HETRICK: Closing a door, opening a window in the New Year

December 24, 2011

Former Butler University President Bobby Fong once told me the average undergraduate on his campus would experience six different careers—not jobs, but careers—during his or her working life. He also said many of those careers had not yet been invented.

Bobby used this story to underscore the value of combining professional study with liberal arts education. Sure, he said, students could learn business or dance, pharmacy or education. But to be versatile, to be prepared for the five careers that would follow the first one, they also needed to learn how to learn and how to understand, for therein lies the key to versatility.

Having worked in the same career for more than 30 years, I thought myself immune to Bobby’s theory. Although I’ve moved from newspapers and magazines to government, health care and advertising/PR agencies, I’ve always been a writer and communications strategist.

But as 2011 closes the door on 18 years of entrepreneurship, it opens a window on more than the usual fresh chapter. It introduces a whole new book.

The question, of course, is whether my liberal arts education has instilled the ability to adapt well past mid-career.

I’ve written in this space from the perspective of citizen, marketer, advocate, father, mourner, widower, newlywed and more. In January, I’ll add “teacher” to the hat collection, as I become visiting professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism. I’ll teach graduate and undergraduate classes at IU Bloomington and IUPUI and help advance a master’s program in health and life sciences public relations.

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” But this is, indeed, a look homeward.

I first discovered IU’s journalism school as a high-school student attending a summer institute in Bloomington. I was a shooter then, eagerly snapping pictures for fun and profit.

When I enrolled at IU a few years later, I signed up for photojournalism classes, but a freshman-year English professor shifted my interest to the written word. Dabbling with the notion of a legal career, I declared myself a double major in English and political science.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the courtroom. After a summer newspaper internship in Colorado, I wasn’t about to spend the rest of my working life writing “whereas” and “heretofore” in a law library. I started adding more and more journalism classes—my version of professional study—to the liberal arts mix.

Another internship in a city government public affairs department introduced me to the profession that’s occupied me for three decades. After that, I took even more classes at the journalism school to which I’ve now come full circle.

George Bernard Shaw’s rap on educators, of course, is that, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

Having worked as a communications professional for 30 years, I hope I’ll be an exception: the can-do teacher. While I’m a preacher and practitioner of research and publishing, any value I bring to the classroom will be informed by real-world experience more than some text or tome.

And what have I learned from life, liberal arts and professional studies that’s worth sharing? The merits are for the students to judge, of course, but here are a few philosophies they’re likely to hear:

“Can’t” never did anything. My eighth-grade math teacher pounded this one home. I’ll do the same. My job is not to help you out of a jam. It’s to give you the tools and motivation to figure things out for yourself—or, better yet, to avoid the jam altogether.

You’re a student of the world, not just my classroom. A White House aide once told me the key to success is knowing at least one thing about everything. If you have that kind of broad awareness, you can start a conversation with anyone and learn from there.

Creativity is new combinations of existing elements. All my students will discover this notion from an old and thin paperback called “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young. And knowing that it’s true, they’ll come to understand that the more elements you cram into your head, the more likely you are to discover new combinations.

You are what you read. I did not learn to write and understand just because I had good teachers at the IU School of Journalism and the IU College of Arts and Sciences. I learned to write and understand by reading well and often.

Practice makes you better, if not perfect. The classes I am teaching are practicums. My students will learn by doing. There’s no better way.

I will learn more from my students than they will learn from me. This is my new year’s blessing. And for all the lessons that add to my versatile life, I’m excited and grateful.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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