The phrase “kid at heart” may describe Matthew J. Smith, but it’s what he does in the classroom that truly defines him. Since joining the Wittenberg faculty in 2001, the associate professor of communication has turned his own childhood interests into powerful teaching tools that help demystify media messages.
The ability to teach what I’m passionate about is infectious to students, and it’s what I love about teaching at Wittenberg,” Smith says. “I can demonstrate my own passion for learning, and students see that I’m teaching because I want to do so.”
And clearly they do, considering Smith recently received the university’s most prestigious faculty prize, the Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Teaching, thanks to nominations from students, colleagues and alumni.
Reflecting on the recognition, Smith, who teaches courses on media literacy, television criticism, media law and graphic storytelling, says it was a tremendous honor and a big surprise.
“Those who know me know that I talk a lot about Wittenberg moments I’ve had,” Smith says. “These moments are the distinctive experiences I’ve had here – my first convocation, the senior banquet for our communication majors, the senior class picnic. Receiving this award is one of those moments. It ranks as one of the two great honors of my career. The other was being asked to join the Wittenberg faculty.”
The appreciation and pride he feels emanates throughout his Hollenbeck Hall office as he begins to discuss the path that brought him to Wittenberg and the individuals who influenced his career. One such person was Dave Thomas, whom Smith quickly differentiates from the late Wendy’s restaurant chain founder. Thomas, an English professor at West Liberty State College, where Smith earned his B.A. in the same discipline, enters Smith’s mind every time he walks into the classroom.
“He had such a rapport with students,” Smith says. “He was so clear, so passionate and so precise, and he wasn’t artificial. He was lively and organized, and he fit with me and became my model for teaching.”
The way Smith engages with his own students in the classroom affirms these characteristics, as does his out-of-class conversations, many of which have led students to consider options that they might not have without his intervention.
“Wittenberg offers that ability to help students rethink their potential and then take it and guide it,” Smith says. “There is no greater reward than seeing a student discover his or her passion.”
The methods Smith employs to help in the journey of discovery have also inspired students and colleagues. Whether it be analyzing American Idol to uncover the underlying values being taught or teaching comics as communication to decode the visual messages, Smith brings humor and contemporary twists to his teaching so students understand pop culture’s impact on their lives.
“Because media interfaces are so commonplace, many assume that they are as natural as the air we breathe rather than the products of human activity subject for review,” Smith explains.
To make that realization come alive for his classes, Smith works to develop a point of common ground, delving into popular culture as a unifying source around which his students can relate.
“It’s about making people more conscious about the decisions they are making in their media consumption,” Smith says. “I also want them to understand pop culture’s appeal, and more importantly, its affect on them.”
The first person in his immediate family to go to college, Smith also reflects a sincere gratitude for the opportunities he has received, and he works diligently to provide opportunities for others.
“I push myself to create experiences for my students that I never had,” he says, and the results of his efforts are clear as evidenced by the number of students who regularly seek out his advice and by a gift he received from members of the communication department following the Distinguished Teaching award presentation.
Reaching up on his organized bookshelf, Smith pulls down the gift, a framed photo of him with his family. The inscription simply reads: “We are proud to call you friend and colleague.”
Smith would say the same of them and his students.
“People care so much here,” Smith says, “and it has meant so much to me.”
Birthplace: Wheeling, W. Va.
Education: Ph.D. in Interpersonal Communication, Ohio University, 1998; M.A. in English, Ohio University, 1995; B.A. in English, West Liberty State College, 1993
Academic Honors: Top Paper Award in Human Information Technologies, Eastern Communication Association, 1999 ; Claude E. Kantner Research Fellow, Ohio University, 1997-1998; Hazlett A. Cochran Award for Excellence in Journalism, West Liberty State College, 1993
Professional Activity: Published, reviewed and presented more than 60 monographs since 1995; Developed summer field study program for students attending the annual Comic-Con International; Current President, Ohio Communication Association; Member, Eastern Communication Association, and current chair of its Ethics Ad Hoc Committee ; Co-developed new Communication Leaders program at Wittenberg (see page 16); Published four textbooks, two of which were “firsts” in their fields: Online Communication for computer-mediated communication courses, and The Power of Comics for courses in graphic storytelling
Fun Facts: Proud father of 6-year-old twins, Trevor and Kent; Married in 2000 so the math would always be easy when remembering his anniversary