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Seminar Opens Minds, One Book at a Time
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
A group of Bentley professors aims to compose a bestseller list of future business leaders by prompting students not only to read challenging literary works, but to experience an “aha” moment.
Launched last fall, the Undergraduate Fellows Seminar emphasized reading as a means for making connections among individual ideas to gain broader insight. Twelve bachelor’s degree candidates read three assigned books with a common theme, and joined four professors to explore the topic from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The goal is to cultivate close reading and deliberate discussion – a simple premise with complex plot twists in the age of text messages and tweets.
“The most successful learning comes from opportunities to sit down with others – teachers and students – and think carefully about matters of real significance,” says Mike Frank, a longtime faculty member who originated the idea for the program. “Successful reading means engaging with the ideas in a text, entering into a conversation with people who have thought carefully about related matters, and taking the ideas of others not as true, but as a challenge to one’s own thinking.”
Frank, an associate professor of English, joined three colleagues in teaching the inaugural seminar: Susan Adams, associate professor of management; Susan Dobscha, associate professor of marketing; and Jeff Gulati, assistant professor of global studies. The program is sponsored by the Jeanne and Dan Valente Center for Arts and Sciences.
The four professors selected challenging books of broad and enduring interest to examine the seminar topic, which for 2009-2010 was “representation.”
Of his choice, Hannah Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation, Gulati says: “It has a continuing impact on how political scientists assess the ‘representativeness’ of legislative institutions. The book explores important and controversial questions of what ‘good’ representation is.”
Other entries on the reading list were Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, edited by Stuart Hall, and Art and Illusion by E.M. Gombrich.
Faculty members led discussions of works far removed from their own specialties, which Valente Center director Chris Beneke says created a unique educational opportunity. “The professors approached these texts with no more discipline-specific expertise than the students, providing learning on both sides.”
Adams agrees. “We [faculty] were struggling through passages with students, but using our training as scholars to model how to study and facilitate discussions that lead to in-depth inquiry. We aren’t perfect; we may not find all the answers we seek, but we do keep digging to understand the underlying structures of concepts.”
Students were especially challenged by the reading requirements and broad discussion topic. “What differentiates this course from others is that students must struggle with the material before they can contribute anything meaningful,” explains Ilya Fishman ’11, a Corporate Finance and Accounting major.
“Going over the concepts was mentally exhausting at some points,” adds Information Design and Corporate Communication major Kate Matheson ‘10. “I used parts of my critical thinking that I have never used before. I’ve become a better student in other classes because I have a better grasp of the big picture.”
In addition to group discussions with professors, undergraduate fellows met on their own to pursue related topics and readings. Each was required to write an extended, research-based paper delving into issues raised in the course, as well as to attend programs at the Valente Center and events off campus. Among the latter: a trip to Cambridge for the American Repertory Theater’s rendition of The Donkey Show. .
As Dobscha notes: “We tried to relinquish control as professors and leave the course outcomes and structure almost entirely in the students’ hands.”
Crissi Mann ’11 found the change of pace stimulating. “The multiple fields incorporated into one course – English, marketing, politics and management – gave the class a remarkable twist,” observes the Corporate Finance and Accounting major. “We had a ton of different views flying around the room at once.”
Pushing people outside their comfort zone sparks different types of learning, according to Dobscha. “Students grapple with text and have opportunities to unpack complex topics they will face in their life: racism, bullying, sexism and other inequities,” she says. “These things have no simple answers.”
Beneath its unifying concept of “representation,” the seminar encouraged students to consider how different academic disciplines inform each other.
“Students learned to see disciplinarity as a system for effectively addressing large, complex questions,” explains Frank. “It’s looking at the same material through a range of different lenses.”
The story closed with growth for all involved. “We thought we would end the semester ‘understanding representation,’ but what happened was even better,” says Mann. “We finished having all been challenged in some way -- whether through analyzing dense topics, answering slippery questions, or just reading difficult books.”
Adams credits the program for addressing an issue often overlooked by business schools: creating critical thinkers. “Students need more practice and explicit instruction on how to dig deeper into material, to tease out inconsistencies and understand underlying premises,” she says. “Strong ethics require this type of study, so sound decisions are made based on analyzing their current and future implications.
“We need to prepare better business leaders for a better business world, and Bentley is uniquely positioned to do that.”
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.