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Trading Places

One of the many features of HBS is your Section and Seat assignment. Fresh from Foundations, first-years flick, fingers fluttering, through reams of smiling facsimile faces of the cohort, looking for the Section and the Seat with which they will forever be associated. Heaving with relief from not being put in the same section as that guy/girl with whom they just shared breakfast, the chilling realization hits – they’re in the worm deck.

You try hard to shake off the stigma, but you secretly know, you will always be the Worm Deck Guy. When you launch that hostile bid 15 years down the line, your deadly foe will say, “Hey, wait a minute, weren’t you the guy in the worm deck? Hey. Cool, I know all your bald patches”. Conversely, sky-deckers receive immediate and unwarranted cachet — the cool, the winners, the visionaries. Evidence: they’re in the skydeck, they must be cool and funny — let them give awards to lesser folks.

We learn to live with this, as just another side of the dodecahedron that is HBS. We master the peccadilloes of the seat and its favourite positions, learn how to avoid the prof’s deadly cold-call finger, and bond with our neighbours, as we are told we should. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, our world, is turned upside-down. Shaken like a sleepy village in a snow globe, our section seats are no longer ours — second semester seating assignments have arrived.
Too late.

Sectionmates are already owned by their seat; spot-welded in the imagination. Languorous sky-deckers are now thrust under the noses of professors, wearing the frozen look of a bunny in headlights. Quiet, non pre-possessing worm-deckers are sent to the farthest reaches of the classroom, and have to rely on satellite to get their messages back to the front-line. Bonds forged through months of shared write-ups and humorous asides have been cast asunder. We came to HBS for change, but surely this crashing trauma goes well beyond the `transformational’ experience we signed up to?

It is not even as if it’s a short sharp shock and then it’s over — painful memories and pleasant friendships are rekindled in Finance 1, where your seats are still your own. Negotiations and Society and Enterprise add more curve balls — here are yet more seat positions, and, horrors, half of the class has been replaced by strangers from different sections.

Morten Hoegh, a normally stoical Norseman from NC, tries to put a brave face on his new spot – on the extremity of right field. `I didn’t come to HBS to learn how to operate the AV’ he grouses, referring to his nest among the cables and controls of our hi-tech learning cocoons. `From here you can only watch the prof’s rear — and most profs don’t have a rear worth watching’ he laments. A happier note from Section NA — Victor Ho, whose section mates wish his bladder was as big as his brain, has been plucked from garden deck obscurity and placed, as if by magic, next to the crafty-exit door on sky deck. “My new seat is great, it’s just a slide away from the most important room in the house.” Quite so, Vic.
`Harvard Random’ gives chance a helping hand.

Unsurprisingly, the administration denies using seats to punish those who have been bad in the first term. So how are the seat assignments chosen? Harbus interviewed Lee Gross, HBS Technology and Operations Manager, an invisible hand of seat assignment. When asked if the seating assignments are random, she says, “They are random to the extent that the program tries not to seat you next to a person with the same or similar name or nickname. It also attempts to evenly distribute gender.” Fair enough. The reason they change after one semester is, “to give you a different view of the classroom.” Nothing more. Neither the profs nor anyone else gets a hand in redistributing the masses, and you certainly can’t change what you get. The moral — sit down, and shut up, but make sure you’re in the right seat.

January 22, 2001
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