Senior Lecturer & Director of the Public Relations Curriculum, PR Student Club Faculty Adviser, Department of Journalism at UMass Amherst
We talked to Jennie on or about the time most of us were thrust into a remote work and learning environment for the first time in our lives. It was an uncertain time. It was strange. It was just a couple months ago. Now, while some U.S. universities have approved Fall semester on-campus learning within new safety guidelines, many students at all levels will continue to learn in a virtual classroom and they will graduate into a professional life where they’re likely to learn how to succeed from a distance.
As an experienced online and in-classroom professor, Jennie shared her thoughts with us on what the future of learning could look like and what advice she has for the graduating class of 2026.
As a professor who is constantly engaged face-to-face with students and peers, what was it like to adapt to new teaching methods in a pandemic?
While I was engaged with students and peers in a primarily face-to-face format at the start of this semester, I’ve been designing and teaching online and multimodal courses for about 14 years now. Switching from one mode to another mid-way through the semester wasn’t as challenging for me as it was for others. However, the time frame in which we had to do it – a few days or week – was another story, particularly with everything else going on. There’s a difference between distance or remote learning, or rather, what many have been doing the past couple of months, versus true online learning. It takes a lot of time and thought to effectively design, teach and participate in an online course; things that were in short supply when the transition to remote learning occurred. But as a communication professional and professor, I find that skills like thinking on your feet and being adaptable serve you well in times like this.
What are your students saying to you about all this? What are their greatest concerns?
I believe we’re feeling similar things regardless of whether we’re communication students or professionals. For example, I find that many students missed the in-person interactions and experiences they have when they’re part of an on-campus community. In addition, many students, particularly the juniors and seniors, are worried about the economy and availability of jobs, just like many pros are.
Prior to this, in say the last decade, what event or innovation or trend forced a change in the communications industry? What was that like?
Wow – that’s a tough question to answer! It’s hard to narrow it down to one specific event or innovation or trend. In general, though, I believe that technology has had a major impact on our industry. The world is a much smaller place, and the speed in which we communicate, as well as the number of channels or mediums through which we do so, has increased dramatically. With that said, the basics stay the same. We’re in the relationship business, and in order to build effective relationships, we need to know and understand our audience, tailor our message and communicate it in the most relevant way possible. We also need to seek feedback, listen and use insights to create connections.
While it’s difficult if not impossible to look this far out, what do you think will be the long-term impact on current students who are now learning in, likely, non-traditional ways?
I’ve always believed that communication students, like their professional counterparts, need to be continuous learners. The more open they are to non-traditional ways of learning, the better prepared and able they will be to deal with the uncertainty and change that comes with working in this industry.
Have there been any positive changes recently because of the way you and the students have had to adapt?
I believe we’ve embraced technology to stay connected, but also recognized, and hopefully appreciated, the need for human interaction. It’s funny, because I’ve recently noticed a change in the conversations I was having with others outside the classroom, too, like with various customer service reps. It didn’t feel like they were reading from a script, but rather, were real people. It seemed like we were having actual conversations versus conducting business transactions.
Have you any insight on how the last few months will change the way you think about teaching communications in the next, say, few years, or longer? (more a question about theory than the actual act of teaching on video or in a classroom. Would a lesson plan on how we communicate change? That kind of thing.)
Like many others, I haven’t had much time to pause; to take a step back and reflect on what’s happened and how it will change things in the future. With that said, it has reaffirmed a few things for me, like the importance of clear, consistent and authentic communication.
What advice would you give to the graduating class of 2026?
You’ve got this! It may be challenging, but stay positive. Be a sponge – soak up every opportunity to learn and grow personally and professionally. Network with your peers and professors, alumni and industry pros. And don’t be afraid. Rather, be curious and embrace the unknown. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Out there things can happen and frequently do…And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too!”