Back in Class at Michigan State University after 40 Years


With apologies to George Bernard Shaw, rubbish to the old maxim: “… those who can’t, teach.”

I prefer: “Those who did, teach those who aspire.”

So much joy can be found at the head of the classroom. I discovered as much back in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, when I taught journalism writing and reporting classes off and on in the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Communication Arts and Sciences — or ComArtSci. Back then, I was a recent ComArtSci graduate (of the highly regarded MSU School of Journalism) and a newspaper reporter and political bureau chief mostly for The Detroit News. No, I’m not a professional or degreed teacher. Yes, many thousands of professional teachers — including pretty much everyone who teaches in ComArtSci! — most certainly are better at the art of teaching than me.

Still, I know journalism because of a long first career as an award-winning hack. And I also know public relations after nearly 32 years as a co-founder, owner and senior executive at two of Michigan’s historically most successful strategic communications firms, most recently Martin Waymire. I also simply love to help young people learn and hopefully practice what I’ve learned over my two careers as a professional communicator.

So this fall, I returned to the classroom at MSU ComArtSci, where I’m teaching a section of PR 425 to seniors with the finish line to graduation looming. Make no mistake: MSU ComArtSci is one of the best communications colleges on the planet. There is no debating that. And I must say, I’m impressed with my students. Most of them seem serious, engaged, inquisitive, bright, and realistic. If they are a representative sample of the future of our profession, then grab your shades because the future is bright.

Two things are especially striking to me about the first six weeks of fall semester:

  • First, the processes of teaching, managing and succeeding in the university classroom are much different today from 40 years ago. Various technologies and systems make student-instructor information exchanges and communications more efficient now, if not more complicated and time-consuming. In addition, the rules on how to comport yourself in the classroom, and in a university community as large and diverse as MSU, are better defined, documented and operationalized, and certainly more numerous. The goal is a safer and more inclusive MSU for all, and that’s good, obviously necessary, and the right thing to do.
  • Second, the communications professions my students will soon enter “for real” are much different than when I was a student and instructor. We are all aware of how the channels of communications have evolved and changed over the decades. When I was a working journalist and MSU instructor, social media meant grabbing a copy of the afternoon newspaper and reading it at the bar with colleagues and friends. The “new channels” can be debated as both good and bad, in need of protection and reform. But I am most alarmed about — and have cautioned my students against — the practice of purposely using lies and misinformation as a communications strategy. Sadly and alarmingly, lying has become the de facto communications strategy of too many politicians, shadow groups and organizations with weak or indefensible political and other agendas, and nefarious government agents and actors seeking to undermine democracy. One of the first lessons MSU teaches journalism and PR students is never to lie; that lying corrupts any and all communications. I’m hoping that this generation of communications professionals becomes the one that figures out how to end lying as a practice on social media channels and helps to restore so much of the faith, trust and respect lost by the mass media.

Roger Martin, APR

Roger is the retired co-founder and owner of Martin Waymire, where he was a senior leader for more than 17 years. Before that, he was president of Rossman Martin & Associates, and before that a political and investigative reporter at The Detroit News.