Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Avoiding political examples in class

Some professors use political examples in their classes; I don't, even if topical.

Technical marketing, strategy, analytics, and decision-making material can be used for political purposes and some cutting-edge techniques come from political campaigns (because there are fewer constraints on politics than on commercial activity). So there's a reason for politics to enter marketing, strategy, or decision-making classes.

The problem is that when discussing these political applications of technical tools, the discussion seldom stays in the technical domain and quickly moves to the politics. And I don't want that in my classes: I think that when students choose a Brand Management, Marketing Analytics, or Consumer Behavior course, they expect to learn to manage brands or analyze data or understand how consumers behave; not to argue political positions. Discussing politics might also make students fear that grades depend on agreeing (or pretending to agree) with my political positions.*

If there was any material that could only be appropriately covered using political examples I might introduce these examples and then micro-manage the discussion to keep it technical. Luckily, all technical materials in my classes can be covered using chocolate-covered pork rinds, cars, Milla Jovovich, premium cable services, man-purses, all-inclusive vacation packages, and bulk orders of pork bellies and frozen concentrated orange juice (among other things).

Students interested in politics can figure out political applications in their own time. For my class, they just have to learn the technical material.

That should be hard enough.

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*If they disagree with the technical material, that leads to a better class. I much prefer that a few students who bring preconceived wrong ideas, as long as they are willing to change their minds (or prove me wrong, at which point I change my mind), than a group of students who takes what I say on authority alone. People with a blind trust of authority make bad technicians in engineering and in business.

PS: There's a separate argument for discussing politics in class with the goal of changing the students' political positions. The rationale for this professorial activism is that the university is more than a place to impart knowledge, it's also an opportunity to change attitudes; that the ruling elites of society are filtered through universities and therefore there's a societal good in imparting the right attitudes to the leaders of tomorrow. There's a lot of things one can argue about in this rationale, starting with the italicized words, but given that I teach technical material, imparting knowledge is a hard enough job.