My great friend Les Potter wrote an insightful essay questioning the lack of curiosity among the Millennial students he teaches at Towson University in Maryland. When someone of Les’s caliber as a teacher, and with 35 years of experience as a professional communicator, brings a topic like this to light, believe me, my ears perk up.
Not only did Les sum up the prevailing lack of curiosity of today’s college students, but he also gave several examples of areas in which students could question him to gain greater understanding of the profession. For example, Les says, “As a manager who hired, trained, and terminated many employees in my career, the ability and willingness to ask probing questions is a competitive advantage for job seekers.”
I concur completely and would take it a step further, adding that I have never seen a person who lacks curiosity succeed in communications. Individuals become superstars in the business world when they ask probing questions, evaluate situations, and then derive new initiatives based on deft critical thinking. Curiosity is central at every point in this process.
I wrote a lengthy comment supporting Les’s statements, providing what I see as a problem among many of my USF students. Below is an edited and expanded version of that post.
The “challenge” I have with my students is twofold — they don’t understand much (if anything) about the business world, thus they have no idea how they “fit” into the picture and many lack what I call “intellectual curiosity.”
Here’s an example: many students enter the public relations sequence at USF with little or no idea what PR/communications is. Somewhere, someone told them that this would be a good major for them, usually having to do with “being good with people.” It seems outrageous, but many future PR majors enter the sequence with no understanding of writing, research, or strategic thinking skills. When they encounter their PR professors, most do not say to themselves, “Here’s my chance to actually talk to someone who worked in the field I chose for my major.”
Due to entrance requirements and prerequisites, most students enter our three-semester program still not knowing much about the PR major, even though they are already juniors. Then the first semester, they take “Principles of Public Relations.” For the first time, they finally have a PR prof teaching them about their major. However, getting them involved or asking meaningful questions is grueling. Many act as if it is just another course to get through, even though it is the first time they have formally encountered anything at all to do with public relations.
The next semester is the meat of the program — three courses: “Writing for PR,” “Public Relations Research,” and “Public Relations: Issues, Practices, and Problems” (a case study course). After one 15-week intro course, they are slammed with these three, but it is finally a course load in their major. It is difficult work, but rather than rejoice that they will finally get to know what PR/communications is, they complain about the amount of work and toughness.
At a point where their curiosity should be at its highest, many check out based on the workload. Most do not read the required materials my colleagues and I assign, even if it is timely essays and short articles drawn from important PR periodicals, such as PRWeek, Ragan newsletters, and blogs. Some students sit in class and say nothing for 15 weeks, despite my pleas for them to engage. Others make no effort at all.
However, there are a handful each semester that do the work, read the material, engage with the profession, and ask great questions and provide thoughtful commentary. I guess this is why we all continue to teach.
A casual reader might read Les’s essay or my commentary and think that we are out of touch with today’s students or doing something wrong, since they are not more engaged. However, in discussions with colleagues across disciplines around the country and overseas, I sense that this mindset among today’s young people is widespread.
Let me end this long post with this: I thoroughly enjoy teaching and like all my students as individuals. I want them to achieve all their hopes and aspirations. However, I know that some of them are not cut out for a career as professional communicators, at least not when I have them in class. Perhaps some magic switch will kick in at some later date, which for their sake I hope does. But, I do know that a trait all my very best students share is intellectual curiosity and a drive for success that I can’t define. The two traits go hand-in-hand.