How to Protect Your Time

One of the most common common phrases that came out of my colleagues’ mouths as I approached the end of graduate school and began life as a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university was “be sure to protect your time.” Or it was some variation of that: “don’t take on too many service obligations–protect your time for research” or “protect your time–be sure your teaching doesn’t detract too much from your research.”

I’ve been asked to sit on a few “how-to” advice panels for graduate students, too, usually focused on the What to Expect After Grad School theme or the How to Manage Your Time as a Young Professor theme. On these panels, too, the common sentiment from fellow panelists seems to be to “protect your time.” A dean’s promise to “protect you in your first year or two” is a common sales pitch for hiring, too.

I have never liked this whole idea of protecting oneself from other obligations. I don’t like the protection-from-threat metaphor, and I especially dislike what it implies about the value of teaching and service in the academy. Contrary to the title of this post, this post is actually about what “protecting your time” means, and why you should largely avoid the “protect your time” advice.

Protection from What?

As a professor, you have to balance the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service (note: three-legged objects always inherently balance. Things with four or more legs tend to wobble when they are out of alignment…but anyway). In a research-intensive university, such as the one I work for, the expectation is that you should spend the majority of your time doing research, less time on teaching, and the least amount of time on service. At a regional state school, teaching and research obligations may be more equal, and at liberal arts schools or community colleges, teaching will probably take a front seat. At a research-intensive university, I’ve heard all kinds of percentages for how much time you should devote to research, teaching, and service, from 85%, 10%, 5%, respectively, to 50%, 30%, 20%.

Because so much of your tenure case at a research-intensive university is based on the research you’ve done, it makes sense to focus your energies in this area. It is true that you never really feel like your teaching is perfect, no matter how many times you’ve taught a course or how prepared you are for each lecture, and so in that sense teaching can come to dominate a lot of your time. And service is kind of a constant thing that you can get drawn into, as there are always committees that need members and journal articles to review. When people talk of protecting themselves so they can focus on research, they are mostly talking about the threat of teaching and service on their research time. Ick.

Say Yes, Because Yes Brings Opportunity

The actor Rob Lowe was interviewed last spring about his success. The stand-out point in the article is that he has learned that saying “yes” is the best way to open doors professionally. Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”

When you say “no” to things, you’re turning down opportunities. You know that cheesy quote about how you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? It’s true.When you’re asked to teach a new course, you may see it as a burden because you’ll have to do all this prep work to get up to speed on how to teach the course. But really it’s an opportunity to brush up on some stuff you may have forgotten about, an opportunity to teach a new stream of students you don’t normally get a chance to teach (i.e., different majors, underclassmen), and an opportunity to broaden your teaching portfolio, which will only make you more valuable to your department in the long run.

When you’re asked to serve on a search committee to hire a new professor, you may see it as a burden because search committees take a lot of time, require a lot of poise, and can sometimes lead to a lot of conflict through tough debates with colleagues. But, really, serving on a search committee is an opportunity to have a say in who your future colleague will be, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of your department long-term, and an opportunity to get to know colleagues at a deeper level, even if that does mean getting into some arguments with them over who to hire.

Teaching a new course, serving on a search committee, advising a student club, reviewing papers for a journal – all of these things require a lot of time, but they bring tremendous opportunities. They don’t eat into your research time. Rather, they can enrich your research if you know how to cull the value out of these non-research opportunities.

Ultimately, too, professors – like actors – are just hoping to stay relevant. They want to be seen by their peers as contributing in fair ways to a department culture and continuing to innovate in the classroom and publish groundbreaking research. Saying “yes” more often provides many more opportunities to stay relevant and useful.

Say Yes, Because Saying No is Selfish

I cringe when some colleagues say you should only put enough effort into your teaching so that you’re not a total disaster in the classroom. And I also cringe when colleagues say you should say “no” to as much service as you can, unless you are asked to serve in high-profile, powerful committee roles or if the scope of service work is ultra-specific to what your research interests are.

