President’s Professor: Jess Alberts
As a teacher, Jess Alberts' goal is to provoke her students to ask questions about the world around them. As a communications professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, her goal is to help them develop the skills to answer those questions.
“Once students understand how theories can help them explain, predict, and even improve, their lives, they become life-long learners – which should be the goal of all education,” says Alberts, who is among this year's recipients of the prestigious President's Professors Award.
For Alberts, becoming a communications professor wasn't an answer she came to immediately. While working toward her master's degree in English with the plan of becoming an English professor, she was hired as a lecturer by Texas A&M University , where she was also assigned a few communications classes to teach in addition to her English classes.
“I enjoyed teaching them so much, and the field was much more open than English, so I decided to pursue communication for my doctorate. And I am so glad I did,” says Alberts, who received her master's and bachelor's degree from Abilene Christian University and her doctorate from the University of Texas before accepting a faculty position as a communications professor at ASU in 1989.
Since then, she has served as director for the school from 1995 to 2004, has led a series of research studies that focus on conflict in relationships, has written and co-written textbooks and has developed new curriculum for her department. As departmental ombudsperson, she participated in undergraduate education by helping students resolve classroom issues and developing a two-week, intensive teacher-training orientation program that resulted in increased student satisfaction and improved teacher evaluations.
Her interests in communication issues are a driving force behind her research, which has examined everything from workplace bullying to community mediation to adolescent drug resistance to the act of flirting. Alberts also is developing a study that explains the division of household labor through social hierarchy theories.
Helping her students understand how tension between individual characteristics and societal forces influences human interaction was what prompted her to write an introductory textbook with two of her colleagues. Alberts asks her students to reflect on this concept through a service-learning project, which she has incorporated into all of the basic human communication courses. The project requires students to participate in a minimum of 10 hours of community service, reflecting on how the communication principles they have learned in class affect and are affected by their work in the community.
“Rarely do senior professors volunteer to teach large lecture sections of the basic course, receive consistently outstanding teacher evaluations from students, and do equally well in doctoral-level seminars,” says Bud Goodall, director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. “Jess Alberts is that rare professor. This is because she is a gifted teacher who enlivens the classroom, makes every effort to connect with her students, and demonstrates her commitment to their success.”
Alberts' commitment to her students is evident not only in her frequent teaching of undergraduate classes, in addition to her graduate course load, but through her interactions with her students outside of the classroom. It is not unusual for students to go to her for coaching on job interviews and negotiations, as well as seeking advice on how to solve conflicts in their personal lives.
“I am constantly learning from my students about new and different perspectives, and about what it means to be young and a student in the current age,” Alberts says. “But I get much more than knowledge from them. They give me joy, they make me laugh, they cause me to feel heartache for their suffering – and they make me glad I am no longer in my 20s!”
As a self-proclaimed life-learner, Alberts says she hopes the information she offers her students will help them continue to learn throughout their lives.
“I hope my students learn to be more critical consumers of information, to learn how to learn, and to understand a bit more about the role of communication in relationships, organizations and identity.”