Today is the first day of class, so I’ll be meeting a whole new crop of students. Some of them will probably be a little nervous, either because they are naturally overachievers and are always nervous about new classes, or maybe they’ve heard rumors about what a tough class this is. (Maybe they’re even nervous because they’ve heard rumors about me, but I neither confirm nor deny any of those.)
I make no secret, starting on the first day, about the demands they’ll be facing in this course. It’s their senior capstone, so it’s supposed to be challenging. Bringing together knowledge and skills in an applied project, working with a group, learning to analyze cases and think about theory and practice, meeting regularly with clients, trying to come up with proposals that are both creative and viable, managing client expectations, keeping up with the reading, maintaining the class blog… it’s a lot to handle. Especially when you factor in their other classes and, for many of the students, jobs and internships, maybe even family demands. Plus the fact that most are in their final semester, busy applying for jobs or grad school or trying to figure out what to do when they suddenly find themselves college graduates in May.
One way I try to help them understand why the course is designed this way, and how it is intended to help prepare them for their professional careers (and frame it in a much less frightening way than I did in the paragraph above) is to compare it to another PR: Project Runway. I’m not (too) ashamed to admit my love for this show, and I think it has a lot to teach anyone who hopes to work in a field that combines the creative and the practical. To wit:
- the designers on Project Runway are forced to work under tight time and budget constraints, just like public relations practitioners;
- they are often required to work outside their comfort zones: people who typically do menswear might find themselves having to make a swimsuit, or a pageant designer might have to create a tailored suit using nonstandard materials. In public relations, too, practitioners have to learn to be flexible to meet client needs and take advantage of whatever resources are made available to them;
- the designers are frequently assigned to work in teams with people they wouldn’t have chosen as partners. In many fields, not just PR, the ability to work productively on projects with others you might not like personally–or even respect professionally–is crucial to success;
- clients on Project Runway often have unreasonable demands and expectations, and the designers (just like public relations professionals) have to learn to walk a tightrope between meeting those expectations, and educating/persuading clients to adjust them;
- the Project Runway designers are urged to take creative risks, but only if they make sense in the specific context. Creativity and innovation in our own PR field, and in this class, are also highly valued, but need to be appropriately motivated and fit the situation in question;
- most importantly, what Project Runway, public relations, this class (and, I’d argue, life in general) all have in common is the central theme of make it work: at the end of the day, something has to go down that runway. Similarly, at the end of this semester, something has to go into that proposal and be presented at the public pitch session. Some students will resist, claiming all kinds of obstacles are keeping them from getting the work done. These aren’t (always) just excuses: often there truly are problems, with the client, with team members, with the situation they’re addressing. But one of my greatest satisfactions from teaching this course is seeing those same students finally figure out that they have to make it work regardless of those issues, somehow, and overcoming all those seemingly insurmountable challenges to put something together. It may be the equivalent of a dress with a bodice held up only by a few strategically placed safety pins and a prayer, but often it surprises everyone. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and urgency is often the father.
Which leads us to my role, here. I think Tim Gunn is a great role model for teachers, since he is always respectful and honest with the designers even when he’s offering severe critiques. He listens to their point of view and tries to understand what they’re trying to accomplish, even if it doesn’t match his own preferences or taste. It’s obvious that he wants all of them to succeed, and to make a good showing for the runway judges. Of course I have a slightly different role, since I also lecture and grade and teach them new concepts, but when it comes to their projects I place myself in a similar coaching/mentoring role. I strive to be as Tim Gunn-like as possible when working with teams, or individual students who come to my office hours.
Now, I’ll confess that I actually have a Tim Gunn bobblehead, a gift from a grad school friend, and I refer to him as my TA. He offers great advice: along with “make it work,” my favorite of his recorded profundities is “I can’t want you to succeed more than you do!” So true. The best I can do is try to create an environment where they can learn to express themselves creatively and practice their new skills, receive helpful feedback, and learn to manage the many conflicting demands on their time and energy that they will face in their future careers, in PR or whatever path they choose to follow. If they can learn to make it work, then my mission is accomplished.