Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dueling news conferences

Got to see my Wal-Mart news conference idea in action yesterday, and was I impressed. Not with my idea but with how well the students executed it.

I set up a meeting with Sheila Devaney, who's the UGA reference librarian assigned to Grady. She put the two teams (5 members each) in front of computers, and I went back to my office to write the midterm exam (actually, my students are taking the test now, which is why I've got enough time to post twice this week). The next day I showed up in the class room, and the teams were ready to go. The first team, representing the union, ran through a litany of Wal-Mart employee abuses (yes, Mr. Fishman, they found the health care memo you mentioned) and ended with a call for unionization. The second team, representing Wal-Mart, explained all the programs the company offers and noted that Wal-Mart is not all that different from other retailers, in some cases better, in terms of wages and benefits. They even had pulled together a PowerPoint presentation.

I couldn't believe both teams had found and synthesized so much information and developed such credible presentations in such short time. They even handled questions from the "journalists" (class members not on the teams) in a fairly reasonable fashion--not as smoothly as professionals, but pretty well given that they had less than 24 hours to learn it all.

I would definitely recommend this type of assignment to other PR instructors. It not only met three of the recommendations presented by UGA's task force to improve undergraduate education--collaborative learning, oral presentation, and using campus resources--but it served as a big eye-opener for me, because it showed me how much I can expect of them and how well they rose to the challenge. Now it's wait and see how next week's project, a debate between the remaining two teams on Wal-Mart and communities, goes....

Update: The CR teams also did a great job, and the debate even got a bit heated because both sides were passionate about the evidence they found for and against Wal-Mart's benefit/harm to communities. The truth, as I see it, is that there are both benefits and harms, so, as Fishman argues in his book, asking whether Wal-Mart is good or bad is the wrong question.

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