Asking the “why?” questions

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When it comes to incorporating liberal learning into management studies, Redlands’ School of Business has long been at the forefront.

by Judy Hill

For James Spee and Allison Fraiberg, bringing the core components of liberal arts education into the undergraduate business curriculum has always been a no-brainer. That’s not the case at most business schools, where the acquisition of strictly managerial skills remains top priority.

So when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report arguing for just this type of integration of liberal learning and business education, Spee and Fraiberg, both professors at Redlands’ School of Business, knew it was time to share their experience in this arena with the wider world through an article in the Journal of Management Education.

The article, which appeared in a February 2015 special issue of the journal, is titled “Topics, Texts, and Critical Approaches: Integrating Dimensions of Liberal Learning in an Undergraduate Management Course.”

For many years, Fraiberg has taught an undergraduate class in the School of Business called Critical Analysis, where students are asked to reflect on their working life and approach questions from the “why?” rather than merely the “how?”

One of the things that tends to happen in business schools, says Spee, is that “we do a lot of teaching people how to do things. It’s all tool based. How could this task be more efficient? What does lean production look like?” In Fraiberg’s class, students learn instead to break down efficiency, to be inefficient even, as they think about issues as something to be understood rather than solved.

Unlike the typical business school writing class, where literature and film and other materials from the humanities are injected into the curriculum, Fraiberg prefers to have her students read texts about management and then bring to those the liberal arts imperatives of reasoning, analysis, reflection and multiple perspectives. “In our first week we might look at [Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer] Dave Coplin’s ‘Re-Imagining Work’ video, for example,” says Fraiberg. “And when we talk about multiple perspectives we’re really talking about different ways of knowing, not necessarily about different stakeholders. It’s about taking it to another level and trying to figure out how people, cultures and organizations know the things they know.”

Fraiberg says she notices a dramatic effect on her students. “They say, ‘I came here for a piece of paper, but something’s changing now, I’m here for a different reason now.’ A little light goes off.”

“I teach strategy,” says Spee, “but you also need to talk about and reflect on how you find meaning.” For Fraiberg what it comes down to is this: “It’s really about shifting students from finding research that validates what they already believe to a frame of mind where they’re really trying to figure something out. That’s a shift that’s University wide. It’s about changing our thinking from ‘What do I want to prove?’ to ‘What do we want to figure out.’”

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