Reflections after the first time (teaching elective at HBS in Spring 2021)

A brief (surely), shining (maybe), moment in the twilight (perhaps) of my academic career.   

Thanks to a generous gift from David Roux, followed by a critical top-up from the the Cashins I started a project at HBS in 2014 to write case-histories of Transformational Medical Advances. The case histories were meant to complement to my obsession with Productive Knowledge (as I now call it) but I had no clear idea of what I’d actually do with them.  About five years later, after accumulating a respectable stash of the histories, I tried peddling them to book publishers. No one had any interest.  Then in summer of 2019, the then HBS Dean graciously proposed I return “home” for a year (but just one!) to teach the case histories as a course. I jumped, unhesitatingly, at the suggestion; but then came the anxieties:

Who would take a new course offered by a new and unknown instructor?

How was I going to teach case-histories, spanning decades, with no protagonist, and no decision point?

I frantically rewrote the histories in a way I prayed might be teachable. (I had figured out, following Jan Rivkin’s suggestion a possible model..)

By year’s end, after six month of scrambling — and under Covid lock-down I had: 1) Submitted more than a dozen rewritten or entirely new cases. 2) Written up a syllabus (downloadable pdf and posted here) and a conceptual course note. 3) Produced a dodgy marketing video (embedded below and linked here)

It started badly…. Really really badly. I had hoped to attract 30 students, but just about a dozen registered. The first “shopping period” class stank. Enrollment dropped in half.

Then it all changed.

The students who stuck through it — and the cross registrants who joined up — were gems. I had two MDs and the others knew more about medical science and than I ever will. By the end of the term, I thought it was the most substantive course I had ever taught; but, it was far from the smoothest and I was on tenterhooks about what the evaluations would say.

They did not disappoint. I have never received so much feedback about case quality. That to me was also the biggest unknown (I believe that after 30+ years I’m now an adequate teacher): could really dense, technical/historical cases “work” in an HBS class? Fortunately, the answer at least for students who chose to stick with the course seems to be yes – though a lot of work remains to realize the potential.

I’m hugely grateful to HBS for hosting this experiment, even if they didn’t continue it and my “home base” at Fletcher wont have anything to do with it. A few other places have expressed interest, but nothing is done till it’s done. So, if you have any thoughts for a home or homes for the course (downloadable syllabus here), please let me know. I’d be happy to personally teach it (as a visitor) or help someone else teach it.