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Teaching failure

17 Oct

Teachers have a powerful weapon. It’s not the power of grading, it’s the power of words.

Words can inspire. They can shape perceptions and be memorable. They can – and often do – bore and confuse.

In any one lesson, the same words could have all these effects on different members of the class. So teaching is not a linear, predictable process. It’s more like alchemy.

Humility is useful. It doesn’t matter what I teach: it’s what you learn that counts.

(An elaborate example of how we can no more understand how Stonehenge was used than a future civilization could work out the rules of cricket from the shape of Lord’s cricket ground led to ripples of mirth around my classroom of primary school aged children. All I had succeeded in doing was associate the image of the great stones to a cricket wicket with pictures of some stone age flintstone bowlers and batters in their minds.)

Only this week, I’ve had my teaching praised. I’m not good with compliments, so I’m much more worried about a complaint I recently received years after the event.

A successful graduate in the digital PR space wrote to me recalling a lesson I’d given in their second year:

During a lecture, you once told me that you didn’t think I would make it in the PR industry, an industry which has evolved thanks to the ever growing landscape of digital that now sits hand in hand with social as the main driver of buzz and reputation. You actually said I was forgettable, and I would just like to tell you I’ve never forgotten those words.

If I had said those things, I shouldn’t have – and did apologise in my reply. (It doesn’t seem likely that I could have been this personal in a lecture theatre, but students tend to use lecture/seminar/tutorial interchangeably.) But it doesn’t matter what I said: it only matters what impact my words had.

This was in 2010. I had probably been encouraging the class to wake up to the emerging opportunities in the digital landscape. My intention was to push my students to succeed, not to be personally offensive.

This graduate remembered. They took the trouble to write to me – most courteously – to correct me years later.

I’m ashamed of the short-term impact my words had. But I’m pleased that they were memorable and I’m delighted if they’ve acted as a spur to succeed.

Now, does that make me a bad teacher?

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Journalism is the past, public relations is the future

29 Sep

I have taught public relations to journalism students (undergraduates and postgraduates). I’ve come to realise why they find the transition hard (though they don’t share their lecturers’ negative preconceptions and are invariably open-minded at the outset).

Journalists are trained to report on events that have just happened, or are happening right now. Their reports are written in the past tense (and journalism is often described as the first draft of history).

There are challenges in distinguishing news from noise; there are many practical and ethical obstacles to establishing what happened and reporting it fairly. It’s easy to see that from the reporter’s perspective public relations looks biased and can never represent the whole truth.

The challenge journalism students struggle with is the shift from the past to the future tense.

Public relations involves change – it looks to the future. The aim is to change specific groups’ awareness, attitudes or behaviour by some future point. It’s about mapping out a route from here to there.

And that explains the difficulty. An ability to report the news with accuracy and concision is a valuable transferable skill, but it can’t begin to help with the problem-solving challenge of public relations.

Which groups do you want to reach? How will you achieve this? How will you measure success? How will you persuade the boss or client to back the plan?

In short, public relations is a management discipline that includes elements of media practice. There’s a value to having an outsider’s perspective, but you need to understand about organisations and their environments. You’ll need teamwork to achieve your goals.

This shift from being the lone shark hunting the truth to being an organisational player is a difficult one. I struggled to bring a class with me in the summer as we moved from simple media tactics to the complexities of strategic planning in a few short weeks. I sensed their relief when we returned to a discussion of public relations and propaganda: writing an academic essay proved so much easier than writing a strategic PR plan.

There’s a misguided view that public relations is easy: journalists have all been the recipients of poor pitches and tend to assume they could do the job better. Some do succeed, but many find the going tougher than they had assumed. Reporting what happened this morning is easier than trying to change awareness, attitudes or behaviour in the future.

Graduates: why B2B is the place to be

19 Sep

You want your work to be interesting. You want it to be rewarding and to open up possibilities.

Many students and graduates make the assumption that interesting work involves products or brands they’ve heard of. So this means consumer brands (FMCG – fast moving consumer goods – in the marketing jargon). Many start out with ambitions to work in music or fashion.

