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We need protagonists of color and diversity in our case discussion classrooms

Lee Fleming, faculty director, Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership | June 29, 2020

Why do we teach? What outcomes do we seek in our students when we step into the classroom or create a learning opportunity? I seek a variety of outcomes: some easy to accomplish, others exceedingly difficult.

On the easiest end of the spectrum, I often expose students to facts, formulas – essentially knowledge they need to know. Technology has decreased my value-add here.

I think (well, at least I hope) that I provide more value when it comes to teaching analysis or how to do something that goes beyond simple memorization, for example, the process for assessing the value of a patent, or how to set up a statistical model. This becomes more challenging if a new algorithm needs to be written or increased judgment is required, such as when a market does not yet exist, or justification of an econometric instrument.

Continuing to the other extreme, the hardest thing I strive to do as an educator is to change attitudes. I find this exceptionally difficult. For example, how does one reach a student who has grown up in a racist environment and convince them that outgroup derogation is real (fact), that it can be addressed (process) – and finally and most importantly – that they should change their attitude, rejecting what they have observed from an early age, and actively adopt an anti-racist approach that can change our society? As another example, how does one reach a student who has grown up in a sexist environment and convince them that women are paid less for the same work (fact), that this problem can be addressed with a pay audit (process), and finally, change their attitude to insist that audits be carried out in their organization and that everyone deserves to be paid fairly for the work they do?

These are hard questions. I do not have all the answers. But as a teacher I can actively influence the narratives and profiles of leadership that students encounter in my classroom. If I can also elicit students’ narratives and their own leadership, they can learn from one another far more effectively than they might ever have learned from me.

I teach with case discussions. The use of case discussions began in business and medical schools and is a popular form of teaching leadership (I am faculty in engineering and business). Case discussions typically describe a situation and the challenges faced by a protagonist – and ask the class to debate how she should handle the situation. Good case teaching becomes collective improv – the teacher steps away and the students become leaders as they respond to and build upon one another’s contributions. Supportive case discussions provide powerful fora for sharing and learning — and changing attitudes.

One of our recent graduates from the Master of Engineering program came to me and asked a very good question: “Why aren’t there more women protagonists in our cases?” I take the student’s question more broadly, and ask, “Why don’t we have more diverse protagonists in our cases?”

Protagonists of color and diversity would change students’ expectations of who they can become. Students of color and diversity could identify with such protagonists and other students could envision following – and succeeding under – such a leader.

The question reveals a larger problem with the case discussion method, one that was clear even 22 years ago when I taught my first case. From then until now, there has remained a lack of diversity in the protagonists of the case discussion teaching literature. There is one challenging reason why this problem persists – and a few things we can do to address it.

Why do our case protagonists all look the same?
The biggest reason is that most cases are written about real people. This means that when we want to write about CEOs, the population from which we sample represents our problem – there are few CEO protagonists of color, as well as different genders, orientations, and other types of diversity. We can (and should) oversample on under-represented minorities, keeping in mind, however, that this oversampling also subjects those populations to heightened scrutiny and demands on their time. It enables them, however, to tell their story and describe how they faced and overcame their challenges – it essentially gives them a voice, especially when we bring them in afterwards as discussants.

If we are to change attitudes – the most difficult thing to “teach” – I would offer the following ideas, the first two around bringing more protagonists of color and diversity into our stories, and the last two around creating a more supportive context that brings forth student stories and leadership:

#1: Seek out case opportunities that highlight diverse protagonists. This is so important that I restate the argument above. We must find the stories and write the cases that feature protagonists of varied races, gender identities, and backgrounds. For example, together with the student who posed the question above, I am now writing a new case together with Leyla Seka on her leadership for equal pay at Salesforce.

#2: Rewrite cases to include more protagonists of color. When cases are modified from real life — for example, when the data presentation and ethics issues of the Challenger disaster are described in the context of a decision by a car racing team on whether they are ready to race – we can put forth protagonists of color. This is obviously describing the world as we want it to be, and not as it is, however, it is one response to the chicken and egg problem.

#3: Be aware of language. This has been said before, but it’s important; we need to become fully aware of how our language reinforces injustice and prejudices. This is not easy, as it requires constant attention on our part–to avoid addressing everyone as “guys”, to be effective in turning students’ poor choice of words into learning opportunities, and to maintain our presence, even when we’re teaching our third class of the day at the end of a long week. Yet, language and how we use it remains hugely important. We need to stop finding it strange when we refer to a CEO as “she.” We should never perceive the need to precede the title CEO with “African-American.”

#4: Provide a safe and effective forum for our students to voice their experiences. This is phenomenally hard – how do we equitably empower 50+ people, all of whom have stories and contributions and a right to be heard? How can we be sensitive to the victim of racism – while also reaching the person raised with racism – and transform attitudes in only 90 minutes? This becomes even more challenging as our classrooms become more international and students arrive from an ever-increasing array of backgrounds.

My only answer to this is to trust the students. As a white male, my stories are usually less helpful; instead, I trust my students to tell their stories. I try my best to help protagonists of color and diversity bring their experiences into the room in a way that reaches students who arrive with very different attitudes. Ideally, we all walk away from the discussion with a better appreciation for one another.

Protagonists of color and different gender identities belong in our classrooms. When we include them, we have a chance to accomplish our most difficult task as educators. We have a chance to change the attitudes that lie at the root of some of our society’s biggest problems.

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