Learning through literature: “Closer to life as it is really lived”

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

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Sandra Sucher, MBA Class of 1966 Professor of Management Practice, teaches “The Moral Leader” at Harvard Business School with a literature-based approach. The MBA elective, introduced by Professor Emeritus Robert Coles in the 1980s, has since been taught by a number of HBS faculty. Each course meeting is dedicated to a work of fiction, biography, autobiography, or history, and the structured discussion forces students to describe and analyze the characters’ decision in context before passing judgment. “Students are brought much closer to life as it is really lived than they are in traditional lectures or case discussions.”

The benefits: Spanning the globe and 2,000 years, each reading challenges students to “expand their understanding of the world and their place in it as future leaders,” according to Sucher. Whether in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s autobiographical account of her adherence to stringent journalistic standards during the Watergate investigation, or in Sophocles’ depiction of Antigone’s decision to defy the state and bury her brother, students are presented with the sort of judgment complexities they may themselves face.

The challenges: Sucher observes that class discussions of the same readings vary year-to-year and class-to-class because students’ interpretations are rooted in their own perspectives and experiences, requiring preparation for both the planned and unplanned. “Each class is a moving target.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Discussing literary works over the course of a semester enables students to develop their own workable definition of moral leadership, which they articulate in a final paper.
  • Unlike case-based discussion of an action question, literary accounts force students to debate a character’s choice, promoting deeper understanding of cause and effect and the dangers and rewards of actions. Sucher recommends sharing the pedagogy’s benefits with students so they understand the conversation’s structure. “It’s not just chatting about literature.”
  • Literature facilitates very personal learning. “The stories become part of us, and help students not only learn about moral leadership, but prepare to exercise it in their own lives.”

Bottom line: It is human nature to view one’s own moral views as the only reasonable response that could be taken. But in a literature-based approach, “students are continually struck by how differently they each think about the characters’ choices.”