Friday, July 06, 2007

Four Kings

It has been my experience that, when it come to courses, choosing Professors matters more than the subject itself. This has been made more stark as I sit here and try to 'remember' what I actually learned in the two years past ... and I have to say that not a great lot has actually stuck : I'm sure things will come back in context when they need to, but.

I've actually been lucky to have taken classes with some amazing professors, but in the spirit of forced curve grading, here are my top Four faves, in no particular order. It's actually really hard to choose four over the rest (save a few), but the reason these cats jump so high is because they brought something to the experience that elevated, and this is a personal observation, the classroom beyond being just a place to imbibe what they had to profess.

Austan Goolsbee
, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics
Economics and Policy in the Telecom, Media and Technology Industries

The first time I raised my hand in class to make a point, Prof. Goolsbee pointed to me and before I could say anything, he said, "PY, you know I am going to laugh at you if you make a stupid argument, right." And, I loved him for that. Far from being a repudiation of the No-Stupid-Questions ethic, his teaching style is the closest I've seen at the GSB to the Socratic method of learning knowledge. He openly encouraged debate, insisting on people coming to class not just having read his cases, but with formed opinions. These opinions were then set off to clash, Prof. Goolsbee nudging and prodding from the Well, until either one was convinced, and hence able to convince the class, of the strength of their arguments, or seeing the chinks therin, and accepting an alternative thesis. Not just what, but Why.

And, Prof. Goolsbee did it in a manner all his own. I'm fond of the adage that the problem with adults is that they are not kids. Watching him in class is like seeing a kid playing with his latest infatuation. He's all over the place, gesticulating, and radiating an infectious energy. In his free time, he's rumored to moonlight as a stand-up comedian at Second City, and that's probably where the funnies come from. His class was a riot, and the mirth was perfect foil for what was unfolding - under the guise of applying economic principles to analyze policy decisions and their impact on TMT industries, I found myself being instructed in the subtle arts of critical reasoning. I have not come across another professor at the GSB that actually pushed so hard - my yardstick for evaluation being my sitting in class debating with myself in my head. This is also the class that I have most recommended to my peers, and I highly recommend it to anyone attending the school in the future.

Ronald S. Burt
, Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy
Social Network Analysis

Prof. Burt during his first lecture: "As you sit in this class, think of yourself as a gumball machine. If you have a question that comes to mind, let it roll out like a gumball. And, I'll be watching for it. If there are too many well-thought-out questions, I'm going to stop the class. Because, that means that you are not asking enough questions that you don't have answers for. And, that's a dangerous thing." I paraphrase, of course, but that was the general tenor of the Ph.D class on Social Network Analysis that I audited during Autumn Quarter 2006. Prof. Burt is a sociologist, a leading authority on brokerage in social networks, and a phenomenal professor. While the class alternated between hard-core quant stuff and analysis of network behavior, I couldn't help but be in a constant state of thinking. I have scarcely been in a class where I felt afforded the luxury of letting my mind wander - in the best possible way. I would sit in class totally engaged yet thinking of situations, from my past experiences and what was going on around me, where the concepts being talked about applied, their interplay, their foilbes, and then being a gumball machine: I suspect I asked way too many questions for someone auditing the class, but Prof. Burt was very patient, helping me understand what I didn't. If I have to nutshell it, I'd say I learned to extend the argument, search for applications beyond the obvious, to seek meaning where it's not immediately evident. It's hard to describe, but the class was totally awesome. (to be more precise, the classes that I ended up going to - I did miss a few)

Prof. Burt is also an evangelist for the Chicago School. In his opinion, at the University of Chicago, one is at very high risk of running into an articulate opposition to one's idea. At that point, you have two options - either an equally articulate response or an acceptance of a divergent point of view. I learned more about what this school is about - with, at its core the Workshop methodology of knowledge creation - by listening to him than any literature. Prof. Burt is also an extremely nice and approachable guy - I had occasions to talk with him about his work, my experiences at the school, organizations and networks, and also interviewed him for an article for the school newspaper.

A few months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from him asking about my job search. Basically he said that I was an interesting person, and that interesting people don't place as easily as uninteresting people, and that he was worried if I was well. He offered any help or advice to make sure I was OK on my first steps post-GSB. Receiving this email was one of the few 'moments' of my time at the GSB, one that set down some roots, if I may, when the place took a step away from being a 2-year transit stop to one where someone else cared about what was going on with me, and wanted to see good things happen.