By contrast, business-to-business companies are invisible and ‘boring’. Corporate work sounds too, well, grown-up.

Here’s why many are making the wrong call and limiting their career possibilities.

There are some high profile and award winning consumer PR campaigns (everyone cites the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty). But it’s hard to separate out the PR role from marketing. You’ll most likely be working for a boss or client who sees PR as the promotional P in the marketing mix.

This can be fun. It can be creative. But it’s not always well paid and it is potentially career limiting.

Contrast that with ‘boring’ business-to-business or corporate clients. They will usually adopt a PR-first strategy. This isn’t just about money, it’s about effectiveness. When you can name your existing and potential customers, and be specific about who influences them, PR can go beyond broad promotional activity and become much more personal. You’ll already be beyond the awareness-raising level and adopting a thought-leadership approach.

With corporate clients, the language shifts from concerns about promoting brands to concerns about protecting reputation. Target groups include employees and local communities. You are now speaking the language of PR, not of marketing, and learning lessons about the wide variety of corporate PR roles available.

You will start out as a hired writer – of media materials, website and blog content. Finding content requires you to become adept at taking an issues-led rather than product- or company-led approach. You will need to be able to explain and justify this approach to those who seek to change your copy into a crude advertisement.

You may continue in this role into senior posts and become a speech writer for senior executives. Or you may become a leader who can advise senior management on strategy and manage colleagues to deliver the tactics.

But how do you find interest in niche products with no broader appeal? You have to consider the business environment and the impact on jobs. Stop thinking of the product as the story, and start focusing on the issues.

There’s a sweet spot of course where business products crossover into the consumer space. This has happened with computers and telephones and is about to happen with battery technology in cars.

In a word, change is a great driver of PR activity. What’s boring about that?

Lies, damn lies and Unistats

5 Sep

I have a good sense of timing (though others will find my decision baffling).

I have just left a university job having helped put a new course on the map and having achieved a 100% student satisfaction score.

What was I thinking?

I use these stats so no one can accuse me of sour grapes for what I’m about to say.

I should also say that I was a reluctant convert to the current fees arrangement because I believe that universities should be properly funded and feel that a system that is in effect a graduate tax is fairer on everyone than raising general taxation so that a lawyer’s daughter can train to become a doctor at everyone else’s expense.

So I’m not opposed to everything that’s happened in HE in the last decade. But ‘student satisfaction’ is a monster. Let me explain why.

Once you create a market, you unleash the power of marketing. Just look at the amount universities spend on media advertising.

What a marketing-led approach to HE means is that all energies must be devoted to student recruitment (putting on a smile at open days). Once recruited, these students must be retained (so no low marks or fails, please – and do avoid being so boring in lectures). Ultimately, they must be kept happy for three or more years in preparation to the annual National Student Survey taken by final year undergraduates.

It’s true that these are best placed to evaluate their course across three years. But it’s also true that they’re focused on getting the highest degree classification with the lowest amount of risk. So no low marks or critical feedback on semester one assignments, please!

Look around our universities. The bright, primary (school) colours are all about the ‘student experience’. The higher fees have resulted in a building boom to improve facilities – and there’s a huge industry making large profits out of student accommodation in our big cities (again, look for the brightly-coloured buildings in city centres).

The safe spaces, no-platforming, puppy-petting culture is another sign of our student-centred world.

Now, where do lecturers fit into this? To university managers they are a cost. To many students they are the difficult people who set challenging assignments and give critical feedback. Why don’t lecturers simply explain how to do the assignment well?

In a perfect world of student satisfaction and university profitability, you’d do away with them. Except…

I’ve told bosses that you can either have high student satisfaction or be a university. Education is messy; it’s challenging. It involves asking difficult questions. It demands risk taking. It’s wasteful.

So much easier to put the money into marketing.

Then there’s the use of the stats. Every course at every university will look through their NSS results and cherry pick the high marks. So everyone’s a winner!

