Temple Northup, director for the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, teaches courses in media writing, media effects and research. As today’s technology forces our various media to more effectively overlap and combine, the line between public relations, advertising and journalism becomes thinner and the bond of storytelling becomes more pronounced. How does one keep from teaching skills that will be obsolete in five years? Northup believes interpersonal skills are fundamental, as is an understanding of the digital world.
Video and Full Interview Text
Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers show. My guest today: Temple Northup, the Director of the Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. Temple, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Temple: Thank you for having me.
Russ: I feel a little intimidated by having a doctor here, a Ph.D. in Communications on my show, but it’s great to have you. In fact, when I think about communications, and your job, from when you started this path, your education, and then working some, and to where you are today, it must be night and day different.
Temple: It really is. So I graduated my undergraduate in 1999, and I moved out to Los Angeles and worked in television. If we just think about television in 1999 versus where we are today, it’s completely different (Russ: Absolutely.). You know, the landscape has changed. Back then, there was certainly no Netflix, and Amazon, which started out just as distributors, now actually creating content. All the cable companies weren’t creating content at that point, just HBO was sort of dipping into the water at that point. So, just everything in television has changed, and then if we look, of course, at the media mass communication more broadly, obviously the internet was still very young even at that point. We weren’t on Facebook (Russ: Right. There was no social media.), no one had even begun to think about Twitter yet; Snapchat. no one, you know, cameras weren’t really on phones yet, so how could we have Snapchat if there weren’t cameras on phones.
Russ: It’s almost overwhelming.
Temple: It is an incredible change in a really short period of time.
Russ: Well, we’re going to go down that path, so, but tell us about the Valenti School today.
Temple: Yeah, so the Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston is home to about 2,000 undergraduate majors. We have about 9 different degrees that they can get, but if we think about it sort of in the big buckets, we have 4 different areas that students tend to specialize in: Journalism, Media Production, Strategic Communication, which would be Public Relations, Advertising, and then Communication Studies, things like Speech Communication and Interpersonal Communication; things like that. So that’s what our students major in. They want to be communicators when they graduate, although many go on to, go to law school and things like that where knowing how to communicate can be pretty useful. So that’s what we’re doing.
Russ: Wow. So, you also have graduate level students as well, right?
Temple: Yeah. So we do have a Master’s program. We’ve got about 50-60 students in there at any given time. And the 3 areas for those are Mass Communication, Public Relations, and Health Communication.
Russ: Wow. So interesting. So, your comment about communications majors going into other categories and other careers, it almost reminds me of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship out there at the University of Houston that’s so successful in that they have an Entrepreneurship program for all other majors, because the world has changed and it’s good to have, it seems like that almost applies for Communications too.
Temple: Yes, absolutely. We actually work a lot with the Wolff Center in that our students, our Public Relations students partner with their Entrepreneur students, and so as they’re coming up with their startup ideas, our students are creating communication plans for how to communicate the message of what their idea is. But I agree in, you know, one of our long term strategic objectives is to integrate ourselves better across campus. Because it is so important, you know, we can talk a lot about storytelling, but if you were over in engineering and you’ve come up with some revolutionary device, if you can’t tell people about it and make them understand why this device is so important, why their lives are going to be better without it, you’re never going to go anywhere. And so, understanding that is really important for anyone regardless of their field.
Russ: Absolutely. So, I’m also curious though about those 4 categories. I mean, did they integrate and cross a lot, or are the journalism people just sort of in their world, and man, journalism in 2016, what’s that all about?
Temple: Yes. It’s, and so in the past, that was really the model of communication programs. Everybody was sort of siloed in. Public relations was very distinct from advertising, you know. But, more and more, things are coming together and getting much more integrated. I mean, certainly public relations and advertising, thinking of them as two completely different things is obsolete.
Russ: That’s true, but I’d like to think of journalism and advertising as being different, but maybe they’re not these days.
Temple: Well, you look at a lot of advertising, even just in magazines, they’ve got, you know, stories that appear to be journalistic, but they’re really ads. Advertisers need to know how to be journalists, and journalists, a lot of people who get trained in journalism go on and work in public relations. And if see, you know, a lot of the news today isn’t necessarily coming from journalists, but are coming from public relations and strategic firms. So, obviously we’re not training journalists to go be advertisers, but we are training them to be storytellers. And so, there is some overlap in, especially in the beginning stages of what the students are learning, the sort of basic skills. So, we’re not bringing PR and journalism together, but some of those common classes are similar.
Russ: Ok, wow. Now I’ve heard you use this storytelling word a couple of times now. I mean, is that common now in communications department or is that just common at the Valenti School of Communications?
Temple: Presumably it’s common in a lot of places, but that’s one of the key threads that I think ties our school together, and that’s something we’ve defined over the past year. We’ve really been looking at ourselves to figure out who are we, and where do we want to go, and what will differentiate ourselves, both from other units on the campus, and then really other programs in Texas or around the country. And so it does come back to storytelling. If you look at all of our different majors, whether it’s public relations, whether it’s journalism, whether it’s health communication, whether it’s corporate communication, you know, they on the one hand are very different majors, but it does go back to that idea of storytelling. If you’re a good storyteller, then you should be able to succeed in any career. So, you could start out as a journalist and then later become, work in public relations, or vice versa if you understand storytelling.
