Putting Class to Use

As an undergraduate, c. 1982, I enrolled in a class outside of my major because I had an idea that I wanted to develop. The idea, then novel, was land-for-debt swaps, i.e., that rather than “develop” their forests and jungles for agriculture and resources to obtain hard currency to pay off debts, Brazil and other deeply indebted nations could, instead, forego “development” in return for debt forgiveness, thereby reducing the deleterious effect on the environment. (Even back then, global warming loomed as a cataclysmic problem.)

Hoping to develop the idea, I enrolled in a political science class on Latin America. When I told the class TA about my project, she said that the class had a set structure and assignments and the purpose was to teach a body of material, “not to help you develop your idea.”

So instead, I wrote the idea without guidance or course credit. I did publish it in a student publication, but there it died without acknowledgement. The idea was subsequently developed by others, but by then, in another type of career, I was unable to participate, and possibly even help push it along earlier and further than it otherwise went.

Our TA’s opinion notwithstanding, I felt then and still feel today that “using” a course for your own purposes is the best possible education. Indeed, standardized course assignments may be the world’s greatest wasted opportunity. Consider all the time and energy that you personally have spent attending class and complying with course requirements. Now, imagine that time and effort optimally applied. Properly focused, you could have landed a job (or several), written a book or two…. changed your world, or at least some part of it.

Some students in the University of Pennsylvania Organizational Dynamics (OD) program are doing that. Five former students are the featured speakers at the program’s Fall Brunch tomorrow (10:00am at the Hilton Inn@Penn) discussing how they used OD classes to design and develop their careers and their organizations:

    • Deb Denis developed “Coaches Without Borders,” (and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro along the way).

    • Tom Fung used OD Sustainability Development and Global Organization concentrations to develop a framework guiding several international food sustainability projects.

    • Chuck Hall used OD to transition from a corporate career to teaming with others in entrepreneurial pursuits.

    • Owen Gibbons has used OD insights to shift organizational paradigms for how the US Coast Guard uses two classes of ships.

    • Sharlene Sones used her “Storytelling in Organizations” and capstone classes to develop her own approach to branding as director of Marketing for Penn’s Business Services.

Technical courses with standardized assignments may bring students to the point of hire-ability in beginning a career. But increasingly students already have a job or career or are engaged in studies outside of a core technical curriculum. Moreover, the nature of careers and career advancement has changed. Rarely now can people expect to climb any sort of stable corporate ladder. Rather, careers move laterally or in fits and starts dependent on circumstances and the aspirant’s astuteness, motivation and creativity.

So for the most part beyond introductory college level classes, standardized, prescribed assignments take up the time and effort that almost certainly could be applied more valuably.

Teachers can certainly help to make better use of assignments and courses. To encourage useful assignments, I focus attention on what they students hope to get out of a particular class – not only the superficial reasons, but sometimes hidden, buried, unconscious considerations. Is there anything you really want to do or accomplish towards which this course may be helpful? What would be the best possible outcome?

Advisors and program counselors and can help too. Ideally, course assignments are not isolated projects, but rather components in a larger educational program.

Sometimes less is more. Dreams are often deeply submerged – and barely flickering – underneath many layers of “have-to”s in busy lives. Quiet time and simple encouragement may provide the best chance to permit dreams, insights and new directions to emerge. Rather than add to a long list of “have-to”s teacher and student might together explore, excavate, revive, rehabilitate, imagine or conceive a student’s “want-to”s. And only then develop a personalized assignment.

The long-standing paradigm of education puts assignments somewhere on the tail end of the process, an evil necessary only so as to ascertain whether a student demonstrates minimal competency in a (somewhat arbitrary) domain. But given the nature of contemporary careers and students, the scarcity of time, and the even more limited opportunity for expert guided endeavor, designing worthwhile assignments and projects – putting class to use — should be the centermost core of education, around which everything else ought to revolve.

Ultimately, it’s you, the student, who derives the benefits (or suffers the consequences) of what you do with class time. The effort put into getting a degree amounts to a large proportion of your disposable time. That time is precious! In the end, time is life. What you do with it is who you are; what you do with your class time is who you’ll become. It’s you who needs to make ensure it’s put to use.


Hello world!

For most of the past two decades, I’ve been mostly a scholar and teacher, but before then I worked at a lot of jobs and started up a few enterprises. This semester, I’ve taken a respite from most scholarly endeavors and am trying to startup a new business, Crisalis, because I think that we have something critically valuable to offer organizations. Still, at heart, I’m an educator. With Crisalis, I’ll still be educating, trying to help organizations avert crises and seize opportunity. but I’m already missing regular classes this semester — so trying to reach out instead with this blog — which I’d like to try to publish as a print column.

My academic career began with PhD studies in Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but I have wide-ranging scholarly interests. I’ve written e a few books and many articles and the I’ve received several research awards. I first joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 2000 (Wharton), and have taught in the University’s Organizational Dynamics (OD) program (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) since 2003. These are the courses I’ve been teaching:

I’ve also taught extensively in Latin America.

I will still this semester be leading research and paper writing workshops, which all OD students are encouraged to attend at no cost. Depending on your interest, “Education for Life” may become a weekly column. Please send us your thoughts on this!