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Campus Celebrity: Comm Professor James Scott Smith

In the Communication Studies major, there is one class that is met with an alarmingly large amount of dread. That class would be Communication Studies 249: Introduction to Rhetoric. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Smith, who not only taught my 249 class almost two years ago, but also just completed teaching another semester of it. Throughout my sit down with him, I learned a variety of things that I think everyone should know.

1. He needs a moment to explain rhetoric, just like other communication studies students.           

“Okay, so this is a terrible start,” Dr. Smith tells me as he settles into his seat behind his desk. We’re sitting in his office in Luter and I have just asked him what exactly Rhetoric is. I do agree, it’s a terrible way to start an interview, but it’s a question that needs an answer.  He doesn’t let this “terrible start” take away from answering a question that communication studies students have been struggling to answer for ages. He gives me the traditional answer I was almost expecting as a student who has taken four rhetoric classes. He tells me that “rhetoric is the study of persuasion.”  He continues to go into old rhetoric and new rhetoric and how old rhetoric is about persuasion and Aristotle and new rhetoric is about believing in our truths. 

2. He can easily prove how rhetoric is everywhere.

When I ask him why he chose to teach rhetoric, I’m expecting the cliché “believing the children are the future” lecture that I assume all educators have to learn when they get their degrees. But, to my surprise, Dr. Smith tells me a story about George Carlin’s standup routine. Yes, the George Carlin who talked about the seven words that we can’t say on television. A piece of Carlin’s standup relies on euphemisms – you know, nicer ways to say something.  This particular story is about how we use sunshine units to measure a person’s exposure to radiation. It’s one I’ve heard before; remember, I was one of those students in 249 with him two years ago. This time though, I can’t help but notice how obvious it is that this is something that created a spark for him. I can’t help but laugh when he calls out Carlin for his own use of euphemisms by saying he’s not 90 years old, but rather 90 years young. “He’s not young, he’s old, and he’s going to die soon and nobody wants to talk about it in those terms.”

3. While there isn’t a huge section of rhetoric he wants to study, there are sub-areas he’s interested in.

What I knew about Dr. Smith going into this interview, from my three classes with him, was that he obviously enjoyed political discourse. I wanted to know, though, if there was anything else he would like to study which he hasn’t already. The big takeaway is more stuff that still dealt with politics, specifically his interest in ads. He has collected over 300 pieces of the 2014 midterm election ads. “I have the ads. I have some ideas of how I’m going to do it, I just haven’t had the time to do it.”

4. He doesn’t get writer’s block.

When I ask him about how he overcomes writer’s block, he simply said, “You just keep writing.” He believes it’s a matter of of overthinking it, but no matter how bad the thoughts are or the writing is going to be, you just have to keep writing because there’s always editing to make things better. “I’ll just write something terrible, just to move on because I’ll edit it later. We’ll figure it out later.”

5. He believes in winning today first.

The most intriguing moment of the interview came when I asked Dr. Smith where he saw himself in 10 years. He initially says he doesn’t know, but he further explains that he doesn’t think like that. “My mindset is never about what’s going to happen 10 years from now. I think people that think that way… maybe they’re wishful thinking that they can predict that.” He goes on to talk about living today and even gives me a quote that belongs on a poster for a presidential candidate. “Let’s win today,” he says. “Let’s win today and we’ll think about tomorrow when we get there.” He does share his hopes for the future though, which includes his life and hoping that it is as great as it is right now.

6. He loves CNU.

When I get to the topic of why he chose to teach at CNU, he visibly perks up just a bit before going into detail about how, first of all, they hired him. He lists off a variety of reasons why he chose this school. The communication department is a great group of people to work with even if their ideologies are different. “We respect other people’s research, yet we also have a variety of different opinions and philosophies towards communication. I think all that’s good for department diversity.” He also cites how nice of a state Virginia is and specifically the Newport News area is to live in. At the end of the day, it still goes back to the job offer. “There just aren’t a lot of rhetoric jobs anymore, so when you find one, you keep it.”

Now that he’s settled into CNU (this is his third year teaching at the university), I try to get any favorite moments out of his experiences so far. There isn’t one huge moment that sticks out, but there are what seem like a puzzle piece of little moments. He got to reapply for his tenure track position via phone interview in his office, while everyone interviewing him was in the department chair’s office, which is just down the hall from his. There’s also his students, who he gets to watch grow with each other through the semester. “At the end of one of the 333 classes, there was a genuine applause for how much the students enjoyed working with each other in class. That doesn’t happen very often.”

7. He has a life outside of CNU.

It’s not hard to see that Dr. Smith is enjoying his life right now. When he’s not teaching, he’s spending time at home with his wife and six-week-old baby. He lights up significantly when he mentions his wife and tells me, “I met my wife since moving here and she’s my best friend.” That sentence has the potential to sound cheesy and cliché, but it’s obvious how genuinely he means it and I couldn’t help but include an “aw” in my notes. With some of the other free time he has, he spends it doing the things that us college students can relate to; watching television, movies, sports, and just working out.

8. He thinks that comm students should give rhetoric another chance if they can.

“Rhetoric doesn’t suck,” Dr. Smith says before explaining that we’re doing a better job at making rhetoric seem like an appealing discipline. He does have this little thing to say to all the communication studies majors reading this though: “Don’t let 249 color your opinion of what rhetoric is, as someone who just got done teaching it. That stuff is really difficult and the classes in the upper level are different than what 249 is. I would just tell people to give another rhetoric comm class a shot because I think there is a lot of value and I think a lot people would like it because they are so different.”

Christi Trottie is a senior Communication Studies major at Christopher Newport University. She has a passion for all things social media and if you ask her enough times, she may admit to enjoying rhetoric. When she's not reading through Twitter, Buzzfeed or actually completing her schoolwork, you can find her binge watching Lifetime movies in her apartment. In the words of her hero, Donna Meagle, "I hope no minds if I live tweet this bitch."
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