartney & Wings, The Police, Steely Dan, Crosby Stills Nash, Alice in Chains, and Paw.
Of course, I also dig classical, my fave of all being Tchaikovsky, but I also trend toward Italian baroque (e.g., Corelli, Vivaldi) as well as more contemporary (e.g., Arvo Part, Copland, Bernstein).
Q: What is something you want to learn in the next year (Communication-related or otherwise)?
SM: My wife and research collaborator Dr. Kelly Morrison and I are sitting on a ton of data from a study we did before we moved down here to UAB. The study examines the relationship between increases in situational complexity (the number of competing goals someone faces in a context) and the propensity to lie. We did a lab study in which we had people, in real time, respond to complicated situations by saying out loud what they would say, if they actually were in that context. Now that I’m settled in at UAB, I badly want to dig into that data, and find out what the heck is going on within it!
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you (i.e. What's your "fun fact"?)?
SM: That I’m a college dropout, who only eventually became a professor because I got hit by a train.
My first year of college I was every professors’ nightmare. I was “that kid” who never turned things in on time, and always had a (fictitious) story for why. I basically was lost; and only went to college because of parental expectations. So after my first year, I dropped out and drove tractor-trailer rigs full time (after attending truck-driving school, and getting licensed for combination driving in the State of Washington). I would still be truck-driving today, if it wasn’t for the fact that I got hit by a train. The train knocked me out of my truck – and out of my job. In the aftermath, I realized that trucking really WASN’T the life for me, and I went back to school – and never questioned that decision again.