Learning in the course of teaching

Barbara Barnett found inspiration in different perspectives of students, women, underrepresented groups and military

Summer 2019 Edition

Sometimes, the path of a person’s life turns on the most innocuous of conversations. For Professor Barbara Barnett, it was one of those moments — an offhanded comment she doesn’t even remember — that led to her becoming a professor and teaching at KU.

Barnett, who started at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 2003, retired at the end of this school year. How she got here hinged on a remark she made while she was director of communications for the North Carolina Hospital Association. While working on a partnership for a grant with the University of North Carolina journalism school, she offhandedly mentioned that she might like to teach someday. The next week, she got a phone call: someone at UNC was going on academic leave, and the school was looking for a fill-in. She agreed and was hooked and still remembers her first class: “It was so much fun because those students were so eager and so enthusiastic, and it was really interesting to see the world through their eyes.”

She taught a couple of classes and then after a 25-year career in which she worked as a newspaper reporter and a public relations professional, she decided to quit her job, and she earned her Ph.D. at North Carolina. At the time, the KU J-School was looking for someone to teach an introduction to mass communications class, which Barnett taught at North Carolina.A friend of hers who had worked at the Wichita Eagle told Barnett that Lawrence was a lot like Chapel Hill and she would like it. However, having lived her entire life in North Carolina in close proximity to the ocean, Barnett wasn’t sure she could live landlocked in the middle of the country.

After her visit to Lawrence, interview at the J-School, and dinner with students, she decided KU was going to be a good fit.

“I felt that this is a place where everyone will work to help me, and that turned out to be true,” Barnett said.

Since she had worked in both news and strategic communication fields, she was a good match for the new curriculum that was instituted by Dean Jimmy Gentry.

“I understood how news helped PR, and I understood how PR helped news, and so I think that was an advantage coming in as a teacher,” Barnett said. “I think my skill set matched what KU needed at the time, which was somebody who could teach a lot of different courses, who could teach on both sides of the curriculum.”

That varied professional experience helped students learn all facets of the communications world. Lauren Erickson, director of marketing communications at KU, said Barnett set her up for continued success in journalism classes, internships and her career.

“She really challenged me, pushed me, to think critically, pay attention to the world around me, and to write well,” Erickson said.

Barnett said one of the most gratifying parts of her career is that she also learned something new every day from the students.

“I remember this quote from when I first started to teach, about somebody saying that a teacher is the giver of eyes, that you help students learn to see,” Barnett said.“Well, they helped me learn to see because they have totally different life experiences, totally different perspectives.”

It was that relatability that created a bond between Barnett and Jess Skinner.

Skinner, senior director of special events at KU Endowment, didn’t know anyone when she moved from North Carolina to the J-School for graduate school. Wandering the halls one day, she stopped in Barnett’s office to ask a question. She noticed that Barnett also was from North Carolina, and that made her feel a little less alone.

“I didn’t know at the time, but she would go on to be one of my professors and the chair of my graduate dissertation committee,” Skinner said. “She really became a mentor to me and then a friend.”

Barnett also was on the thesis committee for Rhonda LeValdo, who received her master’s degree from the J-School in 2009 and is now a professor of media communications at Haskell Indian Nations University.


“Professor Barnett comes across as a genuine person who really wants students to succeed,” LeValdo said. “She is so kind, and I really felt comfortable in her classes. She always did wonderful constructive criticisms on our work as well, so it didn’t feel too harsh but again, wanting to make sure our stories and projects were going to be good.”

LeValdo also praised Barnett’s research on diversity and women in journalism — how underrepresented groups are stereotyped by the media, and the inequities that women and minorities face.

“So many students aren’t aware of the issues different groups face, whether that is race, culture, religion or sexual orientation,” LeValdo said.“Those things are what I teach other journalists about, the stereotypes of Native Americans in media.”


• B.A., English, Pembroke State University
• M.A., liberal studies, Duke University
• Ph.D., journalism and mass communications, UNC-Chapel Hill
• Mary Ann Yodelis Smith Award for Feminist Scholarship, AEJMC
• Katich Creativity Award, William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications
• “Motherhood in the Media: Infanticide, Journalism and the Digital Age” (2016)

Another legacy Barnett leaves is her work with the military. She was brought on board when KU received a grant from the McCormick Foundation to develop a media and the military program. The school developed a program to hold joint classes with Fort Leavenworth to help military officers become better communicators.

“Military people and journalists both love the First Amendment but in very different ways,” Barnett said. “The military are fighting for you to have it, and journalists are fighting to practice it.”

Through her work with the military, she attended a national conference on research about post-traumatic stress disorder, and she started researching PTSD in journalists. That’s when she realized that journalists had no resources available to assist them with the experiences they had been through while covering war, violence and conflict.

“I am proud of some of the research I’ve done, I’m proud of the media and the military program because that was crafted out of nothing, and it turned into something that I think was helpful,” Barnett said.

Barnett is also grateful to have been a part of so many students’ lives, and she’ll miss the daily interaction with them. She’ll also miss being a part of the KU community.

“I’ll miss the Jayhawk camaraderie, being part of this big institution where you can go anywhere in the world and see somebody with a Jayhawk and say, ‘Oh yeah, me too!’ ” Barnett said.

While there are some things she wished she could have done in her career, she is ready to relax and enjoy retirement. The first order of business is to move near a beach. She also would like to travel, teach adults to read, do some freelance writing, and work with international students in some way. And even though that will keep her still quite busy, she’s looking forward not having a schedule.

“I’ve been really excited about retiring, and I just started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to have a schedule, and what will I do all day? Every minute has wrapped around work. And I said something to a friend about how I don’t know what I’ll do, and he said, ‘Well, you can spend time now with the people who love you,’ and I thought, that is so true. So one of the things I’ll be doing is spending more time with the people I love and the people who love me, so I’m looking forward to that.”

– Julie Adam

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