Saturday, October 22, 2005

The class format and the profs

Let me talk a little about how the classes were in term 1 and something about the profs. I recently read a small blog entry somewhere from a woman who had visited classes in Columbia, HBS and Stanford. I thought the comments were pretty interesting and I never myself thought how different a particular class could be and even if it is, how much of a difference in your learning it could make.

Recently, since the admissions process has started heating up at Fuqua, I have seen prospective student visitors sit at the back of my class. They are usually welcomed nicely by the profs. at the beginning and the students sometimes clap for them if the situation makes it kinda unavoidable (you know, sometimes the awkward pause needs to be filled with something ;-)). They usually sit for half the class and then disappear after the break. I have seen them through the corners of my eye during lectures and thought to myself, "This dude ought to be impressed.". But jokes apart, I honestly don't know what they take away from the visit and what they write in their respective blogs (!), but I thought that it would be interesting to write about classes at Fuqua.

So lemme cover the 3 classes that we had in term 1, Stats, MICRO-ECON and ME.

PROBABILITY & STATISTICS: Probability and Stats is pretty much your typical math class with a lot of learning from traditional lecturing, doing problems in class and students asking questions. There are occasions when the class is involved in a discussion about how good or bad statistics can be for example, or how a *random* sampling among population can be biased. Sometimes, when team assignments are due at the beginning of a class, one team is chosen (by volition mostly) to present its solution to everyone and this lasts for about a half hour. The class is fairly fast-paced with a lot of topics being covered in a single lecture and then sometimes, you have a class where the lecturer spends more than half a class solving problems on the OHP and giving you a feel for how to approach problems. There are lots of slides (and two bundles of lots of slides sometimes!) and lecturing is the primary tool applied for teaching. The Prof. was Jill Stowe, a good natured woman who used to put up pictures of her 6 month old son Zack in between slides just to wake us up (we had early morning classes for stats!) Stats was also different from the other lectures in a way that it did not have mid-term exams. Instead we had 3 quizzes over the first 8 or 9 (out of 12) classes. The first quiz was monstrously tough and really grabbed everyone's attention to the course. Overall, quite rigorous and traditional course with a great prof. at the helm.

MANEGERIAL ECONOMICS: We had Jim Anton (by now, you must have heard the name couple of times!). He is a tall, well built, nice guy with a great demeanor. He is extremely punctual about class timings and usually walks up to the clock in the class, watches it closely, looks at the minute and (I think) the second hand and announces, "Please be back at 2:56". ECON, like ME, has a lot of reading to do before class and the class assumes that you have done it. Almost the whole class is interactive, from beginning to end with Jim asking people for their experiences in a grocery store, a convenience store, or with life in general, with cell phone companies, flights etc. In terms of theory, you learn a lot by reading a great book that is assigned as the required text for the course. The class, in my opinion, focuses more on the application of concepts that you have read. Jim also has a great way of plucking out topics and placing them in a real life in such a way that you will never forget. I think he is liked by many students for this, but the other reason why students like him so much is his classy and incredibly funny humour that is extremely tasteful.

Talking about learning how to apply concepts, he brings Wall Street Journal to almost every other class, puts it up on the OHP and discusses couple of articles from it for a few minutes. If you think that's practical, think about this: We played 2 economy games in class. We were grouped as suppliers or consumers, suppliers setting a price for 3 grades of a product and consumers choosing to buy one unit of one of those grade-products, such that they got maximum benefit when they bought it. Do this over and over again and you will see where price stabilizes in a market. In another game, we were the constituents of OPEC cartel and were asked to generally *supply* oil. The demand from the market of oil was fixed at a mathematical equation and depending on how your cartel performs, the constituents reaped profits. If a cartel constituent produced in excess to reap high short-term benefit, you saw excess supply in the market, eventually hurting the cartel operations and the constituent in the longer run. This is probably as practical as it gets in a classroom. Often, you came out of a class either thinking that what was discussed in class was vastly different from and had no connection to what you read, or if you did not read the assigned readings like.... umm.. you-know-who, you came out completely lost and panicking. However, at some point, when you are scared enough to sit down and (re-)read the chapters in the book, it all starts making sense (and making a lot of sense in real life!) That is how powerful this course was.

MANAGERIAL EFFECTIVENESS: Last, and by no means the least was the much talked about, much loved and much hated, ME. I don't know where to begin as I think about this course. Ah yes, class format. The pre-class readings were a lot in this class and every class had a case to be discussed. The readings were from books, sometimes articles and research publications. The readings were many and you had to spend a couple of hours before each class to finish the readings and the case. You also had to take a pre-class survey before 10 PM the previous night. These surveys consisted of general questions or questions based on the case. This was one class that went completely by discussions and students involvement. No one can lecture managerial effectiveness into your head. People shared their thoughts from the case reading and also sometimes their experiences in previous jobs. Due to the nature of the topic, sometimes you had heated debate between two groups of students, one, as an example, in favour of promoting the protagonist of the case, and one against the promotion. These cases were real life examples of ME at work. The surveys that we filled the night before were used to delve into the psychhology of a community and how they thought. It felt like this was a more of social psychology class at times. Overall, the lectures were handled very well by Rick but he always seemed like fighting against time because so many ideas were being discussed in class.

I can't even begin to explain the different tools used in this class. Let me try and put down the things that we did: Readings, case discussions, debates, results from experiments by researchers on social psychology, people behaviour etc., lecturing, results from surveys taken by students, and one role-play game. Typically, you had the first hour for discussions and the next hour for a combination of lecture and survey results analysis. This was one class that I think would have benefitted from more than 2 hours of class time, but my guess is that even that would have been consumed by discussions. If there was one class that had an electricity in the air during break and at the end, it was ME. The course was tough for most students because the topics were very controversial sometimes, or open to subjective interpretation, or at risk of being understood too *shallow-ly* or at face value perhaps, or concepts were too interconnected between classes, or because of personal opinions, biases and cultural, social or individual differences coming into play. (Ooh, man! That's all loaded stuff!) But not until you go through this course in some seriousness will you realize how difficult it is to manage a bunch of people in an organization.

So the experience of studying different subjects in a bschool is different. If you sit in a stats class, you would feel the class is more lecture-based with interactions mostly by means of questions and clarifications by students. It is practical with real life examples, but is mathematics that you are learning at the end of the day. Economics was very interactive with prof. engaging students and less lecturing. Students mostly self-learn the theory, with very practical applications being discussed in class. ME was very case- and readings-based with very engaging discussions and research-based learning. You might even think students are very competitive when they are debating in an ME class, but it's all a 'set-up'.

Also, a point to note that amazingly enough, these subjects linked to each other in subtle ways. For example, Game Theory from economics can be applied to ME concepts like *trading differences* instead of *splitting differences* when negotiating between your company and its labour union. It's a pretty direct application.

So attending lectures is useful in gaining an understanding of a school or business schools in general, but just a word of caution - beware of reading too much into it. Now I am beginning to get a grasp of why there are so many conflicting views on the internet about the top bschools. It is in the interest of learning in every bschool to have these different experiences. OK, that was a very management-type sentence that I should save for the recruiters; let me put it more simply. Different subjects need to be taught differently, and that is what all good bschools do, I am sure.

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