Q&a -- William R. Brody

Thinking Outside The Box

The president of the Johns Hopkins University uses an intersession course to teach that there's more to success in students' lives than their SATs and GPAs

December 23, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

William R. Brody says he would like to teach undergraduates at the Johns Hopkins University, where he has been president since 1996, but it is a little difficult to carve out time for thrice-weekly lectures for an entire semester.

So Brody came up with the idea of teaching a course in the intersession, the monthlong term in January, between semesters, when a variety of courses, many off the beaten academic track, are offered.

The course is called "Uncommon Sense: A Practical Approach to Problem Solving for your Personal and Professional Life." The idea, as Brody explains it, is to get Hopkins students to think outside of their very impressive academic boxes.

"I couldn't teach during the year, but I could probably block out January, so I decided to do it," he says. "As president of the university, it is great to find ways to better connect with undergraduates."

The intersession arrived at many colleges and universities a few decades ago when they altered their schedules so students would no longer come back from Christmas vacation and find themselves facing final exams a couple of weeks later.

To end the first semester before Christmas, and keep the second semester the same length, meant blocking out January. At some schools, the intersession became an innovative part of the curriculum, with students and professors doing all sorts of things they would never have done during the semester.

Other schools ignored the month completely, just making it an extended break for students and faculty from the classroom. Others, like Hopkins, have some courses, but still see the bulk of students and faculty enjoying a long vacation.

Colleges with thriving intersessions tend to require students to spend two or three of their Januaries taking courses. Hopkins has no plans to do that, but is beefing up its intersession offerings to attract more students.

Brody's course - which is limited to 20 and always oversubscribed - is part of that effort. He has been teaching it every other year for the past several Januaries.

"I think one year, something like 500 people tried to sign up," he says. Why did you decide to teach a course called Uncommon Sense?

Well, a course in radiological anatomy, my specialty, was not going to work. And a graduate course in medical imaging, that wouldn't work. So I started looking at the educational system, trying to figure out what was missing, looking to do things in a different way.

Much of what we do with the classroom experience is first we give the students answers, then, at the end of the semester, we give them the questions. It's conveying a finite body of knowledge - when we give them the questions, they know the answers.

I wanted to do something to get students to think in a different way. So the idea behind Uncommon Sense is to look at a series of crazy things that will gives students questions they have never seen, to which there is not a good answer. These are designed to be real-life things, not abstract things. They can come from a wide range, sales and marketing, wealth creation, everything in between. Can you give some examples?

One problem I give at the beginning of the course is, you have 20 people who all applied to medical school. All 20 had done volunteer work at an emergency room. All had 3.7 grade point averages. All had good MCAT scores. Each gets a letter saying that 20 people applied, but there is only one opening. Each of you will have the opportunity to appear before the medical school administration for a 60-second oral presentation on why you should be the one admitted.

So each student gets up in front of the next class and gives the presentation and then the class votes on which one gets in. This gets the students to think. The typical student says, "I'm Bill Brody. I grew up in Northern California, I went to this high school, that college, did this and that, and now I want to be God's gift to medicine and public health."

After the second or third one of those, the eyes start to glaze over. One student always does something dramatically different and invariably, that's the one who is admitted by the class. One year, a student showed herself singing an aria from an opera in a video.

So that gets us talking about selling yourself, marketing yourself, how important that is, whether you are trying to get a research grant or a job. You have to figure out who's buying and what it is you are trying to promote. Why the title Uncommon Sense?

Well, because I really try to show them how things they assume are not necessarily the case. For instance - and I don't want to go into details in case someone in the class is reading this - but in one class the students watch a short film with a particular task to do. Something totally unrelated to that task happens, so obvious you can't miss it. But every time, the majority of the students don't notice it.

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