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Q&A with UA professor Kory Floyd, recipient of 2020 Mark L. Knapp Award

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University of Arizona Professor Kory Floyd was this year's Mark L. Knapp award recipient. Courtesy: Michael Chansley 

The National Communication Association recently honored University of Arizona professor Kory Floyd with the 2020 Mark L. Knapp Award in Interpersonal Communication. According to the NCA website, Floyd was decided as a recipient based on both his pioneering research and his status as a “role model for public intellectualism.”

Floyd is a professor in the communications department at the UA where he studies the role affection plays in our lives. He has published a myriad of textbooks, journal articles and the widely released nonfiction book "The Loneliness Cure."

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The Daily Wildcat sat down to have a conversation with Floyd reflecting on his research, his role as a mentor and his career thus far. 

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Daily Wildcat: Can you tell me a bit about your research and what you study?

Kory Floyd: What I study in particular is the communication of affection in close relationships and what affection does for us. When we’re affectionate with other people it doesn’t just make us feel good mentally or psychologically — it makes us feel good physically. So, I’m really interested in what’s happening in the body when people are sharing affection with each other and in what ways that may be good for us and our health.

DW: What are your current and future research projects?

KF: One thing that my research collaborators and I are thinking about a lot is why some people are just naturally more affectionate than others. We’re now thinking the possibility that genetics is some of what accounts for how affectionate a given person is. We just finished one of the more interesting studies that I think I’ve ever done in my career, which was a study on pairs of twins. We discovered that almost half of the variation in how affectionate people are is attributable to genes, but that was only true for women. This opens up some interesting new questions for us. So, I think this is going to be a major focus of my research over the next several years.

DW: What initially drew you to this research subject?

KF: I grew up in a really affectionate family. So, I thought that was how families related to each other. When I became a teenager, I started to discover that that not everybody was comfortable with that behavior. I just remember being really perplexed by that — by the idea that somebody would not welcome affection. I filed that away in the back of my brain as one of those mysteries about human behavior that I was never going to understand. 

But, when I went to graduate school in communication, I needed a question to study. That question about affection resurfaced in my brain and that got me into studying affection. Then I realized I had a lot of other questions about it that were interesting to me. I started graduate school in 1992 and it continues to be interesting to me almost 30 years later. 

DW: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

KF: A couple things. One is the idea that I study something that everybody can relate to in one way or another. We are relational beings — that’s baked into our DNA in a way. We don’t all need the same number of friends or the same number of people in our lives but we all need some measure of relational experiences. Affection is one of the most fundamental way that we form, maintain and gauge our relationships. I’ve come to consider it an essential human need. 

DW: Given your diverse body of writing, what has it been like communicating your research to such different audiences and in such different formats?

KF: It’s been really fun. As a college professor, we’re trained to write for other academics. But, in recent years, I have followed opportunities to speak to a broader audience. The best experience was when I wrote my popular press book about loneliness. 

What I did not anticipate is how many people who read that book reached out to me in one form or another to say ‘your book really resonated with me.’ On one hand that’s super gratifying and encouraging to hear because it means that you’re speaking to an experience that a lot of people can relate to. On the other hand, when it’s a book about loneliness, it makes me a little sad that so many people can relate to it. 

I’ve also been super surprised by how many students around the country who are taking classes that use one of my textbooks write to me. I write back to every single student who reaches out to me, no matter what they have to say. I just think it’s amazing that students and people who read my book take the time to engage in a dialogue that way. 

My favorite story was a Catholic priest who reached out after reading my book who said he really struggled with loneliness in his life and that in his profession as a priest he doesn’t have some of the same opportunities for relationships that other people have. So, I wrote him back and it’s probably been close to four years that we’ve been writing. It’s been really gratifying for me to help him, learn from him and listen to him.

DW: What does being a good mentor mean to you?

KF: I think one of the most important things I can do for budding academics is to help them figure out what their question is going to be. We all have questions inside of us. I ask them to think about who besides yourself would benefit from answering your question? Who else needs to know the answer? If it’s just you, it’s probably not a good research question. We should do research that at least has the potential to benefit people beyond ourselves. So, I press them to do that and that's a process. 

Another thing I really strive to do with my students is to listen to them and give them the freedom to allow their ways of seeing the world to evolve. Every student that I advise comes to me with different strengths and different needs and I try to figure out what those are and who they need me to be to support them best. I think it is the student’s responsibility and my own to continually adapt to each other if the relationship is going to be successful. I love mentoring. It’s probably the hardest thing that I do. But it’s also the most rewarding thing that I do in my job I think by far.

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DW: Is there anything else you would like to say about receiving this award?

KF: The award is something that reminds me of how fortunate I am to get to do the job that I do, to get to spend my days thinking and reading and teaching and studying something that is super interesting to me. 

I am also so fortunate to have so many terrific graduate students and collaborators across the country. It’s an award for a body of research and I didn’t do almost any of that research alone. It’s been an ongoing collaboration.

The award makes me excited to look ahead to another several years of getting to learn and study and communicate more with students and with the public. I just think what I do is endlessly interesting and useful.


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