Soft Skills, Hard Lessons

Last week, someone called me an elitist.

Mind you, I had an earlier kerfuffle with the same person about directions to my office and where to park in downtown Atlanta, and I think that colored our perceptions of each other and  the later conversation.

I was called an elitist during a conversation about curriculum change. She believed I was an elitist because I said that (a) we have too much to teach in our own curriculum to attempt to layer another thing to what we currently do, (b) that students should play their own part and role in learning about etiquette, business skills, and other soft skills, and (c) that we should direct students to campus PRSSA and Ad Club for training.

My esteemed colleague said that (a) I was an elitist, (b) that my recommendation was elitist because students couldn’t afford those activities, and (c) that they don’t know what skills they are missing.

At the moment, we were pressed to move on to point #3 of the 11-point agenda. I channeled classic Jay-Z and did what the Notorious HRC did in this photo: brushed that dirt off my shoulder.

After a cocktail, dessert, and a good night’s sleep, I thought about that moment and that accusation, and the following questions popped up in my head.

  • What can we offer PR students beyond the book learning?
  • Is it too much of an expectation for professors to teach students every hard skill, soft skill, and theory involved in the practice?
  • Why do professors assume that all students don’t know or aren’t clued into business etiquette? Why do we assume that just because students attend certain universities and fit certain demographic profiles that they cannot afford to participate in certain activities? (As a former campus adviser to several organizations, I can attest that people hustle up the money and pay for the things they want to do.)
  • What are the expectations for professional student organizations?

I don’t have all the answers. (If you have some suggestions or ideas for these questions, drop them in the comments below.) But I have a partial answer to the first question. The question led me to theory, in particular social cognitive theory. As Bandura (1977) stated:

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. (p. 22)

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

As the architects of instructional design within our classrooms, there is merit to this. Bandura’s social cognitive theory rests on the ideas of imitation, modeling, and reinforcement; rather than telling people what to do, we show them how to act through our actions and behaviors. Those people then copy that behavior.  Cue the Bobo doll experiment. With positive encouragement, these actions can be repeated time and time again.

How could this work in an overtaxed PR classroom?

It could work in a myriad of ways. For example, email communication could be a stand-alone module, replete with videos, lecture notes, slide shows, and such. Or a professor could model appropriate email communication, detail her/his/their expectations for professional electronic communication in the syllabus, and hold her/his/their students to a high standard for the quarter/semester/intersession.

Another example is the introduction of teamwork into the class. Mention the word “teams” in classes, and students will thrash about and foam at the mouth, moaning and groaning about how they hate teams, detest working with other people, et cetera.

Most have never been told how to work within a team or how to handle conflict within teams. Instead, professors and instructors forced them into groups with zero expectations and boundaries. I built a teamwork module that I use in my campaigns classes within the first three weeks of the semester, and I model for them team behaviors as well as walk them through the strategies for building a strong team culture and dynamic. That shifts the atmosphere from a toxic, “I hate teams” mentality to a moderate, “Let’s see how this works” mindset. I follow up with positive and negative reinforcements for the behaviors I witness. Teams that are working together and addressing conflict appropriately get rewarded with praises and points.

Teaching the hard skills is an easy task, but teaching the softer and finer points of life beyond the textbooks is difficult. When teaching our students, we have to go beyond the large concepts, the great historical figures, the GPS testing, and the critical thinking skills. There is a lot to cover in the strategic communication classroom; I do think that we as professors can stretch to teach our students hard and soft skills. I do this regularly in my classes, but I rarely force those skills into formal lessons or modules. I sprinkle in business etiquette and professionalism into the class during the 16 weeks I have those students. It is my belief that we as professors have to give my students life lessons that will ease their transitions into the advanced classes, internships, relationships, and the job market.