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Emily Dohse reports from Partner Case Night

I’ve never power-walked so fast in my life. I had just gotten off the T at Harvard Square and was FaceTiming besties back in Chicago while crossing Mt. Auburn Street, when I looked at my watch: 6:24?! $%#!#@!

With a side-eye out for the wild Cambridge turkey, I hoofed it across the bridge in full-blown “student-late-for-class” mode and my cute student outfit became soaked in power-walk sweat. I made it to Aldrich just in time to get lost once and then pick up a delicious sack-dinner of salmon and veggies that was set out on the SkyDeck (thank you organizers!).
Partners Case Night was about to begin.

I found my seat (What!? WormDeck!? I thought I was cooler than that!) and was delighted to see that I had my very own nametag sticking up out of the wooden desk. Seventy-eight partners were in attendance and I figured their students had prepared them, just like mine had, with tales of aggressive hand-raising and commenting. I knew how hard it was to get called on, so I did some quick arm stretches and got out my case.

We were about to discuss “Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley” and Professor Tsedal Neeley was going to lead the way. I had been a guest once already in my student’s section and the professor was so invigorated by the discussion that I was hit by flying chalk. I was hoping for more of the same, and Neeley did not disappoint (minus the chalk). The room was excited from beginning to end and hands were raised consistently, although maybe not as vigorously as those raised by our student counterparts. Comments were smart and thoughtful.

Halfway through class, Neeley characterized the RC’s as “alert, interested and engaged.” I don’t know what that makes an EC class, but the “RC shine” must rub off somewhere during the summer, as focus shifts from being a classroom all-star to landing a job.
Understanding what was on the line (namely pride), I wanted to make an excellent comment. I was not about to rephrase something someone smarter than me had just said, so I got my hand up high and I got my hand up early. The cold call (Yes, they cold-called us! No breaks for partners!) was inflicted on a woman whose dear husband volunteered her for it right before class – and she sailed through with flying colors. Luckily, her opinion was opposite of mine so this was my golden chance to Make An Excellent Comment.

I presented the case’s opposing argument and then ‘poof’ – the pressure was off. I sat back, satisfied with myself and exhilarated from speaking in front of so many people. But then other partners started bringing up great ideas I hadn’t thought of before. And I thought of amazing comments to add that would probably have blown everyone’s mind if only Professor Neeley could have SEEN ME!
The desperation you have to mask while keeping your hand raised and remaining poised is exhausting. I started to see why our students are so cutthroat about participation – something I actively avoided in senior year AP calculus – and began to get frustrated when I was never called on again. I started blaming the fact that I was in the WormDeck, the fact that I had used up all my airtime in the first five minutes of class, the fact that the girl behind me had longer arms… It’s a dark hole to fall into and I can see why it causes so many RC’s anxiety.

At one point we were invited to ask Professor Neeley anything we wanted. Someone asked about hand raising and what role favoritism plays in discussions. The answer was simple: it’s all about being visible and getting that hand UP THERE.

Professors are human too – they’re going to see the guy with his arm passionately pressed to his face before they see the guy who isn’t putting his heart and soul into his desire to participate. So: is there a strategy or isn’t there?

One thing that surprised me, and that I hadn’t considered as a classroom strategy until it happened, was when a partner admitted at the end of the class that the opinion they supported throughout the discussion was actually the opposite of their real opinion. They just needed an opportunity to comment, and that was the easiest thing to argue when the time came.

Do you see how stressful that is? Not only to do you have to be legitimately prepared for class, you then have to get an action plan ready so you can survive the battlefield of comments. Do you just keep your hand up and pray that something dazzling will come out when you’re finally called on? How far should you over think this? “Anxiety in an RC is counterproductive,” advised Neeley, and boy is that the truth – participation anxiety > case angst.

So how do you overcome the rat race of commenting? Professor Neeley revealed that she doesn’t call on people she doesn’t think are prepared, because they won’t move the conversation forward. Nobody learns then, and someone else just lost precious airtime.
The double-edged sword here is that an unprepared student doesn’t want to let on that they’re unprepared and risk not getting called on which would affect their participation grade, but they also don’t want to participate because instead of reading the case they had too many pumpkin beers at Daedalus the night before and don’t have anything to say. Since participation is 50% of the grade, Professor Neeley’s advises that: “You’re here to learn. Focus on learning. Shortcuts aren’t worth it.”

October 20, 2014
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