Students' business degrees pack new surprise: poetry

Tarek Salem had quite a shock in his first semester at Babson College. Mr. Salem had left Egypt to pursue a master's degree at the prestigious business school in Wellesley, Mass. But no one had told him that in addition to crunching numbers, he would also be required to start penning poems.

Salem, like all Babson MBA candidates, had to take a five-week creativity workshop early in his program. Students were randomly assigned to one of seven art seminars: poetry, puppetry, improvisation, painting, fiction, rhythmic movement, or nontraditional music.

Salem ended up in the poetry class, which introduced him to the basics of writing and the creative process – but this was no low-key diversion. In just over a month, the class would have to give a 20-minute presentation about what they had learned and produced. That would be followed by 10 minutes of questions. And, yes, the presentation would be open to the whole campus.

Creative writing and business might not seem like a natural combination. But business schools, where the norm has been classes in administration and analysis, are finding that students need more than that to succeed. They must also be able to think imaginatively and adapt quickly to new situations.

In fact, Babson administrators believed so strongly in the need for flexible business thinkers that they redesigned the MBA program in the early 1990s with creativity in mind. Other colleges have also begun to see how the arts can lend themselves in surprising ways to the world of finance.

Still, none of this was much comfort to Salem. He enjoys poetry, but he wasn't thrilled about having to write it – especially since his first language is Arabic. "It would be very difficult to force myself to express sensitive feelings in a foreign language," he remembers thinking. But despite Salem's best efforts, instructor Mary Pinard refused to drop him from her roster.

"There is a lot of ambiguity in the creative process, and that's hard for people who want answers," she says. "Business students like to decide on the first day what they are going to do for their presentation on the last day."

Yet successful entrepreneurs, she says, are people who can stay open to possibilities, take risks, and find new solutions to problems. "The nature of what entrepreneurs do is very close to what poets do."

Ms. Pinard and Salem made a deal: He would stay in the poetry workshop, and she would allow him to write in his native tongue.

"I want students to understand that poetry is expressive as language," says Pinard, "but it is also expressive as sound, as music."

Still, the class wasn't easy for Salem. "I had another difficulty to find the subject to write about," Salem says. "It's impossible to force yourself to write...; it comes like inspiration ... or magic."

Salem's dilemma was solved by the calendar. His wedding anniversary rolled around, and he missed his wife, who was back in Egypt. "I found myself writing to her. This became my poetry! And it was wonderful." But some of his peers, he says, may not have been won over as much as he was.

That's all right with Pinard, who uses a pass/fail system and gives extensive written evaluations. Her goal is not to produce poets, but to remind students of the importance of teamworkand crafting a vision.

Pinard brings these same values to the semester-long workshops she teaches for undergraduates. She also runs a reading series at Babson, which brings a prominent poet to the campus each February. Occasionally, she even presents poetry workshops at Babson's executive training center.

"Business people are perceived as being linear, which is not always the case," Pinard says. "But if someone is not willing to be open to surprise, not a lot will happen that's fresh."

Brigid Wood, who took the undergraduate class last semester, agrees. She enrolled in the class because she needed a mental rest from her business classes. "At the beginning it was a chore," she says, but over time, she realized that "creative work is very liberating.... I think it helped me recognize that feelings and deep-seeded thoughts have a place in the business world."

But Wood adds that some of her fellow students will never take poetry seriously. "The mentality at Babson is very 'don't waste my time with stuff that's either not business-related or not fun for five minutes.' "

At least they can take heart that Babson is not the only business-oriented school where poetry is part of the curriculum. Tom Chandler, the poet laureate of Rhode Island, is a full-time professor at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. Bryant, which began as a secretarial/business school, now offers degrees in both business and liberal arts. Mr. Chandler teaches literature classes and a poetry workshop for undergraduates.

"Business school promotes a very conformist culture," Chandler says, "but I want students to take that coat off while they are in my class. Individuality is contagious," he continues, "just as conformity is contagious. I see these two at war."

Chandler suspects that what is happening at Bryant and Babson may be the beginning of a trend.

Business schools, after all, must look at their own bottom line, which, at Bryant, means satisfying a student body that is increasingly female and may not gravitate toward business the way previous generations did.

Indeed, he cites the fact that 51 percent of courses offered at Bryant are now in the liberal arts.

The value of poetry is not limited to just making students more creative thinkers, Chandler says. It also makes them more well-rounded people, which is important in an economy that is increasingly global and often uncertain.

By the end of the semester, he explains, most of his poetry students have "seen something in themselves that they didn't know was there. You can't get that by taking 500 accounting classes."

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