And it’s also important, a sort of foundation is what I look at as storytelling, because the world is changing. If we look at when I graduated from my undergraduate in ’99 to now, whatever I learned then, especially in terms of technology, is obsolete. So, whatever we’re teaching, even if we’re innovative and we’re on the cutting edge today, we’re going to be obsolete 5 years from now. And so if we’re focused on teaching skills, just pure skills of here’s how to use Snapchat as a brand, you know, we’re creating useful students now, but 5 years from now they wouldn’t be very marketable. And so, if we teach them how to be a good storyteller, then they’re going to be marketable, and they’re going to be able to be successful no matter as the technology changes. They’ll still be able to create that message.
Russ: You know, another thought I had that, and they’re all surrounding this world about how disparate it feels now, but your mention of technology, I mean, social media, and being able to, you know, publish and post and understand them, you’re almost kind of getting into what a lot of coders do over in the computer science department now. So, I mean it seems like even that kind of overlaps to some degree.
Temple: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, the good thing in terms of sort of empowering a lot of people, as time goes on you need less and less of those coding skills. We can now develop websites (Russ: Just cut and paste.), yeah, you know and there are things that help you make websites, you know? That used to be highly specialized, and it still is if you really want a customized website. But on the one hand, people are empowered because you don’t need those skills. On the other hand, as a school, looking who can we make partnerships? And so, I know the College of Technology has some great programs. They’ve got some apt development programs that we’re sort of exploring, that I’d like to reach out to them more and sort of see, alright, you have some very specific expertise, we’ve got some expertise, how can we come together and build something really great?
Russ: Wow, so I had to go down that technology thing but didn’t want to leave that storytelling thing because that’s so fascinating too. In my own way on this show a lot of times I will talk about people that have great articulation skills, or I like to say they’re just good explainers, but good explainers and, kind of storytelling sort of overlap, and it’s a very important communications skill to this day. Where do speech classes fit in this puzzle? Are they in the Valenti School?
Temple: They’re in, yeah we do have speech communication classes. And it’s an important part, because if we think about communication, there’s obviously a written component if we’re thinking about creating messages. Most of the time they’re online or through some sort of mediated form. But at the same time, we still communicate face to face a lot. We do things like radio shows, or online shows, and so having an ability to talk, to be persuasive in what you’re talking about is important. Because before any mediated message goes out, there’s going to be a meeting; what do we want to do? And if you can’t communicate effectively in that meeting with your teammates, if you can’t convince them that your idea is best, or work with them to create an idea, then you’re not going to be successful. And so, having basic communication skills that are interpersonal and digital we could say, is really fundamental, I think, to the whole equation of what we’re trying to do.
Russ: Wow. Well, I love this discussion with you. In fact, I always come away with positive feelings every time I go out to the University of Houston, and how they seem to be embracing the future. And here you are, Ph.D., you know, lived in the world of academia. Your comment about there’s things that you can learn and go online, it also feels kind of like we’re in this era where maybe the degree isn’t necessary to learn the skills, as necessary as it used to be. It’s almost like there’s this competition going on between academia and the ability to do Google searches and educate yourself online. Do you feel that out there, or is that just, ok it exists, but so what?
Temple: Yeah, I mean, if you think about what’s the purpose of a college education? There’s certainly, sort of the skills component. Um, and to a large degree a lot of those you could go online and teach yourself. Now, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to go online. You could teach yourself how to do it, and then you won’t necessarily get the feedback of somebody who knows what they’re doing, so you can go on and take a digital photography class online and think you know what you’re doing, but unless you get feedback from someone who really understands it, there’s probably only so far you might be able to go.
But that’s of course just part of it. You know, we’re located in a liberal arts college, and so there’s a lot to be said for just learning to think critically and just to have exposure to different ideas, and different curriculum, and get just a broader view on education in the world than you might get if you were just graduated from high school, and went online and learned how to shoot digital photography, or something like that.
Russ: Ok, well said. Ok, so as you know, I connected with you by going out and taking a tour, and I was very impressed with the whole thing. I learned about your background. In fact, that’s what I want to do before I let you go. I find it real fascinating the amount of education you have. So, carry us forward from undergrad to Ph.D..
Temple: My undergraduate was in Anthropology from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Then I worked out in Los Angeles for 7 years in television production in prime time.
Russ: What did you actually do?
Temple: I was a writer on different sitcoms.
Russ: Some that we would have watched?
Temple: Some people still remember them. There was, the longest running show was a show called Half & Half, which was on the UPN network. I was also, Emeril Lagasse, the chief, had a sitcom on NBC, very briefly before it was cancelled. So, those were some of the shows I was on. I was a writer on those shows.
Russ: Do you miss that?
Temple: There are components that I miss. It was a lot of fun. You know, you are working with highly creative people in just sort of a surreal environment; big studio lots, you know. I used to play basketball with George Clooney back in the day when he was on ER, so there was like a basketball court between our stages.
Russ: How good did you handle him on the court?
Temple: Yeah, you know, it was a lot of Horse and Pig, and things like that. So, a lot of surreal experiences, but also, it’s extremely high pressure; it’s very volatile. Shows come and go, and so you’re, it’s a very stressful environment to live in. And so after 7 years, my wife and I said, alright we’ve had a good run. And she also worked in entertainment. And so I went to Syracuse University to the Newhouse School; got my Master’s in Media Studies there, and then went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is where I got my Ph.D..
Russ: Wow, very impressive. Well, I’d love to stay in touch with you, I mean, just to do what we do here on The BusinessMakers Show, and The EnergyMakers Show, and our new high drive network. I want to stay connected and maybe find some talent from your organization, and follow what’s going on out there.
Russ: Alright, Temple. I really appreciate you being on the show.
Temple: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Temple Northup, the Director of the Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.