I Can’t Help Myself

Good. You clicked “I can’t help myself” in an SM233 Syllabus footnote. Now, you wonder, who are The Four Tops? Why am I listening to them sing Sugar Pie Honey Bunch? How old is this video? Am I in a time machine? If you listened to enough of the song to hear the line I can’t help myself—you confirmed that yes, there is some connection between the footnote, the linked content, and this page. But, what is it? Why does it exist? How does it relate to SM233 and the Questrom Honors Program? What is Randall up to?

There is a short answer, and a long answer.

The Short Answer

I can’t help myself. I throw my thoughts into a discussion, solicited or not. By training and experience I am a lawyer.1 I went into law because it fits my interests and abilities in research, writing, and argument, and because when I was 22,2 a junior at Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts (now CAS), and working as a paralegal at the Prisoners’ Rights Project, I had formative experiences doing oral advocacy in prison disciplinary hearings, classification hearings, and parole revocation hearings. Speaking out was a requirement.

This trait has some responsibility for my aversion to how Questrom prepares students’ presentation skillswriting a script, memorizing the parts, delivering them by rote without interruption.3 People I respect assure me that such presentation skills are important in corporate America. That doesn’t mean I have to like them. My presentation paradigm is oral argument in an appellate court. The lawyer learns the facts and law cold, considers every possible question, writes every possible argument, stands up before the judges, and says may it please the court. The lawyer may get no farther than introducing herself before a judge interrupts with a question. She must prepare to be buffeted by whatever the judges ask, whenever they ask it, no matter what it does to her planned argument. It’s like riding a rodeo bull.

These are the types of presentations I made and received as a business lawyer and businessman. When I have something to say, particularly if people are not discussing what I consider to be the central issues, I say it4—unless, for example, I’m in the classroom, giving students room to explore, waiting for them to arrive at where I think they need to be.

The Long Answer

If you’ve forgotten, the question is why am I on this page, when all I was trying to do was read the SM233 syllabus? The long answer is, I can’t help myself. I look beyond the surface to where things are more complicated. Context matters. I want you to get beyond checklists, beyond the narrow understanding of what information will help your career, beyond the comfort of thinking inside the box.5 Unless you understand the larger context of the problems you face, you will not truly address them.

There is a pedagogical method at work. It is possible to complete, and do well in, SM233 without delving into these exegeses.6 A student who stays within the Syllabus’s borders will benefit from reading the assignments, preparing the team presentation, engaging in class discussions, and reflecting on the materials. They will understand the material on some level. They could earn an A. However, their understanding may not be as rich, nuanced, and open-ended as one who delves into them all.

The same is true outside this course. Some students want to know only one thing about new material: will we be tested on this? If the answer is no then they throw whatever “this” is in their mental trash bins. Such students may receive excellent grades, obtain competitive jobs, and enjoy lucrative careers. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but in my view it misses spice and color that make life interesting.

More important, the will we be tested on this mentality impedes deep comprehension. The world faces dire, complex, intractable problems: climate change, lack of potable water, drought, environmental contamination, poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor, disease, religious fundamentalism, and more. Each involves multiple, overlapping, and disparate causes. They will not be addressed by applying a checklist, fighting the last war, or managers who live in knowledge silos.

Addressing the most important problems—or, to put it in terms of Questrom’s mission, creating the value the world needs—requires using one’s head and one’s heart, one’s intellect and one’s empathy, one’s ability to incorporate information across boundaries into a coherent whole. Solving them requires being a complete human being.

I’m not saying that my musings will make you a better person.7 Go back to the Syllabus’ description of course objectives.

  • Develop understanding of selected topics
  • Inspire curiosity
  • Generate and present ideas in teams
  • Diagnose methods to approach difficult problems
  • Explore relationships among disparate concepts
  • Encourage intellectual, academic, and social bonds among SM233’s members
  • Pursue trains of thought, wherever they may go

Deeper understanding . . . curiosity . . . generate ideas . . . exploration of disparate concepts . . . pursue trains of thought . . . one of SM233’s overt purposes is metacognition.8 I am not trying to train you to think as I think. However, by giving you a peek into how I think, by revealing various threads I see in our topics, I hope to stimulate you to examine how you think. The off-piste9 readings provide commentaries on a topic’s historic, social, political, financial, or personal context, related issues, illuminating details, amusing diversions, and whatever else I believe relevant. You will learn that my test for relevance is more rigorous than pure free association, but not linear.

So why don’t I include all of this in required readings? What would be the fun in that? I’m not being facetious. You’ve heard the saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day . . . teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I stumbled across a cartoon that captures my pedagogy perfectly.

