Unusual B-school electives and where to find them

BY Mary LowengardMay 04, 2021, 3:00 AM
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The business of business school is business. That’s to say, unlike your undergraduate days, when you might try out several different majors, you won’t have much opportunity for this in the short two-year span of B-school. 

If you are thinking about adding an MBA to your résumé, you should be aware that as a first-year business school student you will be locked into several core courses. This is true no matter what form your business education takes (full-time, part-time, executive, online, or some hybrid of all these). You might well enter school determined to leave with a marketing job but then get bit by the finance bug in your first term, and that’s fine. That’s part of the rationale behind cycling first-years through a broad swath of business-related topics.

The core courses are a requirement whether you show up for “that business school in Cambridge, Mass.,” or enroll in an online institution based in Searcy, Ariz. You can expect some combination of courses in business fundamentals, management, accounting, finance, operations, and marketing, with perhaps ethics and quantitative analytics thrown in as well—either as stand-alone classes or integrated across the curriculum.

While there may be an opportunity that first year to squeeze an elective course or two into your class schedule, you have to get these commodity-like basic classes on your transcript.  

You can spread your wings only so far

The second year is when you get to spread your wings (a bit) through elective courses that allow you to dive deeper in one or two (or more—or no) areas of specialization. The elective curriculum, for better or worse, is still squarely business focused because, after all, you are in business school.

That said, there are examples of interesting classes within business school curriculums that push the conventional boundaries of what is considered typical pedagogy. Or these courses may approach B-school topics in an unusual or even extraordinary way. Here’s what some of the top schools shared when asked for examples of “unusual” elective course offerings.

Literature in the MBA program

At Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, students have an opportunity to contemplate Moral Complexity in Leadership: An Exploration. The syllabus for this course includes Tolstoy, Sophocles, and the Japanese-born British novelist Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature). This is taught right on the home turf of Kellogg (i.e., not in the graduate English department).

Spearheading this course is Brooke Vuckovic, Kellogg clinical professor of leadership. The class was first offered in 2019, when it was called The Moral Leader: Exploring Complexity Through Literature.

“Fiction gives us access to the inner workings of the individual’s mind and motivations,” Vuckovic points out—and as such is “a more accurate source for understanding what business leaders face.”

For what it’s worth, Harvard Business School has offered a similar course for more than three decades, titled The Moral Leader. Harvard’s version was first introduced by Robert Coles, the esteemed psychiatrist and educator, and swapped out the Harvard traditional case studies approach for discussions of Shakespeare, short stories, and novels.

Learning to tell tales

Courses focused on business writing and communications are typically nothing to write home about. Mastering the art of persuasive writing is taught through exercises in memo, proposal, and report writing.

Veering off from the conventional approach is the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, which offers its novel take in Storytelling to Influence and Inspire, taught by Heidi Schultz, clinical professor of management and corporate communications.

This course focuses on what Schultz calls “the oldest tool of influence in human history”—that is, telling tales. Students have the opportunity to try their hands at crafting stories to create mock TED talks, and to get comfortable with presentations, speeches, webinars, and conference calls—commonplace corporate information distribution tools.

Understanding psychology at the workplace

Barry Schwartz offers MBA candidates at Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley a chance to take a crack at understanding the elusive triad of career, comprehension, and contentment in a course titled Work, Wisdom, and Happiness.

Schwartz is a visiting emeritus professor of psychology from Swarthmore College. In this class, he encourages future leaders to not only seek meaning and satisfaction in their workaday lives, but to also share the wealth—and then bestow this upon the people they supervise. “Anyone who hopes for a work life that is rewarding to themselves and others will benefit from this course,” Schwartz promises.

These are three examples of cross-disciplinary business school electives that expand the boundaries of the typical finance-accounting-marketing triad.

Stanford’s approach

And then there’s Stanford Graduate School of Management. Compared with other business schools, it presents a mother lode of out-of-the-ordinary-classes, with electives titled Dynamics of the Global Wine Industry; How Software Ate Finance; and The Open Road: Innovation in Cars, Driving, and Mobility.

While all of these options squarely qualify as “outside the box,” second-year electives, there’s also a marketing course called Humor: Serious Business.

The goal of this course is to offer Stanford students a chance to hone their humor skills before they leave campus. It’s “about the power (and importance) of humor to make and scale positive change in the world, and also—surprise!—to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories.”  

So if you are looking into B-school programs, take the time to see if the schools you are considering offer interesting or unusual electives like these that will allow you to break out of the typical business framework and perhaps add some value (or even humor) to your business education.