Our PR classrooms need a few more grizzly bears

On Twitter last week:

Me: Is gender balance coming to PR? 5 of 20 in my PR Case Studies class are male. 75/25 is way better than the 90/10 we’ve been seeing.

Rebecca (current student): The question is: How many men will remain after you return their first assignment?

Jackie (former student): I just don’t think the guys could stand the criticism. And we all know you have no problem shredding crappy writing. :)

Me: Are you saying I’m not nuturing? :-)

Jackie: Baha! You’re as nuturing as a grizzly ;)

*      *      *

Jackie and Rebecca are outstanding professionals inside and outside the classroom, so neither received a lot of criticism from me. But they both know I can dish it out. Some 19 years after arriving at Kent State, I’m told some students see me as an intimidating taskmaster. A select few, it’s said, actually fear me. Hard to believe, huh?

But I’m convinced students benefit from a few grizzly bear encounters in the classroom. After all, they’re about to enter a world that’s full of them.

My high school, complete with politically incorrect mascot.

My most memorable grizzly bear encounter came in high-school, and his name was Sterling T. Nichols. Mr. Nichols busted my chops at every opportunity and seemed to savor it. He didn’t have much use for long-haired hippie wannabes like me. And, Jackie, he had no peer when it came to “shredding crappy writing.” I learned from the best.

Mr. Nichols was faculty adviser of the school newspaper, and I spent two years under his thumb. He was on my case daily — a  taskmaster, I tell you — and downright intimidating. I was too cocky to fear him, which may have been my salvation.

When one of my anti-administration editorials earned Mr. Nichols a trip to the front office, I figured my stint on the High Arrow was over. Principal McGee must have reamed old Sterling a new one, as he was mighty pale on his return to the classroom.

Mr. Nichols called me aside to say that my “sorry ass” had brought him a lotta grief that day. Then he shook my hand.

“For once, you finally did something to make a difference around here.”

When I left for journalism school later that year, Mr. Nichols didn’t shake my hand or wish me luck. It wasn’t his style. A year later, he told a good friend that I’d made a mistake and would surely fail in my chosen career track. His comment motivated me to work even harder — just to spite the old bird.

Tough love? We didn’t call it that back in the 70s. And today I think they’d call it harassment. But as Grandma always told me, it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.

But Mr. Nichols’ grizzly growl still haunts me from the grave, complete with Southern drawl and disapproving glare. “Sledzik! What in the HAY-ell do you think yer doin’?” Then I’d duck, just in case an eraser was flying my way.

Since the late 70s, the “self esteem” movement has made the classroom a mellower place. They have group hugs now, and you get awards for just showing up. But don’t you worry that performance suffers as a result? I’m not suggesting Mr. Nichols’ growling style is the answer. But what’s wrong with high expectations mixed with a little stress?

I’m not as tough as Sterling T. Nichols. But I’d sure be flattered if one of my students, 40 years hence, were to write a post like this about me. And if you do, I promise to make a copy for Mr. Nichols, as we’ll surely be in the same place by then. Look for us at the bar, having a beer with Beelzebub.

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15 Responses to Our PR classrooms need a few more grizzly bears

  1. Chuck Hemann says:

    Hey Bill –

    I have a hard time envisioning you as a grizzly bear, taskmaster like Rebecca and Jackie, but I’m guessing that’s only because I never had you as a professor.

    That being said, I think providing some “tough love” is the only way folks are going to learn how to handle criticism when they enter the “real world.” Life in PR, either agency or corporate, isn’t for the faint of heart. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You’ll encounter bosses, clients and even colleagues who look like they’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed….EVERYDAY!

    One other thing worth mentioning… I never feared any professor until grad school. When I started my research methods course at the University of Akron I had heard horror stories about Dr. Jessie Marquette. Not that he wasn’t a nice guy, but that he might be one of the smartest human beings alive. Well, on the first day of class he did three things that made me fear him:

    1. Wrote the multiple regression formula from memory on the board
    2. Asked if any of us had taken a methods course before and then pronounced that he would assume we were all “dumb,” regardless of the answer.
    3. That self-esteem was the biggest load of BS he’d ever encountered in his professional career.

    Needless to say, I got a B+ (lets not go there – it’s still a sore subject for me), but think about my experience in his class daily. So…maybe the tough love works?

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for the comment, Chuck. Fact is, I’m a virtual Teddy bear compared to a couple of others on our faculty. But the PR students never see those instructors, so I get to be the heavy for our major.

    We do students no favors by letting marginal work slide by. Cannot tell you how much writing I’ve had to shred unmercifully, only to have the students tell me they earned A’s in English thorough high school and college.

    What am I to say? The system has cheated you? Often it has. But that “system” includes more than educators. If parents could somehow instill a love for reading in their kids, most of these problems would go away. Reading teaches both good writing and clear thinking. Until that happens, the Grizzly bear lives in my classroom!

  3. Andy Curran says:

    Wait a minute. This is too weird. The Asst. Principal at Worthington HS, my alma mater, was Sterling T. Apthorp. And he was a tough SOB, too. How odd is it that two people who know each other so well would both have teachers named Sterling T. SomethingOrOther?

