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Long on Talk, Short on Solutions

There is a new RC course this year called Learning at HBS. The course fosters class discussion about section norms and has even flirted with developing students’ awareness of diversity-related issues. While many RC students see value in the course, many are also frustrated with the lack of concrete solutions developed in the classroom.

RC students have an additional mini-course to fit into their busy schedules this year – a five-class sequence, taught by section chairs, called Learning at HBS (LHBS). The course aims to help each section establish norms to abide by throughout the year. At least, I think that’s what the goal is. Come to think of it, few sections have officially established any norms as a result of the discussion in LHBS. Hmm..so why have we spent all those extra hours in class for the past couple weeks? That could have been quality sleeping time!

Before I go into the pros and cons, here’s some background for anyone not familiar with the course: The first LHBS class focused on the case method and instructed each of us to think about what we, individually, could do to increase the efficacy of the learning model. The second class focused on what the section could do collectively to aid the learning process. (My parents’ reaction: What? You’re learning how to learn? Um, yes.)

In the first two classes, several sections had fruitful discussions about norms. In my
own section, for example, the class served as a good opportunity to explicitly state that when a professor asks a question, you should only raise your hand if you intend to actually answer the question. You should NOT raise your hand if you are trying to use the opportunity to espouse your own viewpoint on an unrelated aspect of the case. (Consider this article a friendly reminder on that point!) Other common issues that were considered: Should each person limit themselves to one comment per class? Should there be a rule about the number of “I agree” comments that can be made? What is and is not appropriate fodder for Skydeck awards?

Many students felt that these sessions were helpful. In one of the most positive reviews I’ve heard, a student commented that these classes gave “students the opportunity to demonstrate the huge diversity of opinions within a section.on everything from what people expect from Skydecks to what people feel constitutes the boundaries of what’s appropriate for classroom discussion.” For some sections, the LHBS sessions were a much needed opportunity to, as one student put it, “Force discussions that were happening in private into the open.so they could be dealt with quickly and efficiently before they grew into something more insidious.”

But others felt that these classes were repetitive of topics we discussed during our very first days at HBS and could have easily been condensed into a shorter period of time. In fact, when the second class came around, I heard many students groaning about having to sit through another 80 minutes of LHBS.

Even for those who valued the LHBS classes, one sticking point remained: while the classes were an excellent vehicle for generating interesting discussion, they did very little to help the sections resolve the issues that were raised.

This problem resonated even louder in the third and fourth LHBS classes, which centered around sensitivity to diversity-related issues (for lack of better terminology). In the third class, a group of professional actors acted out scenes that demonstrated how prejudices can surface in the workplace and in class. In the first scene, a group of bankers prepared for a conference call; their seemingly mundane conversation was filled with biases against several minority groups. In the second scene, the setting was the HBS classroom, with the actors playing the roles of professor and students. This time, they acted out a scenario where a white, male student said of a black, female protagonist in a Finance case, “She’s a b*tch!” After each of these scenes, the section was given a chance to challenge the actors, who stayed in character the entire time, about their behavior and briefly discuss the issues. The skits were followed up with further discussion in the fourth LHBS class later that week.

Even more than the first two LHBS classes, the third and fourth classes generated impassioned responses from students. Many RCs reported carrying on their conversations outside of class. (Although several of these discussions are worth delving into in more detail, I will have to save that report for another article lest I use up all the available ink in the Harbus press this week.) For many students, talking about how to approach diversity and prejudices within the learning environment was valuable. One student commented, “Some parts personally made me uncomfortable, but I saw value in learning to deal with uncomfortable situations related to diversity.”

But again, students had misgivings. It seemed the classes had, in one student’s words, “only scratched the surface of the issue.” Many students expressed frustration about the lack of clear goals for the LHBS classes. “I’m unclear on the point of the program,” said one RC. “It wasn’t clear what the goal was,” said another.

Perhaps the need to identify clear objectives for any sort of activity is a testament to our overwhelmingly type-A personalities, but I think it reflects a larger desire for answers to the questions raised in LHBS. One student got closer to the heart of the matter: “I don’t think the LHBS program has been helpful in facilitating resolutions to these questions.ÿ Maybe that’s not the point, but the discussions, while interesting, have begun to feel increasingly useless.”

Unlike many case discussions, LHBS classes have not ended with the professor tying up the loose ends in a neat little package. There is no epilogue from which we can easily extract the life or business lessons of the day. Unfortunately, that’s because the issues raised in LHBS are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. There is no right answer on where to draw the line on “relaxing” standards of political correctness in class. Even discussions on the appropriateness of certain Skydeck awards may never find a resolution. What is comfortable for some may feel completely wrong for others no matter how many persuasive arguments are made.

In any case, I doubt the objective was to come up with solutions to these issues in an 80-minute class period. Surely, one of the goals of LHBS was to initiate these conversations so that we might continue them and come to resolutions, if possible, at a later date (perhaps with the help of our newly elected section officers.) But I think the larger goal may be to get each of us to realize in a very personal way that people who we respect and who we know to be intelligent can hold viewpoints on very divisive issues that completely contradict our own. Gaining this understanding and learning to respect divergent opinions on “touchy” subjects may be the first step we can take toward having a chance at resolving these issues when they rear their heads in the future – at HBS and beyond.

In summary, I believe that LHBS has been valuable for most RC students. At the very least, many students appreciated that we didn’t have to do any case analysis for the course. Even so, I’m betting the LHBS case will be the hardest one to crack.

October 14, 2008
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