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Professor Vaeni: Captures attention by standing out

By Alexandra Gandolfo, Special to The Chronicle

            In today's day and age, with technology booming and the next great app at our fingertips to distract us from our schoolwork, teaching has become a job taken on only by the bravest of souls. This particular situation begs the question: how do you engage your students in ways that will keep their straying fingers and minds from their touch-screen obsession?

            Some teachers take the canonical approach of bow-tied, thick-rimmed sternness, forbidding phones and computers in class. Others take the passive-aggressive approach, lecturing through the habitual tap-tap-tap soundtrack. The most impressive teachers, however, simply do nothing. They don't have to do anything because they have made the material as miraculously engaging as Temple Run or Scramble with Friends.

            While I am equally guilty of adding to collective classroom nonchalance, I was not unmoved by my Public Speaking professor, Kara Lynn Vaeni. Loud, hilarious, and quite the outgoing professor, Vaeni was hard to ignore – even if you wanted to. She swore, told stories of her 90s childhood grunge phase that she never quite grew out, of and connected all of it to the importance of communication with ourselves and with others. Most importantly, she spoke to us as adults, and as adults she engaged us in conversations and humiliating but completely awesome speech exercises that made us so comfortable with one another that we couldn't help but pay attention. I had only one absence all semester, a record by any account. So I sat down with professor Vaeni to see what makes her tick.


What inspired you to be a teacher?           

Dude I don't know. Wait, I have to think. What inspires me to do teaching? The students, because they're awesome and it's fun. I know stuff and I want them to know stuff too. I like teaching classes for majors because they're invested in the material and I like teaching the introduction classes as well because everyone has to take introduction communication classes and I enjoy the challenge. You think it will be boring but I try and help you not fall asleep for the semester. How's that? Do I sound stupid? [Laughs]


Have you always loved being a teacher or has there been a time you questioned your calling?

No. My first theater class, that I taught because theater is so close to my heart, taught me that when people don't love it the way I love it I sort of hate them. So what I discovered is that it's better to teach in a non-theater field so that I don't get offended when students don't like it. I got better though; I don't let the students walk all over me. That was a problem at first. Now I'm like, ‘No you can't be late, can't miss class.'


Once you realized what you wanted to do, did you have any method to the madness, a la John Keating in Dead Poet Society or the Trunchbull in Matilda?

I don't know if you know that I'm also a director of Opera and theater. My desire to direct people in plays is the same desire to force students to learn. [Laughs] Theatrical training pays off in the classroom and I have a short attention span so I have to think of some game or humiliating exercise that makes students learn.


What is the ultimate student pet peeve?

When they talk when I'm talking. Little bastards.


Have your tattoos helped or hindered in the teacher search department?

I'm totally a child of the 90s. Students don't respond differently about it – at least not to my face. They'll say they like them but they've never been put off by it or offended. They shouldn't be; I shouldn't be more radical than my students they should be surprising me.


Speaking of not-so G-rated things, how do you feel about the Arizona State legislature regarding removal of teachers who do not comply with laws stated by the FCC?

I think it's a ridiculous waste of time. If you're that afraid of someone else having an influence on your child's life then keep them at home forever; it's ridiculous. I would never swear if I taught high school, but I can't teach high school because I can't not swear.


Did you have a favorite teacher? Why?

James Kolb – and he's still here. Because he's awesome! He met every student where they were and never talked down to you. He was also really open and never talked about things he wouldn't talk about himself. He held us all to the same standard.

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