October 30, 2020

Anand Rao: Courageous Conversations

Anand Rao, professor of communications and director of the Speaking Intensive program and Speaking Center

Anand Rao, professor of communications and director of the Speaking Intensive program and Speaking Center

No topics are off-limits at Anand Rao’s dinner table. The communications professor and director of UMW’s Speaking Center said he encourages his four children – whom all have been members of debate teams – to share their opinions. He has one rule: they must be willing to defend their ideas and open to listening to others.

Rao brings this philosophy to all the courses he teaches at Mary Washington, which include public speaking, rhetoric, argumentation and social media, as well as the First-Year Seminar classes. “I hope my students bring a variety of different political, philosophical and social opinions to our class discussions because I want us to learn from each other,” he said. “That’s not possible if we all have the same perspectives.”

It’s also why he chose to participate in UMW’s Courageous Conversations series, a collection of videos featuring faculty exploring ideas of diversity and inclusion. Rao tackles the topic of free speech in the 21st century and discusses the role colleges and universities play in preparing students to engage in civil discourse in a polarized world.

“A university campus is a place where students are engaging in courageous conversations daily,” said Rao, who holds a B.A. in philosophy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in rhetoric and communications from the University of Pittsburgh. “This project demonstrates not just that we need to engage, but that we must learn how to do so in a respectful and professional way that helps us seek out the best answers. It reflects how we can collaboratively develop and test new and different ideas.”

 

 

Q: What brought you to Mary Washington?
A: I became acquainted with UMW when I visited the campus as an undergraduate when I was on Pittsburgh’s debate team. Though they were fierce competitors, I had great interactions with UMW students, who were bright, hard-working, energetic and motivated. Tim O’Donnell, who is a communications professor and now Associate Provost for Academic Engagement and Student Success, told me about the position in 2002. Because I held UMW in such high regard, I knew it was an opportunity that I wanted to explore.

Q: How do institutions of higher education find the balance between free speech and allowing inflammatory discourse on campus?
A: There are ideas that could be offensive to others, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them. We should critically engage those ideas, discuss what may make them offensive, and we should always be willing to engage in civil discourse. A college campus that doesn’t allow free speech isn’t really participating in the intellectual enterprise that we take pride in at Mary Washington. But in the same way you can’t shout “Fire!” in a public theater, you can’t encourage violence or harm toward others. Public safety is always a consideration. Our words have consequences and we should show concern for how our words impact others.

Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: I love helping students develop their own voice, particularly those who are apprehensive about public speaking. Through my role as director of the Speaking Center, I haven’t experienced anyone who we aren’t able to help speak confidently in front of an audience. We hear all the time from employers and graduate schools how prepared UMW students are to succeed.

Q: What role has social media played in creating conflicts and can it be instrumental in finding a way out of them?
A: There are reasons to be pessimistic, because the echo chamber reinforces the worst of your own ideas. But social media also provides great opportunities for reaching out of those silos in ways we were never able to do in previous generations.

Q: What is the one thing in your office that means the most to you?
A: I have a picture of my son, who is a sophomore at UMW, giving a speech outside of Harvard’s Widener Library, and a picture of my daughter debating the British National Debate team. I also have photos and art work by my younger son and daughter.

Q: What is one of your favorite Mary Washington memories?
A: When Congressman John Lewis spoke at commencement, right after the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. I took him to see the bust of James Farmer, and he shared stories about him and the work they did together.

Q: What are you currently reading or have read recently that inspired you?
A: I just started “When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel Pink, and I’m reviewing a variety of open educational resources for public speaking.