No one gets everything they want, and professors have a reputation as out-of-touch prima donnas already. Saying “no” to teaching and service obligations is outright selfish, in my opinion. It shows you think you’re above your colleagues when it comes to pitching in or doing your fair share of the work. It shows you think your research is more important and/or deserves more time and attention than everyone else’s work. And it shows you want to stay in your bubble and avoid opportunities to grow and develop and reach outside your domain.

But at a much higher level, especially for professors working at public universities, saying “no” is a waste of taxpayer money. Professors are civil servants in many ways. They are charged with the responsibility of educating the citizens of a state to be competent employees and critical thinkers. You can’t produce great students if you don’t put serious effort into your teaching. The taxpayers also expect professors to be collegial, to be efficient (as any government agency is expected to be), and to work hard. You can’t make the wheels turn in an academic organization if professors are always opting out of service. Professors are not independent contractors who have been blessed with a life of introspection and self-serving intellectual exploration. Professors are, at their core, teachers and members of cohesive organizations. They profess what they know, and they serve citizens as much through public service as through publication and the creation of knowledge.

Professors have very comfortable lives (well, the tenure-track and tenured ones do, at least. Adjuncts are still chronically underemployed, but that’s another post). They make good livings, they get summers off, they get to be around young people in well-maintained buildings and campuses, and, after tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them for speaking out in any way they see fit. For these great occupational comforts, professors owe it to the people to be productive, to burn the candle at both ends if they have a crunch of research to do in combination with a taxing teaching load and service obligations. They do not get to shake off these responsibilities. They are supposed to find ways to take on more responsibilities.

When to Say No, or, How to Protect Your Time if You Really, Really Need to

In two years as a professor, I have said “no” twice. It was painful and difficult to muster the courage to say no, but I did it – once to teaching a class and once to advising a student’s graduate thesis. I taught an online class once, then said no to teaching it again because I very honestly couldn’t take on the burden. I was set to launch a journal, travel a bunch for conferences, and pursue more than one book publishing opportunity. I very truly had a full plate. The “no” to the student was a similar case at the same time. Plus I had never met the student before and didn’t see even the slightest overlap in our interests or my abilities to advise the project. So…two “nos” in two years. I consider that a pretty good record, actually.

Sometimes you do need to say no. If your fate depends on having a certain number of publications on your CV and you’re far from reaching that goal, then it’s fine to say no just a little bit in order to pour more time into research. This still does not mean it is OK to say no to everything you simply aren’t interested in. It means that if you’re behind in your work, then you need to focus on your work. But there may be a deeper problem here. If you feel like you are running on all cylinders and saying no to teaching and service obligations and you’re still not being as productive as you need to with your research, then maybe you should reconsider being at a research-intensive university. Or maybe you need to start letting your work life eat into your personal life. I’m serious.

If you do need to say “no,” though, I recommend you be proactive about it rather than reactive. Let your dean or some more senior mentor colleagues know you’re struggling to get your research done and that you need to teach the same prep again next semester. Or that you can’t really take on anything else for the next few months. This lets your dean or your mentors know in advance you may be struggling, and it can spur them to action to figure out ways to help. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of what you’re doing, you’ve assessed your productivity, and you’ve come to a decision that you need to say “no” in order to stay productive on the research front. This is better than the reactive approach, which is you saying “no” when asked to do something and seeming like you’re complaining or weaseling out of something when the time comes.
As always, this is just my advice, not some set of rules that governs all departments out there. The point of this post is to start encouraging a healthier discussion of the “three-legged stool” of professor life and get away from the phrase “protect your time.” It’s also a call to consider your duty to your colleagues and the public when you decide what work you will and won’t take on, and how many opportunities you may be missing when you say “no.”

Cool Student Work

In just two years here at UNC, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on quite a few committees. By the end of the spring 2012 semester, four master’s students and one undergraduate honors student will have endured my advising in some form or another. This post is all about their work, which I think is really quite interesting. In order of defense date, here they are:

Miranda Volborth, M.A., 2011 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Miranda‘s master’s thesis was titled Bands and Brands: Sponsor Messaging at Festivals. With an interest in the communication strategies of arts and music events, and with experience working on the Hopscotch Music Festival, Miranda focused her thesis on the sponsors at the SXSW festival, interviewing several of the brand managers and PR folks who were on site at SXSW. The thesis includes practical recommendations for music festivals, and it’s a great read. Miranda went on to land a job at Sundance Film Festival, which is right in line with the kind of thing she studied here at UNC.