I share these stats because they look exceptionally good. But look down and there are some concerns:

Marking and assessment has been fair: 62%

‘It’s not fair! I tried really hard and you didn’t give me the mark I wanted!’

So, in order to improve my NSS results I’d have to allow students to mark their own work (that’s only fair). Now you see why the number of Firsts have increased year on year.

If I were in the same job next year, I’d be sitting in front of some university managers explaining why my student satisfaction scores had gone down. I’d have to show the plan I wrote this summer to improve on 100%. No, really.

There are good courses out there; there are good universities providing a supportive environment for good teachers. But you couldn’t tell that just from the student satisfaction results.

In a world of university marketing, everyone is putting on their best show. For prospective students and their parents it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use archaic language (think of student satisfaction).

In world of marketing, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Now, was I good at explaining this? I have a 100% score to maintain. How was my teaching today?

When I were a lad…

20 Jul

I was teased the other day for lapsing into Four Yorkshiremen* territory.

The context was a discussion about the purpose of higher education and how we should free students from timetables and assignments and coach them towards solving big problems.

The problem – as it seems to me – is that secondary education is going the other way and students would feel adrift without the constraining structures we provide in higher education.

Assessments were indeed harder ‘when I were a lad’. My university degree was achieved entirely on the results of a series of three-hour closed-book exams. Luckily, I am good at concentrating for short bursts and rose to the challenge. But I’ve never since been required to hand write an exam script. So was this a valid form of assessment?

My students have it easier at one level. But there’s more to life than grades and exams, and they have to negotiate different challenges.

A typical degree course has multiple modules or units each year. Each of these may have several different forms of assessment at different times in the university calendar. Multiply four modules by three assignments and you have 12 assessment points in the year, say. Miss any of these – or mess up on them – and passing the degree becomes much harder.

Keep this in mind when you read the headlines about grade inflation.

We now have the statistics to back up my sense that there are more Firsts being awarded.

It’s said employers can’t make sense of these awards. So what if a First is no longer an indication of a genius (and a red flag to many sensible employers). Instead, it’s a mark of supreme organisational skills – so becoming a useful guide to a skill employers should admire.

Setting aside the problem of handwriting (I’ve lost this skill after decades of typing) – I’d still choose to be assessed by an exam than by continuous assessment. I’d find it easier to perform well the once than to be as well-organised as the best of my students.

When you consider in the challenge of growing up with the pressures of always-on social media, we clearly had it easy ‘when I were a lad’.

I’m meeting some very switched-on graduating students tomorrow. I have high hopes for them and because of LinkedIn and social media I’ll know whether my judgement is vindicated by their performance in the workplace in the coming years.

My degree showed I was good at monotasking. Now let’s praise the multitaskers.

*I already knew I had Bailey ancestors from industrial revolution Yorkshire (see photo). I learnt only this week that my mother’s Sibson ancestor was born just a few miles from me in sheep farming country.

The most important year of your degree

16 Jun

A conventional three-year degree course is more of a marathon than a sprint.

I’ve seen students begin strongly but lack the passion to sustain this to the end. I’ve seen yet more begin slowly but come good at the end.

Most students probably view the year in the middle as the unexciting bit: it’s not new, but nor is it near the end.

That’s why your second year is the most important of the three.

You’ve adjusted to higher education by surviving year one. You’ve worked through the doubts and questions about whether you’re on the right course.

Year two is your time to make progress without the imminent pressure of graduating (or the self-imposed pressure of believing that only a First/Upper Second counts).

You’re familiar with your surroundings, your classmates, your lecturers, the routine. You should have learnt a lot about yourself and what motivates you. It’s time to start putting some lessons into practice.

If you’re studying public relations, that means gaining work experience in different sectors. That means applying lessons to ‘brand you’ and exploring how to develop professional relationships.

Who does this well?

Lucy Hayball has won our #bestPRblogs contest while still in her second year (of four: she’s about to spend a year working in the PR team at L’Oreal in London).

She was an outsider to win the contest as she’d started her blog during the year and had taken time to find her voice.

