Thursday, July 06, 2006

Seeking comments: teaching philosophy

Several associate professors at Grady College are building teaching portfolios this summer. My goal in participating is to think about how I teach and what I can do to improve, because as a tenured professor I can afford to take risks and do some experimentation in the class room.

Our first step is to write a statement of teaching philosophy. Below is the draft I'm submitting to the group. It's long, but I welcome any comments, pro or con, while I have time to reflect and revise on it. The final version will (eventually) be posted on the Grady Web site. Here goes:

The dominant paradigm in public relations calls for symmetry between an organization and its publics. Based on Jurgen Habermas’ concept of an “ideal speech situation,” this paradigm suggests that even though an organization may be more powerful than its constituents, the relationship between them can still be ethical if the organization engages in real dialogue and relationship building with other groups. This model is normative, however, and rarely describes what actually happens in organizations. This is reflected in how public relations is usually taught: one study found that although the most popular PR textbooks all advocate symmetry, the majority of each book focuses on how to persuade publics to agree with the organization’s views.

In contrast, the “new PR” or “PR 2.0” stems from “social media” communication channels like blogging that allow for dialogue and collaborative decision-making between an organization and members of its publics. Its primary characteristics include conversation, transparency, loss of control, collaboration, multiple methods of message delivery, and authenticity. These characteristics mirror many of my beliefs about what happens in the classroom. In fact, to me, teaching is like the new PR.

As I see it, my responsibility as a teacher is to facilitate learning by developing a role for students in creating and sharing knowledge. Because I see learning as active and collaborative, I try to develop conversation between instructor and students, student and other students, and students and outside sources ranging from reference librarians to public relations professionals. For example, I regularly require students to work in teams, make oral presentations to classmates, post comments on weblogs about public relations, and write public relations materials based on current public relations cases or with actual clients.

Transparency in teaching refers to explaining to students what we’re doing and why. Sometimes this occurs in the classroom, as when I tell students which clients they’ll be working with or why we’re studying one organization rather than another. But it also happens on my blog, Teaching PR (, where I write about issues relating to teaching and where students, former students, and anyone else is free to comment on what I write. I have used the blog to develop assignments, discuss curricular issues, communicate with professionals, and even just complain. Transparency leads to another characteristic, however, that isn’t always easy: loss of control. As soon as I post on my blog, I lose control of what other people think or say about what I’ve written, and people frequently post comments disagreeing with what I’ve said. Of course, like a large corporation, a blogger never has had control of what people think or say; what’s different is that open communication by its nature invites criticism as well as praise. If people learn most through exchange, then the conversation should lead to better teaching over time.

Although my teaching load centers on undergraduate public relations courses, I have found that collaboration works in other classes as well. When I teach graduate seminars, whether on public relations or on media history, students are expected to produce original research, but I ask them to collaborate in the sense that throughout the semester they are given opportunities to share problems and ask each other questions about their work. These discussions range from advice on relevant communication theories to more mundane topics like how to search Internet databases more effectively. Whenever possible, I also offer students the opportunity to contribute to decision-making about which topics should be covered in a course and to follow up on things that interest them. After a seminar on PR management, for example, a group of five students worked with me on an independent study about catastrophe management, which included a trip to New York City to meet with experts on crisis communication.

One of the criticisms of the idea of “second-generation PR” is that it hasn’t really displaced the “old” PR. The practice is still grounded in persuasion; most people don’t use blogs or other social media; and most organizations aren’t willing to cede control of decision-making to collaborative conversations. This also applies to teaching. There are specific theories, principles, formats, and methods that students must learn in order to perform in their jobs and to understand the field. This means that the lecture-discussion format, like traditional PR methods, remains an important part of teaching, one that I certainly have not abandoned. However, I find PR 2.0’s emphasis on multiple methods of message delivery worthy of emulation. As I see it, my role is to present information, make resources available, point students in different directions, give a variety of assignments that require different types of learning, and allow students to take charge of their own education.

Active learning and collaborative learning are popular buzzwords now, and the use of the computer or Internet in teaching is frequently advocated as appealing to the current generation of students. I have always focused on “participation” or “hands-on” work, because this is inherent in public relations practice. This, to me, is where authenticity comes in. It seems only appropriate to me to push past participation to collaboration by granting at least some of the power in the classroom to the students. This can mean transparency in admitting, “I don’t know, but let’s find out,” or collaborative decision-making in giving the students an assignment and letting them take charge of how they will approach it with only minimal guidance from me. By modeling characteristics like conversation, transparency, and collaboration, I can show students how the new PR might work and at the same time teach them to think critically and creatively, employ a variety of tools and methods, and become confident in their own abilities to identify and solve problems—skills that should serve them in public relations and in life.

I like this, and I'm pleased to find I'm not the only person who compares teaching to PR practice. (The stresses are very different, of course, but I find teaching more challenging and more fulfilling...)
Richard, I've been thinking about this more over the last few days and what it comes down to is that both PR and PR education depend on good (meaning both effective and ethical) communication. I don't have a ton of experience in PR practice, but I, too, find teaching much more fulfilling!
I think this is an interesting parallel that I've never considered. It does a great job of connecting the two- pr practice & education.

I have not read very much since graduating about the new wave of public relations (PR 2.0) and have not considered the relationship of things like blogging to teaching AND practice. It's very interesting to see how much the industry can change so quickly with technological trends. Just four years ago (when I graduated) blogging was not nearly as popular as it is now. Add to that a load of advancements in everything from cellular phones to the MySpace craze and I imagine the front of PR is very different.

As far as your teaching philosophy goes, I think that your statements are accurate and your philosophy is great. I've always appreciated the way you treat your students. It's not merely a lecture series where you put yourself in the position of the expert, but instead you allow the learning to take place amongst groups of students with relevent topics. You have always maintained transparency, authenticity, collaboration and used multiple methods of delivery to get your message across.

I think the exerpt is well-written and insightful. Keep me posted of anything else you add!
Melissa, it's good to hear from you. Thanks for your comments-- I'm glad to hear that you think my principles are reflected in the classroom. Your opinion as a former student means a lot!

Keep in touch.
"As I see it, my responsibility as a teacher is to facilitate learning by developing a role for students in creating and sharing knowledge."

Dr. Russell--You did the above so well! Having you for three of my undergraduate PR classes, I can attest to that.

I've never heard of PR 2.0!! Certainly it makes sense in practice, but I had yet to hear of it within research.

I agree with you that the two-way symmetrical system is normative. Symmetry is difficult because one side usually is more dominant than the other, so it cannot exist.

Comparing teaching to blogging is interesting. I like the idea of transparency and loss of control, but again how much control should one give up on a blog and in the classroom? The teacher is like the host site of the blog, then? They lead discussion threads and engage in dialogue, which allows them to still have some control and oversight. How would transparency and authenticity fit into this?

It's a very interesting topic - one that makes me miss graduate school!

Thanks for sharing Dr. R, and I look forward to your comments!

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"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" --Bertrand Russell

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