Stephanie Silverman, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Dulcie Straughan)

Stephanie‘s master’s thesis was titled Twitter Takeover: An Examination of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team Twitter During the 2011 World Cup and Recommendations for the 2012 Olympics. Stephanie has a big interest in sports and social media, so it was fitting that her thesis examined the use of Twitter by the US women’s soccer team. She analyzed the tweets from the 2011 World Cup and provided practical recommendations for sports organizations of similar size and scope that are interested in using Twitter to build their brands. I’m interested to see how this research will impact the industry.

Eric White, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Penny Muse Abernathy)

Eric‘s master’s thesis was titled New Media in the Newsroom: A Survey of Local Journalists and Their Managers on the Use of Social Media as a Reporting Tool. Eric sent surveys (via mail…which is really old school, but which got him a huge response rate!) to reporters and editors at local news organizations in the major media markets in the Carolinas. The survey asked questions about social media use, perceptions of social media, and so on. His findings are impressive, and I recommend this thesis as reading for any news organization. My favorite finding? Turns out editors don’t really have a grip on the time requirements of using social media the way reporters do.

Barbara Zellweger, M.A., 2012 (chaired by Lois Boynton)

Barbara‘s master’s thesis was titled Karl Barth: How to Develop an Effective Online Hub for a Theologian. Barbara is the great-granddaughter of renowned Swiss theologian Karl Barth, and to pay homage to him, she focused her master’s project on the building of a really great website dedicated to his writings. The hope is that this website will become a gateway or hub for many other smaller Barth centers, archives, and research institutes around the world. Her practical recommendations for accomplishing this feat are also valuable for practitioners looking to do similar websites for scholars, theologians, or collections.

Emily Urquhart, B.A. honors, 2012 (chaired by me)

Emily‘s BA honors thesis was titled The Crowd’s Perception Matters: A Crowdsourcing Study of a Crowd’s Social Media Chatter. Emily’s thesis examined the Twitter activity surrounding Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest, a crowdsourced user-generated advertising contest that has become a highlight of the annual Super Bowl ad-watching ritual. Through a content analysis of the many tweets sent out during the contest, she was able to identify how users perceived the contest as a whole, findings which have relevance for practitioners looking to start their own crowdsourcing ventures.

By the way, these great students are always open to entertaining job offers. Contact them (all their LinkedIn pages are linked to their names above)!

Graduate Studies in Crowdsourcing

A few prospective graduate students have reached out to me over the years about pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I suspect my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other universities have received inquiries as well. It’s not a simple task to advise someone interested in studying crowdsourcing at the graduate level what programs are the best fits. Graduate study is indeed all about fit, and crowdsourcing’s terrain is odd, its scholars far-flung, and its disciplinary location varied. For what it’s worth, here’s what I have to say to someone wanting to get a master’s or Ph.D. focused on crowdsourcing. I welcome my crowdsourcing-focused colleagues at other institutions to help round out my comments.

Which Crowdsourcing? – Navigating the Language

One of the most confusing parts about the study of crowdsourcing is how many interpretations there are of the term “crowdsourcing.” Heck, some people don’t even spell it correctly (Note: it’s spelled “crowdsourcing,” not “crowd sourcing,” “crowd-sourcing,” or “CrowdSourcing”). Because crowdsourcing’s theoretical roots can be traced to human computation, open innovation, collective intelligence, open source software production, and other concepts, some scholars working in these fields refuse to ever use the term “crowdsourcing” in their work. Some scholars don’t see crowdsourcing as a phenomenon distinct from these other concepts, though I have tried to make the case in my work that crowdsourcing is a unique, different kind of thing, part of a larger and more diverse landscape of online participatory culture phenomena. Some scholars lump Wikipedia and open source software and YouTube in with crowdsourcing, but I certainly do not. There are different interpretations of what crowdsourcing means as a scholarly concept, and there are even more haphazard characterizations of crowdsourcing in the popular press.

