BusinessWeek asked B-school undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here's another installment in the series.
Undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh's College of Business Administration are always finding new things to throw at Ray Jones. But whether they're inviting him to play in the annual Thanksgiving tackle-football game, asking why he didn't vote for them in the fraternity singing contest, or sending Spider-man to charge him at full speed in mid-lecture, nothing seems to get him off track.
Even when Spidey came barreling down the aisle and out the door in a lecture hall of 200 students, the discussion continued on the topic of business ethics. And although he hadn't planned this incident, it helped Jones make a point: "It's always more interesting when you can have a discussion about decision-making under risk and adversity that starts off with the question 'Look at you people! What would you people have done if Spider-man had suddenly tackled me and threw me to the floor? You know that most of you would have just sat there, because risk and uncertainty can paralyze you!'" says Jones.
Staying on task comes easily to Jones, perhaps because of how well he relates real-life occurrences to seemingly abstract ethical concepts. Through references to popular culture, his life growing up in Etna, Pa. (a northern suburb of Pittsburgh), or the design flaws of the Titanic, there seems to be nothing he can't explain through some sort of cost-benefit analysis.
GETTING PERSONAL. "I just felt I understood the material better this way, and have an easier time remembering with real examples than the text examples," writes Shannon Youngwirth, a respondent in the recent BusinessWeek undergraduate survey. "Often, textbook examples don't happen every day, whereas real life, and even pop culture, examples do," she adds.
Having a knack for relating to students is paying off for Jones. A majority of students named him their favorite Pittsburgh professor in the survey. And from talking to them, you quickly get the idea that Jones's anecdotal approach wins him a sizeable fan base as well as results in the classroom.
From talking to Jones, you realize that this camaraderie is no accident—despite the fact that "e;Not being a student anymore, I don't have the context that I once had,"e; Jones says, remembering his days at the university in the late 1990s, when he was at once a student and a teacher.
The material really comes to life when Jones gets personal. In class, he can do things like analyze the way the president of student government is represented in the school paper and discuss what the coverage says about the issues associated with leadership. "e;That's one of my favorite parts, I really am part of the undergraduate experience."e;
FRAT LIFE. With his arms flailing and his booming voice penetrating into the lobby of David Lawrence Hall when the doors are open, one would be hard pressed to call his lectures typical. However, students still can expect some conventional methodologies in Jones's class. There are overheads, midterm exams, and papers like in any other class.
"e;Even though I try to keep it related to day-to-day things, I do still enjoy a lot of traditional aspects of the classroom,"e; he says. Students take two quizzes and a final exam. But they learn the material through the four to six short essays that they write in which they incorporate real-world examples, current events, personal experiences, and course materials, says Jones.
Outside the classroom, Jones also serves as the faculty adviser for Pittsburgh's chapter of Delta Sigma Pi, the co-ed professional business fraternity. Although he emphasizes that the students run the show there, and that his role is purely advisory, his contagious energy makes him the go-to faculty member for representing the chapter at recruiting events. The school's Lambda chapter won the nationwide fraternity's award in 2004-05 for outstanding professional activities.
CULT OF PERSONALITY. Most of Jones's classes end with a takeaway message, something that the students can think of to make sense of these new business concepts—and often even their own personal lives. What can be learned from secret societies? Rumors in the school paper? Greek life? The answers to all of these questions can be explained with careful analysis, and Jones's efforts to know his undergrads make these lessons more pertinent.
Students have taken notice. Senior Lindsey Matthey says students enroll in Jones's higher-level classes without regard to the subject matter. "e;I don't think they took it for the class itself, I think they took it to have Ray."e; Analysis of this decision doesn't seem difficult at all.
--John DeBruicker, with additional reporting by Francesca Di Meglio