Patricia Harms brings a unique perspective to teaching business communication at UNC Kenan-Flagler.
Her career started in nursing, wound through the English department at Iowa State, and landed at the Business School. This non-linear career path aligns with Harms’ outlook on life: Keep an open mind and take advantage of interesting opportunities as they arise.
Harms became interested in communication when she was studying to be a nurse at the University of Pennsylvania. The “writing-across-the-curriculum” (WAC) movement, which incorporates writing into disciplines beyond English, was being introduced at that time.
“Nursing was at the forefront of the movement, and I was a student in one of the first experimental WAC course at Penn,” she says. It was co-taught by a nursing professor and an English professor, and Harms had no idea the experience was foreshadowing her career as a professor.
Harms began her career as a labor and delivery nurse. She decided to enroll in graduate school, in part because her husband was having such a wonderful experience in veterinary school at Iowa State. “I was surrounded by my husband and his friends who were immersed in learning, and I was jealous,” says Harms. “The timing seemed to be perfect for me to go to grad school, too.” Because Iowa State doesn’t have a nursing program, she decided to add a complementary degree.
Harms earned an MA in business and technical writing and worked as a nurse “who knew how to write really well.” Her family landed back at Iowa State several years later, and Harms started working on her PhD in rhetoric and professional communication. For her dissertation she explored WAC in a linked course model that joined a writing course with an engineering class.
“Through my research and my own experience at Penn, I discovered what an integral part writing can play in all coursework – not only coursework designed to teach writing,” says Harms.
After she relocated to North Carolina with her family in 2003, Harms began teaching management and corporate communication at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “Everything about it felt right – the people who I met, the work that was being done, the comradery,” Harms says.
UNC Kenan-Flagler’s emphasis on well-rounded students was reminiscent of her undergraduate experience at Penn. Like students in the Business School, “we had certain technical skills we had to master as nursing majors,” she says, “while we were also learning everything else that goes with earning a bachelor’s degree.”
For over a decade, Harms has taught business communication throughout the School, as well as the University. She teaches the undergraduate honors thesis class and an advanced presentations elective, in addition to Professional Communication for Accountants for the Master of Accounting Program, and Presentation Skills for the full-time MBA Program. In addition, Harms tapped into her science background to develop two professional communication courses – one focused on writing and one focused on presenting – for the UNC Professional Science Master’s Degree Program.
Harms is coordinating professor for the MBA@UNC business communication course and lead professor for the online professional communication course being developed for the MAC Program.
“It’s interesting to me how my past experiences pop up as being relevant and important again over time” says Harms. “My nursing background gave me the science foundation I needed to develop courses for the UNC Graduate School. And visual rhetoric, a topic I studied extensively when I worked on my master’s degree, is more important than ever with the increasing focus on plain language in business communication and the desire to make information visually accessible to audiences.”
Harms’ lessons focus on methods with real-life applications that foster student success beyond graduation. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve received was when a student said she felt empowered to speak up in meetings as a result of things she’d learned in class,” she smiles. “That’s pretty cool.”
She also supports students outside the classroom. When a student’s wheelchair broke as the result of a bus accident, she helped organize a group of GLOBE students raise the funds for a new electric chair.
Harms is writing her first book – an undergraduate business communication textbook that she’s co-authoring with fellow “biz comm” professor Heidi Schultz.
“When I interviewed at UNC Kenan-Flagler I fell in love with everything about it,” she says. “It’s a great place to be.”