  4. Bill Huey says:

    Yeah, one of the things I couldn’t stomach about teaching was all the social work and “nurturing” expected by students who seemed to be still in high school. The dingaling evaluation forms the university put in their hands at the end of every semester only reinforced their juvenile tendencies.

    But old Sterling T. may have been just the tonic for you, because from the looks of your prom photo you seemed on the way to becoming a blackjack dealer.

    And no–regrettably–I think PR is one of the most gender imbalanced and least diverse professional services businesses in America, thanks in no small part to the universities.

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Cannot disagree with your assessment, Bill, though I have no evidence (other than correlation) to support it. Beefore PR became a red-hot major in J-Schools and Comm Departments, the gender balance was fairly even. Today, it’s completely outta whack.

    So, you wanna double down?

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik, BillSledzik and Rebecca Odell, Mark Stoneman. Mark Stoneman said: Excellent post for those who teach: RT @BillSledzik: In defense of the classroom grizzly bear. Careful. He bites! http://bit.ly/4z6l3B [...]

  7. Rich Becker says:

    Hey Bill,

    Your trending tends to match my own. For the past ten years, my classes have been predominantly female at a ratio of about 9/10.

    I’m not sure where we’ll be this year, as early enrollment for the class seems exceptionally light in the wake of the university increasing fees by 10-20 percent.

    However, the need for grizzlies is more important than ever. As I told our intern (who came out of last year’s classes), I have a hard time remembering students who do nothing. While I remember them all, the ones who stand out in class ask questions, engage, and challenge. We need more of that in the field.

    Best,
    Rich

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      I posted this on Twitter, but it belongs here, too. On Day Two of the spring semester, my cast of 5 males dropped to just 3. So maybe Jackie and Rebecca are are on to something. Are today’s young men unwilling to face the grizzly bear? Or are they intimidated when surrounded by women who are intellectually equal, and often superior to them?

      Some on-campus research we did two years ago (results are not generalizable, even to Kent State) indicates that a lot of the men were put off by the intense writing requirements of the PR major. And they tended to view PR as a “chick” major.

  8. Nancy Breedon (Bevan) says:

    Bill,

    Dealing with a few grizzly bears in the advertising sequence (and a few taxidermist-treated ones at Gander Mountain), your ethics class was a “break” from the academic beat-downs. Now, I’m not saying you aren’t a tough professor. In my opinion, you’re the rare kind of teacher that manages to balance. You’re challenging when it comes to your students acting (and writing) as professionals, however, you exude the same kind of professionalism and respect for your students.

    I’ve had teachers in college and high school who were rotten to the core, bitter and uncaring. I’m not sure if they had ever enjoyed their jobs, even when they were fresh-faced youngsters like Kent’s recent graduates. It’s those teachers who won’t be remembered for inspiring anything positive in students.

    My best teachers showed me that only the weak crumble from criticism without learning from it, and that failure in class was my own fault. My parents taught me that kindness and honest, hard work are the keys to good character. These people never “took it easy” on me. I’m 23, married, and STILL afraid of my parents, teachers, and authority figures, but I respect them.

    Students need to encounter grizzly bears. Most of their parents, in an effort to give the children better opportunities, babied and spoiled these students into believing they “earned the right” to a college education. They treat the professors the same way, a la “I PAY YOUR SALARY, PROFESSOR! KEEP MY GPA UP!” I say give them their parents’ money’s worth. I can ensure you that most of your students will appreciate (in this life or the next) the real-world perspective you give them.

    Give ‘em hell this semester, and all the best to you!

    Nancy

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Pleased you dropped by, Nancy. Thanks for the compliment.

    You, like Jackie and Rebecca who triggered this post, didn’t need a whole lot of growling — at least not by the time you hit my classroom. And for those who wonder about the Gander Mt. reference, that’s where Nancy worked when she wasn’t busy being an A student or planning a wedding.

    You mention the “I pay your salary” complaint from students. That’s becoming more and more of a problem of late — students viewing their college education as a consumer purchase. Sadly, the college experience does not come with a satisfaction guarantee. But if students and faculty would both work a little harder and show a bit more mutual respect, we’d see students who are better prepared to succeed and also happy customers.

  10. Bill Huey says:

    “I pay your salary”? Where do they get that? The poor, long-suffering taxpayer pays about two-thirds of the cost of educating these sad sacks at a state school, and they need to be reminded of it often.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      There was a time in Ohio when the state paid around 70% of the bill. That was back when I was in school at OU, and being an out-of-state resident, I paid nearly 3 times the tuition of residents (a whopping $2,000 per academic year).

      I don’t want to cite a number without a little research, but I think the state’s share is now less than 40%. Nevertheless, the taxpayers still make a sizable contribution.

  11. Jason C says:

    Hmmm…interesting. While I’m not fond of grizzly bears, I will admit that the grizzly bear of Media Relations has made most of my other classes out to be Teddy bears. I’m not sure when my good bs-ing turned into good writing, but I’d bet it was during your mauling of my work.

  12. [...] most sensitive person. I expect a lot from students, and I don’t coddle them. But even the old grizzly bear has made concessions to the Millennial ego. For instance, I no longer use the label [...]

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