Matthew S. Bothner
, Associate Professor of Organizations and Strategy
Strategy and Structure: Markets and Organizations

I can't seem to remember if it was Fall Preview or Admit Weekend when I sat in on a class by Prof. Bothner. I do remember the class though, where he talked about Explorers and Exploiters in the context of strategy, using Apple and Wal-Mart as examples. A great class, full of energy and brining a new perspective to things around us. Later that day, I was standing outside the building when Prof. Bothner, on his way home, stopped by to talk with me. We talked about going to school here, the teaching, faculty etc, and ended with him suggesting that this would be a great place for me to attend.

I did, and this pattern of random conversation repeated itself several times, starting with my taking his class. Prof. Bothner is a great teacher, and I have not studied under anyone so dedicated to his students. He brings a phenomenal amount of energy to the classroom, is constantly in motion, generated involvement in his case discussions, and uses media - video and audio clips - extensively, making for an interesting experience. He also grades his cases himself, and writes detailed individual reports back to each student - 180 of them in a quarter - for 3-4 cases. &, he is totally available for discussion and advice. I remember a time when we hung around class talking about Jack Welch, and my lack of any desire to be a CEO :), until 10:30 PM!

The all-round-great-guy apart, what endeared me is his approach to the issues of business and strategy. He is a sociologist by training (I've come to realize, I've taken a fascination to that subject), and seems not to be full of the business BS. In one especially memorable class, he was talking about Annealing. You know, the process of shaping metal by heating it first and then letting it cool to reveal its new form. The class was about applying the analogy to shaking up organizations in the midst of uncertainty. I ask him a question: How do you know when you've heated things up enough and it's time to let things cool? I was expecting a framework-type answer, when he turned to me and: "You've got to feel it in you Gut." I can't think of any other professor who could have given me that answer. When you are surrounded by people who think they know the answers, or are learning them everyday, it's quite the summer rain to be reminded that there is no magic bullet - that despite all the education, the fancy diploma, it still comes down to intangibles.

Omar M. McRoberts
, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Ethnographic Methods

This one is from my Book of Quirky. Any professor who says motherfucker in class has to be a hero, methinks. And, any professor who doesn't fail you for saying fucking in your final report has to belong to a pantheon of something, ya.

Prof. McRoberts is not a GSB professor, he teaches a graduate class in the Sociology department that I took in my final quarter. I walk into class my first day and realize that I have never taken a class with a black professor - it just never happened. And, there was the coolest cat ever to have sat at the head of a class I've been in - dreadlocks, smart as fuck, chill, the works. And, he said something that I should carry around inscribed on something:
"Nothing I profess today I've ever learned in a classroom."

He was talking literally: about how there was no class on Ethnographic Methods, the class he was teaching, at Harvard; how he was trained as a sociologist but his work now is in History. But, I read a more profound meaning: Classroom education is not just a starting point, but an obligation: to move beyond, to discover different things. Simplistic, I realize. But, one can tend to forget these small things when in business school, being around people whose choice of learning is linked directly to what they want to do - bankers want to major in Finance and Accounting, someone concentrating in Marketing wants to find a job in, no surprises, marketing. This is taken to extremes sometimes - people squeezing in a course so that they can get a concentration in something so that they can put it on a resume; conversely, not giving a damn about courses that are somehow not related to their intended line of work. Immediate line of work, emphasis mine.

And, lest you think that this was a profanity-laced experience, I was being a tad facetious. Prof. McRoberts tells stories. One of his best was when we were discussing reading about the culture of Jazz musicians, about the concepts of front-stage and back-stages, literally in performers and profoundly in people's behaviors when they are around others. He told us about the time his dad went to see Miles Davis play. After he finished his set, Dad walks over to the stage:
Mr. Davis, I just wanted to say that I'm a big fan. Love your music.
And, Miles, being the consummate non-square:
Motherfucker, I don't need to be talking to you.

I learned a phenomenal deal from the class about people, and their relationship to the Around them. And, I did a cool 10-week project: An ethnography of the GSB Communities. The plural is deliberate. After observing people in their environment, writing fieldnotes, parsing through this data, I ended up generating a theory about how students here live in 2 sometimes, sometimes not, overlapping communities - the existent one and an imagined one. It was a fascinating report, and hard to summarize all 18 pages of it, profanity et al.

I could go on, but I should stop. It's taken me a while, interruptions considered, to write this post. And, I need to pack.




Blogger shmoo said...

Yep. Loved Goolsbee. Bother's good too. Didn't have the others.

17 July, 2007 10:23  
Blogger Blue Viking said...

Thanks! I am joining GSB this Fall. I will try to take classes with these professors.

20 July, 2007 16:33  
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