The point here is that if you go looking for a graduate program where some crowdsourcing scholars might be, you won’t find the whole group of us by search the term “crowdsourcing.” I consider Karim Lakhani and Luis von Ahn leading thinkers on crowdsourcing, but I don’t think either of these men have ever used the term “crowdsourcing” in their published scholarly work. Rather, you’ll find these guys publishing on issues of “open innovation contests,” “broadcast search,” and “human computation.”

The more familiar you can become with the scholarly literature on crowdsourcing, the easier it will be for you to track down a good graduate program for you to pursue these kinds of questions. Mine the bibliographies from the published work on crowdsourcing and see where that leads you. Learn the theoretical pathways through crowdsourcing and you’ll be able to identify where the fertile ground is for you to pursue your scholarly questions. There’s good research happening about crowdsourcing that goes by many names. The trick is to locate it.

What Discipline?

To my knowledge, there are no degree programs (yet) specifically in crowdsourcing. There aren’t even that many programs in Internet studies specifically (I know of two: Curtin University and University of Oxford). Because there aren’t many dedicated Internet studies programs, most of the people doing Internet research come from other departments. A look at those who attend the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoIR) conference or who subscribe to the AoIR listserv will turn up a number of academic departments: sociology, information/library science, communication studies, journalism & mass communication, anthropology, art and art history, architecture, design, computer science and engineering, political science, business, urban planning, and so on. We Internet researchers are a motley crew (and AoIR is our island of misfit toys, a place where we can all be at home in our different-ness).

So how do you know which discipline is the best discipline to get a degree in where you can focus on crowdsourcing? Well, that depends on exactly what kinds of questions you have about crowdsourcing. If you’re interested in how to actually design and engineer crowdsourcing platforms and systems, how to optimize their performance, and so on, then you’re probably better off in a computer science program, or perhaps an information science or computer engineering program. If you’re interested in the performance of crowdsourcing applications (i.e., how to know when they’ve succeeded or if they’ve improved a business function), then an academic graduate program in business or management (academic: MS. As opposed to professional: MBA) would be the best fit. If you’re interested in how and why crowds form, how they are motivated, and their perceptions of crowdsourcing applications, you could look into a journalism & mass communication program, a psychology program, a sociology program, information science, and so on. If you’re interested in a specific topical domain, such as journalism or urban planning or governance, you could look to those programs (though be aware that some crowdsourcing scholars are engaged in research outside of their home department’s topical domain. I, for instance, am housed in a journalism school but frequently do work in urban planning and governance).

Crowdsourcing has its tentacles spread across many disciplines, and those of us who spend a lot of our time studying how and why crowdsourcing works and extending its reach into other domains and problems come from a variety of backgrounds. But the home department where you get your degree will color the way you approach questions about crowdsourcing. An M.A. in journalism and mass communication, for example, will require you to take required core courses in the department, such as Media Law and Mass Communication Research Methods. And a methods course in mass communication will focus on the methods and research of the discipline, which is influenced by theories such as agenda setting and other “classic” mass communication theories. And each university’s mass communication department has its own methodological bent, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative in nature. On the other hand, a master’s in urban planning will require you to take courses in land use planning and other practical courses relevant for planners. And a master’s in communication studies from a strong critical/cultural studies program where most of the professors are rhetoricians will no doubt inject you with that view of scholarship. Basically, you’ll get a big dose of whatever the dominant paradigm is at that university, in that department, in that particular program. If you’re not particularly drawn to, say, the topic of journalism, then a program in journalism & mass communication may not be the best fit, even if you’re hoping to work with a crowdsourcing researcher who teaches in that department (like me!).

After the required core courses, though, many graduate programs will let you carve out your own path, sometimes encouraging you to take course work outside of the home department or even outside of the university. Generally speaking, for graduate programs that do not have a strong lab culture (common in the hard sciences, this is where you basically affiliate with a lab and your graduate work is focused almost entirely on the work of a professor’s lab or grant), you will probably be able to write a thesis or dissertation focused on crowdsourcing if you’re persistent. Because crowdsourcing can tie so well into many theoretical, methodological, and topical domains, you have a lot of wiggle room to pursue studies in crowdsourcing within the bounds of a given degree program.

