Texas Tech University

Agricultural Professor Combines Media, Farming Knowledge to Educate Future Communications Specialists

George Watson

June 9, 2020

Erica Irlbeck

Erica Irlbeck received a 2020 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2020 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

With a background in both communications and agriculture, it would only make sense that Erica Irlbeck is passing along her knowledge to the next generation of students at Texas Tech University. There was a moment of hesitation, however.

While working in sales at a local television station, Irlbeck had the idea of going back to school to get her master's degree, but was concerned about the time and cost. With encouragement from her family, however, Irlbeck took the leap, and it helped launched her to where she is today.

She discovered the love of teaching future agricultural communicators while pursuing her master's degree. Now, as an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Education & Communications in Texas Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, Irlbeck is a leader both on campus and nationally in developing communications avenues through video as well as agricultural crisis communication.

She is the superintendent of the Texas Future Farmers of America (FFA) Agricultural Communications Career Development Event, a committee member for the National FFA Agricultural Communications Career Development Event and an officer for the Western Region American Association for Agricultural Education.

Irlbeck earned the Distinguished Young Educator Award in 2015 and, earlier this year, was awarded the 2020 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching Award.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
I focus my research on several areas. I like to do research projects around video production and agriculture, examine how we can improve our communication through video so we can better reach whatever audience we are trying to reach, be it producers, consumers or potentially students. Another area of interest is risk and crisis communications. If you work in communications, you're going to have to deal with a crisis-communication scenario at some point. In this research, I like to look at different scenarios that occurred to see how communications were handled, who handled them well and how we can learn from this. From there we can implement that into our courses because, again, our graduates will probably have to deal with a crisis of some sort. How can I best prepare them to deal with these types of things in a positive way?

Another area of research I really enjoy doing is anything that can help us improve our department. We've done a lot of research with current students, alumni and industry to see what we need to be teaching based on comments from the industry. Are our students getting the type of education that they expect from us, and are we preparing them for the agricultural communications industry?

What projects are you working on at this time?
Right now I am in the finishing stages on a project to train doctoral students studying agriculture, more specifically plant and soil sciences, on how to communicate scientific information in a way that it can be easily understood by the public. We're working on things like distilling your message and having confidence when speaking in public. We do media training and social media training with them. That project is wrapping up, but I am in the process of working on a grant to submit to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue that project.

What areas are you interested in for future research?
I'm an old TV reporter, so anything I can do in the area of video production is always going to be an interest for me. But I really want to continue doing the crisis communication research. Something I've seen lately is that a lot of alums, both from Texas Tech and other agricultural communications programs, have had to communicate about some sort of natural disaster – fire, flood, tornadoes. Those have happened a lot recently, and so that's an area I want to see, what did they do well, what can we teach students about this and what how can we prepare our students to handle these types of things? That's a pretty likely thing that an agricultural communicator may have to communicate about.

What rewards do you get from teaching?
The reward I get from teaching is seeing my students succeed. I get really excited when I see students accept their dream job, be it right out of college or 5-10 years down the road. I'm so pleased when I see them doing well and see that they're happy and making a difference in the agricultural industry.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
As a master's student I was asked to help teach a class and I really enjoyed it. I realized at that point I wanted to continue my career through teaching.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
Texas Tech has been very supportive of teaching and research. They are really great for providing resources, such as the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center, to help us improve our teaching. There's a teaching conference coming up in a few weeks that is really great and is no expense to us. It really helps inspire better teaching methodology. Texas Tech has been really great at helping us grow, and in my opinion there's always room for improvement. So anytime there's something like that offered in Lubbock, I go because I always get something out of it. For research, especially grant writing, the Office of Research Services is great. They are very helpful in the proposal-development process. They help us prepare our budget and get our grant projects submitted to the funding agencies.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
It starts with my parents, who placed a strong emphasis on education and made sure I had the opportunity to go to college. My husband has been very supportive of my career. There was a moment when I was considering going to grad school. I worked for eight years before graduate school but I was hesitant because it was expensive, and I didn't think we could, financially, do it. And he said, "I would never tell you we can't afford your education, so if you want to go back and get your master's degree, go." That was all I really needed to hear.

I can give a lot of credit to (professor and associate dean for academic and student programs) Cindy Akers, who, aside from my mom, encouraged me to go to grad school, and then she was my dissertation chair. (Department of Agricultural Education & Communication professor) David Doerfert was an instrumental mentor in my development as a graduate student and then as a faculty member. I can thank (former Department of Agricultural Education & Communication chairman) Steve Fraze for hiring me in the first place. I have a great department that is filled with really great people who are supportive, encouraging, innovative and helpful. The department as a whole is wonderful and I can't think of any other place I'd rather work.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
It's easy to teach when you have great students. I have been extremely blessed to have students who want to be here, want to learn, are respectful, and they teach me stuff all the time. Sometimes they're so good and so teachable that it doesn't feel like it's a whole lot of work to do my job. It's fun to come to work every day and work with them.