Early-morning class awakens instructor to the challenges of market-driven pedagogy

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Bill Bergman with his morning marketing management class.

MBA programs are trying to better meet student needs by offering classes at times that are more attuned to their busy lifestyles. That is one reason why the University of Richmond's Robins School of Business is offering a 7 a.m. marketing management course for early risers who would rather have class first thing in the morning rather than after work.  As one who awakens early every morning, I enthusiastically agreed to be the instructor of this maiden early- morning class that meets at the crack of dawn on Mondays and Thursdays.

The first two weeks were exciting. It was a whole new routine that seemed to easily fit my early morning routine. But, by week three, some pretty strange things started to happen:

Arriving on campus by 6:30 a.m.

The first week, I arrived at the business school a few minutes before class started but found myself agonizingly hungry by 7:15 a.m. So I decided I needed to get to campus by 6:30 a.m. so I could casually eat a bagel and yogurt before class started.

It is spooky arriving that early. There are no cars in the parking lot that is usually packed. Also, the normally bustling business school is dark and eerily quiet. I found myself fearful of being mugged by a former student who I had given a bad grade to the previous semester.

The first 15 minutes of class are grueling

I don't need much time to warm up for an afternoon class. However, at 7 a.m., my brain connections are badly in need of a memory supplement. While caffeine helps, it takes a little bit longer to dive into the principles of marketing theory than at 3 p.m. Also, the paranoia of sitting in a dark and soundless building for a half hour takes a few minutes to shake off.

Early morning, caffeinated graduate-level maturity

The part-time MBA classes are usually taught one night a week for three hours. Since students arrive after a full day of work, they are usually comatose by the break when the limited class participation goes silent.

It is just the opposite for highly caffeinated graduate students at 7 a.m. who suffer from the same sleep patterns as I do. They are vibrant, active and quick to share their thoughts. They are so energetic that many times I have to tell them to speak one at a time. This is the kind of class every instructor dreams about teaching. Because it is so early in the morning, sometimes I'm not sure if I'm dreaming or it is really happening.

Starbucks or Chick-fil-A reveals the toll of a 7 a.m. MBA class

Every Thursday morning, the students have to be prepared to discuss a case study. The cases are listed in the syllabus by the date that they are due. One of my favorite cases is about  Starbucks' transition to digital ordering, so I was particularly excited that we were going to discuss the case this past Thursday. When I began my "warm-up" to the Starbucks case at 7 a.m., my caffeinated students, many of whom were drinking out of Starbucks' grande cups, told me the case assignment for today was Chick-fil-A.

One of my reoccurring nightmares is that I walk into class and I am totally unprepared to teach. So, for a split second on Thursday, I didn't know if this was a dream I was having before my alarm went off or if the past couple of weeks of getting up so early finally had driven me to actually misread my own syllabus.

Unfortunately, I had misread my own syllabus. The good news was Chick-fil-A was my second all-time favorite case. After a brief moment of panic, I was able to quickly adjust. It was no problem spending 90 minutes actively engaging the manic MBA students in a discussion about the fast food industry and Chick-fil-A's unique role and brand promise.

Meeting the needs of today's students can unnerve the instructor

This 7 a.m. MBA class has disrupted my usual routine and placed me well outside of my comfort zone as an instructor. After a couple of weeks of class, I understand why it is so challenging for higher education to become more market driven.

Even with all of the discomfort, the past few weeks have also been exhilarating. I have had the opportunity to teach remarkably bright young professionals who wake up early for class so they can be home for dinner with their spouses and children. Our class discussions are much more vibrant than in any MBA evening class I have previously taught. Plus, I confronted one of my biggest nightmares about not being prepared for class and found that it wasn't that scary after all.

Adapting to change is never easy, especially in the traditional higher education classroom. But sometimes you have to push beyond the conventional to realize that exciting things can happen simply by making a class more convenient for students than for the instructor.

Bill Bergman is president of the Bergman Group in Richmond and a full-time marketing instructor of at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business.

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