Essays

Why I Became a Prof

The simple answer to that question is “to learn”. I really enjoy learning and I want to share that experience. I’m intrigued by how we learn and whether there are ways to do it more effectively and efficiently. What does it mean to learn something? What insights from neuroscience today can we apply to our efforts? To what extent is learning a social activity versus an individual effort? What is the role of technology in learning? Can technology learn? Enhance learning?

While I can remember instances in my formal education program in which I deemed my teachers inspirational, the “teachers” I’ve always been aware of wanting to emulate were bosses, peers, and direct reports at work who provided me great learning opportunities: who either shared their knowledge, challenged me to jointly discover with them new knowledge, or forced me to assess why what I knew to be true wasn’t working.   At one point, I managed a group of very intelligent PhD’s doing applied research in artificial intelligence. We wanted to develop computer software that was capable of “learning”, so we explored how people learn. While AI has lost some of its luster, the pursuit of deep learning by machines—read robots—still continues; and like all good learning, it replaces some of our questions with better understanding and triggers some even more penetrating questions. And I find that kind of learning exciting. I want to share it.

Now I am basically a techie at heart, and in my career I tried to motivate direct reports with technical degrees to apply their expertise to solve business problems.  When after thirty years I was presented with an opportunity to return to academia to help business students understand and exploit the power of technology, I opted to go for it.  My experience in business led me to believe that for most business problems or opportunities there is no one right answer; there are sometimes good answers and maybe even better answers.  So I envisioned a role of little lecturing, some experimenting, and lots of engaging students in looking for better answers.  At the time, the dominant approach to pedagogy was still the transfer model: I am the teacher, I know the answers, I will deliver them to you via lecture; then I will test you to see how much you retained: pop open the top of the head, pour in the knowledge, close it up and see what comes out.  I was facing a bigger challenge than I had anticipated.  And it was too intriguing to let go of.

As I look back on my fourteen years in the academy, I feel like I somehow missed the boat.  I did do some very explicit things to place the spotlight on learning, but on balance it seems like I made little, halting progress.  Even though there were ideas and encouragement in the literature, in my position I felt like the lone ranger.  I made costly errors which led to “OMG, I’ll never do that again” which really slowed progress.  One example: I helped to develop a course for MBA students on using information technology to drive business value.  I taught the course more than twenty times in my time there.  On one occasion, I started by announcing to the students that I really couldn’t teach them all they were going to need to know on this topic.  Given the rapid pace of innovation in the field, I wasn’t even sure what some of the relevant questions were, let alone in a position to give them the answers.  But I said that doesn’t matter for two reasons: one, there is far more potential learning material than we could possibly cover in ten weeks, and two, I had learned by this time that what they were going to learn was more determined by them than by me anyway.  So I said, the syllabus contains a list of important topics and several kinds of deliverables designed to support their learning.  Their challenge was to decide which topics they wanted to pursue, then tell me what deliverables they would produce.  I gave guidelines and suggested anything outside the guidelines could be negotiated.  My experience to that point had been that MBA classes were usually bifurcated on the topic of information technology: there were the students who said I’ve been doing this for the last several years, you haven’t been, so you aren’t going to be able to teach me anything I don’t already know.   The others took the approach: I don’t like computers or technology, so I’m going to hire someone to do that work for me.  Attempting to learn it will just be a waste of my time.   This new approach seemed inspired in concept.  This class far surpassed any before or after in displaying interest and engaging in the topics, sharing what they were learning with their peers, and critiquing the value of the learning activities.  And the logistics almost did me in.  I wound up creating a separate spreadsheet for every one of the 42 students in the class to track and grade their proposed deliverables.  It was almost like trying to provide personal tutorial services to each student (which gave me a better appreciation for benefit of lecturing).  For example, although exams were one of the potential deliverables, I did not plan to create any because I was quite sure no student would opt for an exam given other options like critiquing articles, writing original papers, programming some technology, or giving presentations to the class.  Well one student insisted, because he was in law school and took exams routinely there he wanted three exam.   So I wrote and graded three separate exams for one student.

I think I inspired some learning; I think I facilitated some learning; and I even did some learning.  And what I learned, I feel, is that I only started to scratch the surface.  Learning is distinct from teaching; it is also not education or schooling, although it is related.  I think there are (at least) two distinct approaches to learning: institutional and personal.  I think we experimented with both, and I think that both are vitally important.  And I think the latter is maybe given short shrift, at least in academia, and I want to explore that further.

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