2017 Top 40 Undergraduate Professors: Staci Thomas, Washington University in St. Louis (Olin)

Staci A. Thomas

Lecturer, Management Communication

Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School

Staci Thomas’ sole mission as professor is simple: to provide an engaging, challenging environment that offers students relevant, real-world communication experience. And with that mission at the heart of every class she teaches, she strives for each one to build confidence, self-awareness, resiliency, and above all, an understanding of how communication motivates others to take action. Part of how she does it so masterfully is through an inverted setting known as the “flipped classroom,” a technique she implemented as she led the overhaul of Olin’s Management Communication course.

Using the “flipped” model, undergraduate students in Professor Thomas’ business communication class view pre-recorded lectures outside of class then spend class time engaged in discussions and exercises to apply what they’ve learned. One student from the course took to LinkedIn Pulse to share his recent experience inside Thomas’ flipped classroom. “A great deal of business communication skills can only be cultivated with actual experimentation. This applied learning helped me gain a greater appreciation for how the bulk of communication is conveyed with facial expressions, body language, and the tone of your voice. I couldn’t have achieved the same level of knowledge through a problem set or a multiple choice quiz.”

Colleagues also speak highly of Professor Thomas’ dedication inside the classroom. “She has done an incredible job ensuring that the electronic content is robust and that when in class students are applying the knowledge they have gained,” Olin’s senior associate dean of the undergraduate program commented.

Age: 47

At current institution since: 2011

Education: BA, Communication and Psychology, University of Missouri; MA, Communication, University of Missouri, MA TEFL – Webster University

List of courses currently teaching: Management Communication

Fun fact about yourself: My first career was as a Mandarin translator for the US Air Force.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” When I realized that I would LEARN as much I as would teach! The diversity and intellect of Olin’s students is staggering. Each day contains intelligent conversation with individuals who have vastly different perspectives and a wealth of knowledge to share. Learning is a fantastic fringe benefit.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…” I would be dissatisfied with almost anything else. I have a long background in marketing and corporate communications; I would likely go back to that. Perhaps I’d consult, with a focus on helping veterans gain the communication skills they need to succeed in business.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Exhilarating

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? Helping them achieve their own goals. I love helping them find and maximize their strengths.

What is the biggest challenge that comes with teaching undergraduate business students? Getting them outside their own worldview. We’re always told to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” but that’s meaningless and impossible without deep self- and other-awareness. Undergraduates seldom have the age and experience needed to gain that awareness.  It’s difficult to convey the concept that my “right” could be your “wrong,” and, that we’re both correct. Communication is all about audience; success in this subject demands critical listening and an open mind. Both are hard to teach!

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? That’s really difficult, because I’ve had several students who started incredibly successful businesses or nonprofits during their off-hours. One of my classes was able to work on a client project for Coach. They pitched their concepts to the CEO, who ultimately implemented some of the students’ strategies. It’s a great feeling to see their work actually come to life for a major global brand.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? My course uses live corporations and nonprofits to create experiential learning opportunities. The “clients” visit class several times throughout the semester to guide the students through the development of a communication strategy. During a first meeting, one of my students told an entrepreneur that his business was likely to fail because he’d “never buy the product.”  He obviously missed a critical class on other-awareness.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Show me some grit. Attend, engage, do the work, try. Grit and resourcefulness go a long way with me.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” An advocate of “tough love.” If I issue a low grade, I’ll ask the student to rework it, as many times as needed, to earn that A. That shows me they’ve mastered the skill.

“But I would describe myself as …” Blessed. Committed. Happy.

What are your hobbies? I’m an extreme extrovert, and a whirlwind at work. So, my hobbies tend to help me decompress. I unplug. I run and read. My kids have big personalities, and days with them are the best comic relief imaginable.

How did you spend your summer? Some travel to Asia, a Disney Cruise, plenty of time at the pool, and working.

Favorite place to vacation: I’ve traveled much of the world, and I always come back to The American South. Gracious people, good food, slow pace. Any other vacation is work.

Favorite book: Nonfiction – Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin was a great autobiography, and exploration in understanding how to create cohesive, diverse teams and maximize the strengths of others. Fiction – I’m a post-apocalyptic junkie, so The Passage by Justin Cronin is one I could re-read a dozen times. I love the end of the world!

Favorite movie and/or television show: Italian cinema never fails to break my heart. Television – Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead.

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: I love songs that tell stories, but all music is wonderful with the right speakers! I like everything from Jesse Cook to Florida Georgia Line.

Bucket list item #1: No bucket list items! If there’s something you want to do before you die, do it now because you could die tomorrow.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? My students! Seriously, every time a student tells me that they achieved their professional goals and that I helped even a little – that’s my moment.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? I have some great inside jokes with my students. I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t get it.

Professor you most admire and why: Todd Milbourn, who teaches finance here at Olin, is amazing. He has a way of interacting with people that’s so down to earth and pragmatic, I’d love to bottle and sell it. If I had half his intellect, I could rule the world. Apparently, he just doesn’t want to.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? I can’t sit still long enough to research, and that’s not my role at Olin. However, I’m fascinated with how technology affects the evolution of language. The medium evolves the language in many ways. For example, we’re watching the development of an entire language in emoji. Hieroglyphics are back in style, and this will undeniably affect communication in business – where almost 80% of communications fail due to missing context. Businesses are however, acutely aware of the cost of communication, so I’m curious to see the continued evolution.

Twitter handle: There’s enough noise in the world without my having a Twitter handle. I find myself distressed by humanity when I’m on social media. We need to stop sacrificing interactions to gain convenience. Make someone’s day by actually picking up the phone and asking about their status, rather than clicking “like.”  And for the love of God, don’t measure your worth by number of likes or shares.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Student-centered, experiential androgogy. There’s a YouTube video to explain almost concept or skill a student cares to master. In response, we need to determine how we can create customized real-world experiences centered on cutting-edge research that the students can’t gain anywhere else.

“And much less of this…” Lecture. There’s a pretty clear difference between lecturing and teaching. We need to stop “dumping information” and placing the onus of responsibility on the students to absorb it. Today’s student grew up in sound-bites, vivid imagery and ever-changing pop-culture references. Long lectures and static images are no longer effective. We need to create new ways of teaching that work for the student, not just for the professor.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you: If, in 10 years, I could look back on 10 years’ worth of successful, satisfied former students, I’d call that a success.