Who’s in Charge Here?

We all carry around a fairly standard mental model of a classroom; podium and black/whiteboard in front, neat rows of desks facing the teacher. Progressive schools break the rows up into pods; college lecture halls put the seats on a slope. Drop us in a classroom and we know what to do. 

The main classrooms at the Harvard Business School are different in some subtle but very important ways. You can find a brief history of Aldrich Hall and its design process here. 

The room is designed as a U-shaped amphitheater. There is still a focal point at the front with a low table, not a podium. Student seats are on swivels so that students can interact with one another in the course of case discussion and analysis.

This image provides a good overview of the room’s features.

 

During my time as a case-writer and doctoral student I was able to observe faculty teach in these rooms without the burden of having to prepare for class (other occasions when I hadn’t prepared constituted a different sort of burden). A professor at the board or in the pit still occupied the position of power and authority. What was fascinating to watch was how professors roamed about the entire space and managed the power dynamics accordingly. 

They might stay at the board and make pronouncements ex cathedra. They might get close to a student to help them tease out a point. They might get right up in a student’s face to shut off a rambling comment. Or, they might wander up one of the aisles and gradually remove themselves from a discussion between students taking on a life of its own. And reassert themselves from the back by directing attention to a relevant point on the boards at the front. 

Teaching as performance art is scarcely a new thought. But teaching is also a kind of knowledge work intent on creating shared understandings. And that depends on more than the simple exchange of words. Shared understanding gets built in shared space. Thinking about the complexity of a teacher’s performance calls attention to how little thought we give to all the levers of performance we can draw on when doing knowledge work with collaborators. 

This is certainly aggravated by a pandemic forcing our interactions into flat video environments with poor lighting and erratic audio. On the other hand, the pandemic is also accelerating an existing trend for moving more knowledge work into virtual environments. The lesson here for me is that like teaching, knowledge work is performance art. The more elements of performance we incorporate, the more effective our results are likely to be.

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