On Twitter last week:
Me: Is gender balance coming to PR? 5 of 20 in my PR Case Studies class are male. 75/25 is way better than the 90/10 we’ve been seeing.
Rebecca (current student): The question is: How many men will remain after you return their first assignment?
Jackie (former student): I just don’t think the guys could stand the criticism. And we all know you have no problem shredding crappy writing.
Me: Are you saying I’m not nurturing?
Jackie: Baha! You’re as nurturing as a grizzly 😉
* * *
Jackie and Rebecca are outstanding professionals inside and outside the classroom, so neither received a lot of criticism from me. But they both know I can dish it out. Some 19 years after arriving at Kent State, I’m told some students see me as an intimidating taskmaster. A select few, it’s said, actually fear me. Hard to believe, huh?
But I’m convinced students benefit from a few grizzly bear encounters in the classroom. After all, they’re about to enter a world that’s full of them.
My most memorable grizzly bear encounter came in high-school, and his name was Sterling T. Nicholls. Mr. Nicholls busted my chops at every opportunity and seemed to savor it. He didn’t have much use for long-haired hippie wannabes like me. And, Jackie, he had no peer when it came to “shredding crappy writing.” I learned from the best.
Mr. Nicholls was faculty adviser of the school newspaper, and I spent two years under his thumb. He was on my case daily — a taskmaster, I tell you — and downright intimidating. I was too cocky to fear him, which may have been my salvation.
When one of my anti-administration editorials earned Mr. Nicholls a trip to the front office, I figured my stint on the High Arrow was over. Principal McGee must have reamed old Sterling a new one, as he was mighty pale on his return to the classroom.
Mr. Nicholls called me aside to say that my “sorry ass” had brought him a lotta grief that day. Then he shook my hand.
“For once, you finally did something to make a difference around here.”
When I left for journalism school later that year, Mr. Nicholls didn’t shake my hand or wish me luck. It wasn’t his style. A year later, he told a good friend that I’d made a mistake and would surely fail in my chosen career track. His comment motivated me to work even harder — just to spite the old bird.
Tough love? We didn’t call it that back in the 70s. And today I think they’d call it harassment. But as Grandma always told me, it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.
But Mr. Nicholls’ grizzly growl still haunts me from the grave, complete with Southern drawl and disapproving glare. “Sledzik! What in the HAY-ell do you think yer doin’?” Then I’d duck, just in case an eraser was flying my way.
Since the late 70s, the “self esteem” movement has made the classroom a mellower place. They have group hugs now, and you get awards for just showing up. But don’t you worry that performance suffers as a result? I’m not suggesting Mr. Nicholls’ growling style is the answer. But what’s wrong with high expectations mixed with a little stress?
I’m not as tough as Sterling T. Nicholls. But I’d sure be flattered if one of my students, 40 years hence, were to write a post like this about me. And if you do, I promise to make a copy for Mr. Nicholls, as we’ll surely be in the same place by then. Look for us at the bar, having a beer with Beelzebub.