Questions You Should Ask When Checking Out a Graduate Program

If you want to study crowdsourcing, there are some key questions you should ask yourself when evaluating whether or not a program is a good fit. This check list works well with just about any topic you’re interested in studying, actually:

  • Is there a professor inĀ  this program who studies crowdsourcing (or a related concept)? Is this professor willing to take on new advisees? Is this professor qualified to supervise my research? These are the most important questions to ask yourself. Graduate study is an individual pursuit, and scholarly life is about people, personalities, and individual research agendas. It would be better to go to a program that has just one professor who is a perfect fit for your research than to go to a program that generally fits your interests but doesn’t have any single professor who is a great fit for your particular interests. You go to graduate school to study with people, not to study topics. This is especially true for Ph.D. programs. There should be someone at that program who you admire, you should be familiar with his/her work, and you should be willing to work with that person closely for at least a few years. It’s also important to inquire whether that professor is willing to take on a new graduate student as an advisee. That professor may be booked solid with other graduate students and may say no to taking on any new ones until his/her current students graduate. A professor may also not have enough grant money to fund a new graduate student, and many programs are moving into a grant model where professors only get grad students that they can fund with the grants they win. And be sure that the person you want to work with is qualified, or allowed, to supervise your work. Some schools have faculties where only a portion of them are actually qualified or allowed by the university to supervise graduate work. Most universities have rules that say professors can only supervise graduate students who are pursuing a degree they already have, too, which means that a professor who has a master’s degree but not a doctorate may not be allowed to supervise a Ph.D. student.
  • Is the graduate program flexible enough to allow me to pursue my research interests in crowdsourcing? Some graduate programs are highly structured, where all or nearly all of your course work is prescribed for you. But some graduate programs are highly flexible, requiring only 1-3 core courses of all graduate students and letting you create your own path through the degree. Because there are no graduate programs specifically dedicated to crowdsourcing, you’ll probably want some flexibility to craft your own degree path. Figure out what’s required in the curriculum and what courses you’ll get to curate into your degree plan. Some of the most interesting work in crowdsourcing is interdisciplinary, so find out if you’re encouraged (or even allowed) to take courses in other departments, too.
  • Are there other professors in the program or in the university who have affiliated interests? Let’s assume you’ve found a great program that has one expert crowdsourcing scholar on the faculty you’re dying to work with. You still need to identify a few other faculty members to be part of your supervisory committee. Most Ph.D. students have to round up a chair (dissertation director) plus 2-4 other faculty members who serve as members of the supervisory committee (dissertation readers). Sometimes there are rules, too, that say that one of these other members needs to be from outside the department. It is important that there are other faculty members in that program or elsewhere at the university who are willing to serve on your supervisory committee and are capable of making sense of your research. If the crowdsourcing scholar you’re working with is the odd duck in the department, you may have some difficulty rounding up a committee that supports your work. And remember that crowdsourcing is an Internet-based phenomenon. If the rest of the faculty isn’t Internet savvy, for instance, it may be a challenge to round up a committee that can best support your work. This doesn’t mean professors are unable or unwilling to bend in new directions – if anything, it’s a joy to step outside your comfort zone to advise new students with exciting research questions. But it sometimes causes problems.
  • And then all the regular questions about grad school: Do they offer fellowship funding? Are the grad students and faculty collegial and welcoming? Is it in a place I want to live and can afford to live? Is this program going to prepare me for future employment or continued study in a satisfactory way? Am I ready to take on this commitment for the next few years? Will my family or partner kill me if I go to grad school? Etc.

The Outside Committee Member Option

Many schools are open to the possibility of having a student’s supervisory committee consist of one or more members from outside of the university entirely. Programs like Skype make this even easier. I had Karim Lakhani on my Ph.D. committee from a distance – he was in Boston, I was in Salt Lake City, and he attended my defense meetings via conference call. If you find that one program is a better home for you but you’re still eager to have one specific person on your committee from a distance, see if the university will allow that person to sit on your committee remotely and Skype in for meetings. This is becoming quite common. There are some technical headaches, but it’s generally a good thing.

So Who are the Crowdsourcing Scholars? Where are they Located?

This list is not exhaustive, and I welcome other folks studying crowdsourcing (and willing/eager to take on new grad students) to contact me and add their name to this list. Here are some folks studying crowdsourcing and related phenomena:

I welcome any other input from folks out there studying crowdsourcing. What do you think are the best programs for this kind of study? What other folks am I missing from this admittedly short list?

Templates, Rubrics, and (Not) Learning

By giving students templates and grading students on point rubrics, we are stifling their ability to think and learn. Teachers need to shift the focus away from rigid structures and expectations for students and toward looser frameworks for assessing larger objectives, such as mastery of content and higher order thinking.

My Tendency to Over-Teach

I’m no scholar of teaching and learning, but I’ve been doing both for quite a while now. I was in school, without taking time off, straight from preschool up through my Ph.D. And I started teaching college courses on my own in 2005 (and a year before that I was a TA. And in undergrad I also did a bit of student teaching at a high school). Any good teacher who takes the time to critically reflect on his or her methods and who really does care about the quality of his or her teaching will likely change things up every few years and try something new.

A grading rubric for a geology paper assignment. Are you as inspired to think critically and creatively as I am? I can hardly wait!

Lately, I’ve come to the realization that my tendency to “over-teach” is not doing my students any good. By “over-teach,” I mean that I tend to provide far too much detailed explanation, and that as I refine an assignment or my syllabus year after year, I tend to move toward templates and how-tos and away from ambiguity. For instance, when I taught the PR Campaigns course years ago, I provided vague guidance for what the actual deliverable (the PR campaign proposal document) should look like. I didn’t provide a target page length, I didn’t stipulate required sections and subheadings – nothing. Students turned in work that was of varying quality, varying length, and some of it just frankly missed the mark. I assumed that this variance in quality was a result of my ambiguous guidelines, and I probably graded the projects too generously, giving students the benefit of the doubt. After all, they can’t be expected to read my mind.

One of the biggest complaints students have about teachers (aside from being required to buy an expensive, crappy textbook) is that their expectations are not clear, that they are unsure exactly how they will be assessed. Indeed, “assessment” is a big buzz word in higher education right now, too. There’s as much effort put into planning how you’re going to evaluate the success of something as there is in actually doing it.

As the years went by, I found myself refining my PR Campaigns syllabus, to the point a year ago when I literally posted a template for the proposal document to the class website and had students work within it. I also had clear point values attached to even the smallest portions of the assignments over the semester. These point values were not only painful to calculate, but they tended to encourage bargaining. When a student knows something is only worth a few points in the final grade, he or she begins to weigh the costs and benefits of not doing it (losing the points vs. not having to put in the hard work). Students start to see the class as a grading game rather than as an opportunity to learn.

A Rubric Assignment vs. an Ambiguous Assignment

Some students – the ones who prefer grade gaming and bargaining – hate ambiguity. They want to know exactly what each element of an assignment is worth. Five points for putting my name on it? Check. Ten points for a thesis statement? Check. At least 3 paragraphs of literature review is worth 20 points? Check. And on and on. By the end of the paper, a student will think he or she has acquired all of the available points for the assignment. They assume they are starting from 100% of possible points and that you will be “taking” points away from them based on your “opinion” of whether they “deserve” the points. And then you grade it, and you tell them they really only “earned” 80% of the points. And then, because the student was in points bargaining mode to begin with, he or she challenges the grade, wondering why you “gave them” (or why they “got”) “only” 80% of the points. The battle rages on, with the teacher on the defensive.

When you know the teacher will hand out a grading rubric or a template for the assignment, why bother listening in class?

Now, on that same assignment, what if, instead of the points rubric, you were to say:

This paper must demonstrate your ability to synthesize the literature on X topic into a coherent, original analysis. It should follow all the standards of a college academic paper. ‘Average’ work earns a ‘C,’ ‘Good’ work earns a ‘B,’ and ‘truly exceptional and rare’ work earns an ‘A.’

It’s the same set of expectations, more or less, except that you’re shifting the focus away from points bargaining and toward encouraging your students to actually think about how to approach the assignment. Rather than run down a checklist, they know they will be rewarded for thinking about the learning objectives holistically, rewarded for creativity and analytical thinking, and trusted (not rewarded) to execute the paper with proper mechanics. Basically, they’re expected to produce college work, not automated robot checklist work.

A Return to Ambiguity

When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, I’ve received a range in quality. It’s frustrating to grade a motley collection of papers, but it’s even more frustrating to feel like a student is getting the best of you, feeling obligated to award points because they technically satisfied the rubric but didn’t produce work that demonstrated higher order thinking. When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, the worst papers are usually from the students who didn’t put a lot of thought into it anyway, who probably never met with me to sort through their ideas and let me steer them in the right direction. But the best papers that roll in on ambiguous assignments are truly the very best. They synthesize really complicated ideas, they come up with new “takes” on the world, and they challenge me, engaging me in a scholarly debate rather than boring me with the task of having to grade papers.

What I’m saying is that when I use a grading rubric or when I provide students templates and worksheets, I get consistently average work. And usually there’s a student or two in the mix that is smart enough to game the grading system and earn a high grade but who wasn’t smart enough to write a conceptually good paper. I resent these students, and they make me hate myself as a teacher, frankly.

But ambiguous assignments bring in a wide range of quality, and this is a good thing. Sure, some students do really poorly, but they often do poorly because they haven’t been reading for class or thinking critically, or they didn’t allot enough time to accomplish the task. But some students exceed my expectations and produce work that is sometimes good enough to publish. Teachers need to teach to their best students, not concern themselves too much with their worst students. This is especially true in college.

Teachers feel handcuffed to these explicit rubrics, and the work templates that go with them, because administrators don’t like reading teaching evaluations where students complain that they didn’t know how they were being graded. But teachers should give ambiguity a try. Students may just impress you.

The Ethics of Class Projects with “Real World” Clients

Many university courses now require students to work with real-world clients. This is especially true in professional schools (e.g., journalism, public health, government, business). The public relations students in our journalism school, for example, will work with at least two client organizations during their time in the major: once in the PR Writing course to produce tactical materials for community non-profit and campus organizations (through the university’s service-learning center), and once in the PR Campaigns capstone class, where they develop a campaign proposal for a client of the instructor’s choosing.

But are there ethical considerations with this kind of class-client work? Certainly. There’s a broad set of concerns that applies to non-profit and for-profit clients, and then there is a whole other level of concern with for-profits.

Broad Concerns about Class-Client Work

When students enroll in a course that features client work, they usually don’t have much say in who the client is. It’s the instructor who often chooses the client, or sometimes it’s a set list of clients assigned to the class by a campus-wide service-learning center or an already established relationship between the department and a community client. This can be problematic for students, especially if they disagree with the mission and values of the client. This is the case whether the client is non-profit or for-profit.

Most instructors are wise to avoid organizations that many students may find controversial, such as organizations with religious missions and organizations with explicit political leanings on hot button issues (e.g., abortion, guns, same-sex marriage, immigration). But some instructors, who may have close connections to these organizations through their research agendas or community service work, will assign these clients to the class anyway.

On the one hand, an instructor can make the case that “PR practitioners, especially junior-level ones, rarely have a say in what clients they are assigned to work with, and this a lesson in learning to be professional and separate work and personal opinion.” I don’t buy this, though. If a student has a deeply held opinion that, say, gay marriage is wrong, then it is my obligation, even if I completely disagree with them, that the student be allowed to seek an alternative client rather than work with a gay rights advocacy group. I think the discussion about “PR practitioners rarely get to pick their clients” is appropriate in these cases, but I don’t think, after some attempt to persuade a student, that student should be required to work with a client he or she cannot reconcile with. This is especially true for courses that are required to satisfy a major, and especially if the student does not have another section of the class to switch to or some other option.

Why? Because even in the professional world people have a right to opt out of working with a client they have strong personal beliefs about. Many firms have policies about this that allow employees to switch clients for personal reasons. And practitioners are always free to quit the job. But a student who is about to graduate doesn’t have quite the same kind of freedom to walk away.

Another broad concern about class-client work is the disclosure of conflicts of interest to students. Students are entitled to know if the instructor or academic department is receiving some benefit for working with a particular client. If a department sees the client organization as a development/fundraising prospect and this class-client project may help push that client toward a big donation to the department, then this should be disclosed to students. In some cases, too, an instructor may serve on the board of a client organization, or he/she may be benefiting from insider access to the client organization for the purposes of conducting research, or any number of benefits. These should be disclosed to students, as well. And students should have the freedom to choose whether they work with the client in light of these disclosures.

Specific For-Profit Client Concerns

When a class’ client is a for-profit business, there’s an added layer of ethical considerations. Class-client relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. Students gain valuable experience with real clients and build portfolios of work that help them find jobs or get into grad school. And the client gets some kind of work product, which can include research, strategic consultation, ready-to-use PR and advertising materials, websites, and so on. These clients can sometimes see enormous benefits from the work of students. If a client is a for-profit business, this means a surge in profits, all based on the work done, for free, by students.

In a public university, where a state’s taxpayers partially cover the cost of attending college, this for-profit relationship becomes problematic. What is essentially going on, albeit indirectly, is that taxpayers pay a university to educate students, and part of that education involves students doing free work for businesses, who in turn make a profit off of that labor. Indirectly, this means that businesses are getting some taxpayer money through the filter of the university classroom, all without the public being informed that this is going on. And all based, usually, on an instructor’s personal preference for a business that will reap the benefits. Yes, taxpayer dollars are given to businesses all the time, including by public universities, which pay vendors for various products and services to help the institution function. But these arrangements follow specific acquisition guidelines from the state, including broad RFPs and fair dealing with historically underutilized businesses (i.e., minority owned businesses) in the state. When an instructor selects a for-profit client for his/her class to work for, this fair dealing is not happening, and taxpayers would have a difficult time finding this out.

And now that corporations are officially people and money is speech, there’s no telling what theseĀ  for-profit clients are likely to do with the benefits of their free student labor. At the end of the day, it’s just simply not right for students and taxpayers to pay universities money so that universities can put students to work for free improving the bottom line of businesses, who in turn owe nothing back to the university or the state.

The implications of working with for-profit clients should be explained to students, and students should have a right to opt-out and pursue other clients.

But How Will Students Gain Experience Working with For-Profits?

There’s a valid point here. If students go through an entire PR program, for example, and all they ever do is work with non-profits, then how will they be equipped to work with for-profits when they graduate? Well, to a large degree, non-profit PR and for-profit PR is similar. It’s a similar campaign process, similar concerns, etc. But there are differences. Here’s how students can get this experience:

  1. They can get internships with for-profit businesses. This is the most common thing students do to get for-profit experience. So long as it’s communicated to students that they won’t be getting much (if any) for-profit client experience in the major, then students should know to seek these experiences on their own. This is what internship credits are for. (But wait – if a student gets internship credit and no pay to work for a business, isn’t that the same issue? Kind of, yeah. But at least the taxpaying public is more aware of what internships are about. The definition and scope of what an internship is appears in a department’s course catalog, which is approved by the university and thus endorsed by the state and its taxpayers. But the scope of a PR campaigns course, according to the catalog, is about teaching the process of a campaign, not necessarily about doing work with a for-profit business. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Plus, students are also free to choose who they work with and if they do an internship at all.)
  2. Instructors can offer a non-profit and a for-profit option in a class. If I assign a for-profit client to my PR Campaigns class, for instance, I always make sure there’s a non-profit client option. Basically, I have two clients for students to choose between. I also make full disclosures to my students. I think this element of freedom solves a lot of the problem. No student can really complain that they were forced to improve the profits of a business in order to get a degree from a public university.

In sum, there are things to watch out for when classes work with real world clients. Conflicts of interest with any client – for-profit or non-profit – should be disclosed to students, and students should be free to do something else if they don’t agree with the client. That “something else” could be working independently with another client, taking another section of the course, or something comparable. For-profit clients present an entirely different set of concerns, and students (and the public) should know these concerns and have similar freedoms. And if students want to get experience with a for-profit client, they can do this in at least two different ways, without being forced into anything.