Dr. Eletra Gilchrist-Petty receives Black Caucus Rex Crawley Outstanding Service Award from National Communication Association

Dr. Eletra Gilchrist-Petty

Dr. Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, UAH Department Chair of Communication Arts

Michael Mercier | UAH

Dr. Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, a professor and Department Chair of the Communication Arts Department at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System, has received the Black Caucus Rex Crawley Outstanding Service Award from the National Communication Association (NCA).

The National Communication Association is an organization with a mission to advance Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry. The NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems.

NCA Black Caucus logo
Courtesy National Communication Association

Caucuses within the NCA represent the interests of a specific demographic or socially defined segment of the NCA membership at large, and NCA currently sponsors seven caucuses. Founded in 1968, the NCA Black Caucus adopts the mission of supporting the research, service, teaching, professional development and advocacy of its members. The award is presented by the National Communication Association (NCA) each year, and Dr. Gilchrist-Petty received the honor at the NCA national conference in Seattle, WA.

“This award truly feels like a full-circle moment for me,” she says. “I attended my first National Communication Association conference in 2000 when it was held in Seattle. At the time, I was a young graduate student just learning the ropes. Fast forward 21 years, I’m back in Seattle for our national conference, but this time I’m receiving the Rex Crawley Outstanding Service Award! Among the first people I met when I became affiliated with our national association was Dr. Rex Crawley. He was a longtime professor at Robert Morris University’s School of Communication and Information Systems and he served for many years as an officer with NCA’s Black Caucus.

“Dr. Crawley was a prolific researcher and a tireless mentor and public servant,” Dr. Gilchrist-Petty notes. “So when he succumbed to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2013 at only 49 years of age, the Black Caucus of NCA knew it was only fitting to establish a Service award in his honor to celebrate other active members of NCA who demonstrate extraordinary commitments to service in the areas of social advocacy, community service and mentorship. I’m truly honored to receive this national award named after Dr. Rex Crawley, who was an exemplary scholar, professor, mentor, and friend.”

Dr. Gilchrist-Petty teaches a wide variety of communication classes at UAH, including Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication, Research Methods, Public Speaking, Culture and Communication, Small Group Communication, Persuasion, Senior Seminar and Media Writing. Her programs of research focus on instructional communication, interpersonal communication and African American communication from both the quantitative and qualitative perspectives.

The professor reports she has been drawn to the communication arts since childhood.

“I entered my first Public Speaking competition when I was in the fifth grade through the 4-H program,” she says. “Most people have a great fear of public speaking, but even as a fifth grader I loved it. That year I won the competition at my school and at the county competition. From that point on, I wanted to pursue a career as a professional speaker.”

The path to teaching communication skills took a little longer to evolve for the longtime speaker, and was thanks to exposure to a special instructor. “I did not decide to become a Professor of Communication Arts until I took my first Communication course as a freshman at the University of Alabama. I had a wonderful professor named Mark Nelson, who at the time was working on his dissertation. He is now the Dean of the College of Communication and Information Sciences.

“Dr. Nelson taught the introductory to communication course with the perfect balance of expertise and excitement. By the end of the semester, he and I had actually forged a friendship, and I remember telling him, ‘I’m going to do what you do one day,’ because I wanted to inspire students and teach them more about the art and science of oratory, just as he had. When I became a senior he gave me an opportunity to team teach a course with him for internship course credit, and the rest is history.”

Exploring how people use verbal and nonverbal messages to create shared meaning through their lived experiences soon became a particular point of interest for the NCA honoree.

“One thing I love about the communication discipline is that it is very experiential,” Dr. Gilchrist-Petty says. “We not only study theories and concepts, but we actually examine how the literature is experienced in our day-to-day lives in so many areas, including relationships, social media, persuasion and influence, work groups and the media, just to name a few.”

The UAH professor has found a real fascination for examining what she terms as “the Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication,” going so far as to edit a book on the topic: Contexts of the Dark Side of Communication.

“When I was in College and took classes akin to Interpersonal Communication, we did not spend much time talking about the not-so-happy aspects of life,” she says. “Most traditional communication textbooks maybe highlighted deception, conflict and relationship dissolution, but most did not delve into the truly problematic forms of human interactions. The tide began to change with some of the early work by Cupach and Spitzberg, who unapologetically addressed sensitive topics of stalking, relational intrusion, unrequited love, aggressive communication, hurt, abuse and many others.

“Being introduced to this work sparked me to do further research, because human relationships and communication is commonly paradoxical and dialectical. So it is necessary to explore the full spectrum of human engagement. My goal with research in the Dark Side of Communication has simply been to add to the conversation and further emphasize that though our human experiences may be nuanced and complex, communication can be used to help us work through many problematic situations.”

One would imagine that approaching such a sensitive and potentially uncomfortable area of study like this with her students is challenging, though Dr. Gilchrist-Petty explains, “Holistically, our students are very open to speaking about unfavorable instances of communication. The Dark Side of Communication is an elective course, so the students enroll because they generally want to be a part of a class that fosters opportunities to learn and speak candidly about the communicative implications of taboo topics. Nonetheless, a notation regarding the classroom content is always included on the Syllabus, and it is verbally reinforced during the initial class meeting. Students are also informed of our great campus resources, such as the Counseling Center, that are available to assist them with navigating any topic that may personally affect them.”

In considering the intense focus on free speech and just how far that protection might go in these times, the professor says, “The Communication discipline is intimately linked to free speech. What we write, speak and publish in both professional and lay forums is contingent upon our First Amendment freedoms. In our classes we teach our students that while you may not always agree with someone’s spoken or written speech, we should foster opportunities for open debate and candid discussions. Free speech is a core belief of The National Communication Association and is expressed in the association’s three ethical credos that support: (1) free and responsible communication in a democratic society; (2) free and responsible use of electronic communication networks; and (3) ethical communication that endorses diversity of perspective, tolerance of dissent and condemnation of violence and hatred. I’m very proud to be a long-standing member of an association that was established on the premises of free and ethical communication.”


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