Monday, October 28, 2013

Ways of Knowing and Teaching PR

An adjunct where I work said to me earlier this semester, "we teach students so they can get jobs." Sounds simple and straightforward. But it's also a little simplistic.

Obviously, the end result for undergraduates will be to leverage their college education into a job. But  teaching is more than mere training, and college is called "higher" education for a reason. Also, most employers actually seek workers who have more than just PR skills, but critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, and theoretical understanding that enhances strategy and initiative. I wrote about this in a recent post about Learning Assessment and PR Education.

The adjunct made this remark in the context of us undergoing searches for new professors for our faculty. The job posting has the typical "PhD preferred" language. The adjunct made it sound like PhD was a liability, as if a PhD guarantees no practical relevance. (Of course, if this adjunct had a PhD they would know not to over generalize like this).

It is true that candidate pools for jobs teaching PR tend to include young people who went straight through school and have little experience practicing PR. Then there is a batch of candidates with professional experience but no advanced degree. I should point out that the PR professors around the country largely include people, like me, who worked in the field and then later sought the PhD and became professors.

However, this candidate pool and discussion with a current adjunct got me thinking about preparation for teaching PR. In my own doctoral studies I had a research class in which the professor talked about different "ways of knowing." He was talking about the various research methods, their advantages and disadvantages, and the importance of choosing the right method relative to what research would be conducted.

With regard to teaching PR, it is important to know what you're teaching. And here also there are two primary ways of knowing. One is the traditional PhD route. Those who criticize hiring young PhDs with little work experience say that their knowledge is all theoretical. Critics say that as if theory  is a bad thing, and that reveals their own lack of knowledge about theory. Far from being impractical, theory explains and predicts behavior, and therefore is useful for giving students and deeper and broader understanding of PR and all its facets. Theory also is based not on a solitary person's experience and opinion, but multiple observations, vetted scientifically.

However, a professional who may not have an advanced degree and broad research and theoretical knowledge does offer students a primary versus secondary understanding of the field. Their experience can fuel their teaching with confidence and concreteness compared to a more abstract big picture perspective.

In short, taking terms from research, PhDs offer reliability--knowledge based on observations that are repeatable--while professionals offer a form of validity, namely face validity--that what is being talked about is grounded in reality and is actually about PR and not some other concept. Another way of saying this is that PhDs can offer quantitative and therefore generalizable views, whereas someone teaching from personal experience has a more qualitative perspective but it can't be generalized necessarily.

Since good research requires both reliability and validity, and since good research design often includes a combination of methods, it follows that a good way to approach teaching PR would involve combining these "ways of knowing." As I mentioned earlier, there are many PR professors who do have both professional experience and a PhD. But many faculties will have a combination of PhDs on tenure-track and full and part-time adjuncts who have years of experience in the field. It would be good for both types of professor to have mutual respect for the other's way of knowing, and seek to learn from each other. PhDs without much experience--or without much recent experience--should be involved with their local PRSA chapter, stay in touch with alumni to learn about their experiences, meet with local professionals, and read the trade publications as well as the academic journals. Adjuncts with professional experience should seek to see their own experience in the larger context of the field, read books and academic journals, attend conferences, meet with colleagues who do have PhDs to learn about theoretical explanations for their experience and assertions.

John Mellencamp once sang "I know a lot of things, but I don't know a lot of other things." I tell my students, you don't know what you don't know. That's a good attitude to have. In the end, the best way of knowing to teach PR is to have an open mind and keep learning.

1 comment:

Tim Penning said...

Just read a blog post from the Global Alliance for PR that speaks of the positive collaboration of academics and practitioners: