Cynthia J. Johnson, Ph.D.Cynthia J. Johnson

1983 Ph.D. in French

Communications Manager in the Office of Advancement, UT Health Science Center at Houston

I was a secondary-school teacher before I came to Rice. Since my undergraduate degree was in classics, I originally thought I’d go into university teaching after graduate school. I loved French, which was my undergraduate minor, and I thought that if I had an MA in Latin and Greek, and a PhD in French, I’d be prepared to teach at the university level in two areas.

While working on my dissertation, I went to France and taught as a lectrice at a university. In the course of my career, I have taught in four universities. But when I came back from Brittany, I took a job as the Director of Graduate Studies for Sonatrach, the Algerian national gas and oil company. It was interesting work. Algeria was undergoing tremendous changes. And it was my introduction to the challenges of international communications.

After leaving Sonatrach, I took a position with Solvay, a Belgian multinational firm. I learned a great deal more there about the communication needs of large enterprises—what works and what does not work—and how to write so that you can be understood by a broad international readership. I dealt with financial, scientific, administrative, legal documents. You name it! Later I took on an additional role as a recruiter at Solvay. We were hiring people to send on international assignments. I also handled language and cultural training for people taking international assignments. My teaching background was very helpful. I worked for Solvay for more than 15 years.

After leaving Solvay, I taught for a time, but I was thinking about finding an administrative position in a non-profit setting. I had nothing against for-profits; I just wanted to put to use what I had learned about management in an academic setting.

Much of what I’m doing now, in my current position as Communications Manager at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UT Health for short) is writing about health care, trying to do it in a compelling way, to help the university navigate a time of great change in health care, to find the right words. We have a very international workplace.

Writing and communications today often have an “insider" vibe. Articles—even news coverage—are full of puns and hip cultural references. Much of it does not translate well into another language, let alone another culture! At both Sonatrach and Solvay, I saw that it was important to write in a transparent style so that one is understood, and to be alert to cultural “membranes” that can distort communications. There are consequences when communications are mismanaged. And that can happen even in writing that you would think is rather straightforward.

My current job is very challenging because it is an environment built around doctors, where relationships among other people who are part of the health care system aren’t well defined. People understand quite readily that the doctor-patient relationship is the primary one in medicine, but it’s not the only thing going on in health care and I think one of the biggest issues not being addressed is the communications problem. It’s not just how lab reports are transmitted. All along the way there are serious communication, cultural, and sociological issues. Now that I’ve worked for many years and I have a broad experience with a rather wide spectrum of communications problems, I feel I can be a troubleshooter.

Looking back at my graduate education, I think that my stylistics class provided me with tools to talk about linguistic and cultural differences. And of course, the study of literature—a broad range of texts—was the heart of the enterprise. Nothing can replace the study of literature, especially the literature of another culture. It’s difficult, demanding, and unbelievably rewarding. When you read a work in the original language and struggle through it you understand things in a unique way. I don’t think there is any experience comparable to that, that “aha” moment when you begin to “get” Proust, for instance. I’m not against translation. I’ve done and supervised a lot of translation, but one has to make the effort to read the original. You have to do something difficult and alien. I think that’s important in one’s intellectual development.

My fellow students in the PhD program at Rice were tremendous. Many of them had gone straight from undergraduate to graduate school. I had been out teaching and I think it gave me a different perspective. Also, I knew that there were parts of teaching that I loved and other aspects of teaching that left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. I like to be involved in making things happen and sometimes in teaching, as much as I loved it, I felt far away from making things happen. The relationship with your students is wonderful. There’s nothing that compares with it; I still feel like a teacher in my heart, but I enjoy an active role in events, such as training people to go to Algeria and negotiate for oil exploration rights.

You have a valuable role to play in the field of communications if you can contribute just plain, raw cultural material that you may know, that you may have studied in depth. And you have to do the hard work, too. Again, skimming through literature in translation is not the thing to do. If you’re reading French, you’re reading French. That’s what you do. Acquire expertise. Do the hard things.

Don’t waste a lot of time. Don’t wait until you graduate to figure out where you might find mentors. And don’t give away your services. That’s ridiculous. You have to learn to value what you do, and make that value clear to other people. Carve out a niche for yourself, develop special techniques, and don’t just be good at everything. Once again, get the experience, do the hard work, get really good at something, get some focus. I think it’s rather common for people in the humanities to have a broad range of interests, to be interested in everything, to think that everything is fun to explore. I’m a lot like that! But unless you want to feel very frustrated 20 years into your career, you’re going to have to pick one thing. Say: Okay, I love a ton of things, but this is something I can do super well and I’ll be interested in doing it for a long time. I won’t be bored with it. I feel I can make a contribution through this.