If I made all of this part of the assigned reading, I would be giving you a fish. You’d consume it, and move on. If I structure it so you have to find it through your own curiosity, on the other hand, it becomes more valuable.10 It also underscores my most important lesson. You should never accept at face value the first plausible answer you encounter.11 You should always—always—ALWAYS!!!—assume you’ve missed something, and there is more you should know. At worst you spend more time on the problem, learn your initial results are sound, and deploy your answer with greater confidence. At best you peel away layers, understand the problem more fully, develop valuable understanding of it and other information connected to it—and maybe avoid embarrassment, or a job-ending mistake.

If you think about the previous paragraph, you should realize what it means. You didn’t work hard to get to this page. You clicked on an obvious link—yes, it is in a footnote, but there’s no gold star for reading footnotes—and boom! Here you are. If finding these exegeses12 is always so easy, then I am merely handing you the salmon fillet, cooked and ready to eat.

Finding other easter eggs throughout SM233 requires more than reading the assignments. Pay attention. Look for titles, lyrics, or sayings from popular culture.13 Look for patterns, anomalies, and odd or uncharacteristic phrases. Look for inexplicable images, lists that seem longer than required, typos, and unexpected blank spaces. Look for things that look wrong.14

For instance . . . look again at the above list of course objectives:

  • Develop understanding of selected topics
  • Inspire curiosity
  • Generate and present ideas in teams
  • Diagnose methods to approach difficult problems
  • Explore relationships among disparate concepts
  • Encourage intellectual, academic, and social bonds among SM233’s members
  • Pursue trains of thought, wherever they may go

I am curious how this will play out. Last year, in late October only a handful of SM233 students knew of the off-syllabus content.  To shake things up, I subjected them to a team problem-solving competition.15 Within days, all were aware of it. Did it change how they approached learning? I can’t measure that, but I doubt the experience had such impact. My goal is modest. If I can plant a seed that germinates at some point in the future—if a student’s vague recollection of SM233 prompts them to think maybe I should dig deeper into this problem—then this effort has been successful.

When you reach this point, email me at darandall@gmail.com with the subject line “I can’t help myself, either.”

Remember:

  • Help one another, but don’t give the fish away
  • Ask me for help if you are stuck, frustrated, anxious, or want guidance
  • Venerate effort—no pain, no gain—but don’t make yourself crazy
  • Everyone can do well in this course, even if they don’t excel at digging deep
  • Friendship is a course objective
  • Understanding a few topics well is preferable to shallow familiarity with many topics
  • Not everything that looks wrong is a clue. Some things are just plain wrong

  1. I’m other things as well, but beneath my professional existence I’m a lawyer.
  2. I was born in January, so I was on the older end of my classes, and I dropped out of college after my sophomore year. I returned after one year.
  3. I’m also averse to many Questrom students’ slavish devotion to experiential checklists, as if by acquiring X experiences they are guaranteed to be successful. That’s a topic for another time.
  4. After thinking about it first. It’s not the American way—our principle often is shoot first, ask questions later—but I value others who think before they speak.
  5. There is irony in hearing earnest business students extol the virtues of outside-the-box thinking, and then hear the same students object to taking non-Questrom courses because, at the wise age of 18 or 22, they are certain what they will need to know for the next 40-50 years of their careers.
  6. Look it up. It’s a great word. I am NOT using it in its scriptural sense. What I write here is good, but it ain’t the Bible.
  7. But . . . what if they do?? I’m just saying.
  8. Another great word.
  9. When we discussed why the Honors Program was changing from admitting most students as freshmen to admitting members only as sophomores my department chair, an economist, agreed with our assumptions, saying “people don’t value what they get for free.”
  10. In other words, Wikipedia is fine for settling a bet about who won the 1981 Super Bowl. If you rely solely on Wikipedia for much more than that, then you may pay the consequences. This sounds like the old geezer ranting about how declining standards, but in my experience the average Questrom student has little ability to research and analyze a topic. They don’t know how to find and use reliable resources, critically evaluate what they are reading, or pull information together into a coherent whole. You, of course, are not the average Questrom student. I’m confident my criticism does not apply to you.
  11. You looked it up, right?
  12. “Popular culture” does not mean only your generation’s culture.
  13. For example, this eight-step process of awareness.
    • Analysis
    • Concentration
    • Relatedness
    • Observation
    • Sentience
    • Trial-and-error
    • Insight
    • Cognition
  14. A sure-fire way to grab Questrom students’ attention.

See why I told you to read all the way to the bottom?

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