Learning to Make Your Own Sausage

I’ve long been an advocate of case method teaching and learning. Jump into the deep end of the pool and hope there are some lifeguards around when you get into trouble. Good cases are a way to mimic the messiness of the real world in a safe and controlled way.

Learning to write those cases was yet another level of learning by doing. There is craft in taking real messiness and packaging it so that the feeling is real but the risks of drowning are contained. Teaching cases typically have a layer of supporting notes for instructors to help them manage the experience.

When you are in case and course design mode, you are often on the lookout for situations that will help you set up and drive home the learning points you are trying to make.

What happens as you get to the edges of what is known? You don’t know enough yet to separate the signal from the noise. You’ve left the safe confines of the pool, you’re in open water, and the lifeguard might also be thrashing next to you.

I had one particular professor who supervised the cadre of doctoral students. Classes with him were not a carefully orchestrated simulation of a case. They were much more like an improv class, although I didn’t have that reference point at the time. He opened up his own thinking process in real time. We watched and followed along as he dove into the mess at hand. As he talked through a line of thought, keywords got jotted down at seemingly random spots on the whiteboard, arrows were drawn between words, other phrases were circled for emphasis (sometimes multiple times over the course of the session), names and references were tossed out in a rush. I typically left that class in a daze with a pile of incomprehensible notes.

The curious thing was that I also typically woke up around 2am the following morning with some flash of insight. At first, I simply thought he was simply a bad teacher. Surely, he could have laid things out crisply and neatly. It took a much longer time for me to understand what was going on. He was teaching us how to swim and survive in open waters. Not something you can do from the shore or inside the lanes of a pool.

The professor’s goal here was to increase our skill at making sense out of complex situations. And that sense was a synthesis of the facts at hand and the perspective we each brought to the situation. It wasn’t about trotting out a textbook answer. It was learning how to invent a better answer than anyone else had come up with yet. They say that no one wants to see how the sausage gets made. Unless you want to learn how to make sausage for yourself.