On Walking out of the Classroom

My MBA class finished today, and the end of the semester is, as always, marked by a sense of relief. Not because an annoying academic responsibility had been discharged —  that’s not how I look at teaching — but because I’d held things together, assembled and delivered a course, and stayed about a half step ahead of my students one more time. I find teaching rewarding as hell, but also exhausting and stressful. The question “How am I going to pull this off?” is constantly in the background during teaching semesters, and it’s a blessing when it evaporates after the last class.

That class was especially bittersweet this year because it was the last one I’ll teach at the Harvard Business School. I’m taking up an appointment at MIT as a Principal Research Scientist within the Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management starting in July of this year.

In virtually every way, this is a dream job. I’ll get to continue my research on the business impact of technology, and do so as part of the world’s greatest collection of technology scholars (yes, that is a strong and certainly biased statement…). It is an unimaginable luxury to have close at hand a top authority on almost any question I can think to ask related to my work. It’s also an embarrassment of riches to be able to concentrate on research full time.

But I know I’ll miss the classroom. Teaching in the MBA program at HBS has been one of the formative experiences of my adult life. It’s shaped how I approach situations, how I present myself, how I interact with others, and my self-image.

Trying to lead a productive discussion among a group of 60-90 smart and ambitious young people can be daunting, especially when you have to do it day after day, sometimes on material you’re not too sure about yourself. I have never in my life been as aware of my own subconscious as I was during my first teaching semester. I had an archetypal anxiety dream the night before almost every class, and I had them in a strange kind of chronological order. Early in the semester I had a child’s dreams of being pursued by monsters. These gave way to dreams in which I showed up to high school naked. A few weeks later I was in college, most of the way through a semester in which I hadn’t gone to math class once. Toward the end of the course I was finally an adult, having dreams about showing up late to the class I was supposed to be teaching. My morning routine that semester was to turn off my alarm clock, mumble “Well, that was weird,” and roll out of bed to shower off the clammy sweat.

The bad dreams abated over the years, but I always found the responsibility of teaching to be a heavy one. Not onerous, just heavy. It’s not a matter of life and death, but it’s still important to get it right. At the end of that first semester I told my class that the only thing I could compare the experience to was trying to learn to play squash well as an adult. I took lessons, worked out, and played a lot, and as a result my body ached most of the time. The only time it didn’t hurt was when I was on court with the muscles loose and blood flowing. The only time my brain didn’t ache, I told them, was when I was in the classroom with them.

I was lucky enough to be mentored at HBS by Warren McFarlan, one of the school’s living legends. Warren’s been on the faculty longer than I’ve been alive, and has served the school in every imaginable way. For members of my generation the term ‘organization man’ is somewhere between a joke and an insult; Warren showed me that it can also be an honorific.

I co-taught with him one semester, which was a great way to learn humility. I also learned a lot about teaching by observing him, even though he’s absolutely inimitable. He taught me that one of the deep secrets to being a good teacher is to convey that you’re the person who most wants to be in the room. He also showed me that a foolproof way to accomplish this is to actually be the person who most wants to be in the room.

That I could do. I loved teaching, and my failings as an instructor, while plentiful, did not include apathy. I hope my students over the years have forgiven me my poor lesson plans, unsuccessful cases, jokes that fell flat, unfair grades, and other shortcomings. And I hope it showed that I always wanted to be in the room.

As I walk out of the classroom I want to thank HBS for giving me the chance to work and teach there, and to thank my students. They put up with me, indulged me, pushed me, challenged me, and sometimes befriended me. I hope that somewhere along the way they also learned from me. I know I did from them.