She’s not a show-off. She’s not a know-it-all. Instead, she’s a thoughtful learner who took us with her as she made connections, applied for placement opportunities and built her personal brand.

Most impressive of all, she did it alone. No classmates were in competition to produce better blogs; no tutors incentivised her by assessing her efforts; the placement year application process is solitary (she’s potentially in competition with her classmates).

I’ve spoken to Lucy about her year, and these are the lessons worth capturing from her year two experience:

  • Keep learning
  • Be humble
  • Push yourself
  • Experiment to find your niche and your voice
  • Find your community and be supportive of others
  • Busy people find time

She made the long journey to spend an afternoon with me at the Search Leeds conference yesterday (where we met someone who’s achieved spectacular success in the five years since graduating with a PR degree).

Lucy knows she’s still a work in progress and there are many tougher challenges to come – but she has the ability to see the bigger picture.

Only at the end did I think to check her age. She turns 20 next month. So she’s achieved this as a 19 year-old.

That’s worth noting – and her achievements are worth celebrating. Youth and wisdom: what a great combination (as we saw from most of the speakers at Search Leeds).

In praise of excellence

17 May

In my day job, I primarily have to teach to assignments. Curiosity, interest and long-term value are secondary.

Teaching to assignments is repetitive and often involves a discussion of rules (word counts, referencing conventions etc). In truth it’s a dull business (but someone has to do it).

I’m also a mean marker. By that I don’t mean I’m particularly miserly, but that I keep an eye on averages. I’m delighted to award high marks, but they will tend to be counterbalanced by low ones as marks revolve around a mean (as well as recording the achievement of ‘learning outcomes’). Yet university administrators really don’t like low marks to be awarded: it looks bad, and is assumed to reflect bad teaching and support rather than any failing on the part of the (fee-paying) student.

Luckily, the day job’s constraints have their limits. As a volunteer magazine editor for almost ten years I’ve been able to set my own rules and to strive for different standards.

What do I have to show for this dedication? Not as much as I should, but allow me to be very proud of one achievement only.

Consistency is king

After a misfiring experiment with ranking students on their influencer metrics (#socialstudent), I came up with a better formula to identify and recognise outstanding PR students. Our #bestPRblogs contest has been running for four academic years. I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the three past winners (they were the best in their year) – but to me the contest has never been stronger than this year.

It’s an exercise in excellence. It rewards exceptional achievement, but is also a long-running contest that rewards consistency over sporadic brilliance. It’s a true test of PR ability.

Here’s the breakdown. To compete, a student has to:

  • Have a blog, partly or wholly focused on public relations. Easy. Then they have to post consistent, quality content to their blog (the hard part) – and make sure that others know about their efforts (by using, but not abusing, social media channels).
  • Be selected for my pick of the week roundup. This ran throughout the academic year. 39 students from 13 universities made it. No doubt I missed several talented student bloggers, but part of the exercise involved them finding ways to draw their efforts to my attention. Most of those shortlisted were outliers, who faced no competition from classmates at their universities. They found their own way.
  • Be consistent. Those shortlisted after 24 weeks were those who had appeared most often in the weekly roundup. Some had scarcely missed a week. There’s a time and a place for brilliant, original content – but let’s not overlook the virtue of consistency.
  • Be brilliant. In a crowded field where anyone can have a blog and a social media presence, how do you stand out? Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from our shortlisted student bloggers:
    • Brilliant writing counts. It’s so simple really: good writing is easy to read. But what’s difficult is getting the balance between the personal and the professional.
    • Quality content has value. Your blog does not demand a stream of personal anecdotes or confessions. This year, we’ve had shortlisted candidates who have been editors as well as writers. They have commissioned and published interviews with practitioners. This is doubly valuable as an exercise in networking.

The strength of the leaders this year has meant there were fewer opportunities for others to force their way into the competition. There was little space for the merely ordinary.

So, just this once, let me praise some exceptionally talented individuals. Let’s recognise excellence and out of the ordinary achievement. Far from diminishing others, our shortlisted bloggers are leading by example and inspiring others. It’s the best lesson of all.