Vantage point

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Inspired after reading "Snapshots from Hell", a book about how the author survived first year at a business school, I am trying my hand at writing about one episode from my own second term (For the uninitiated, at IIML, there are 3 terms of three months each in a year). If it is appreciated, who knows, maybe I could work on a book of my own, because "Snapshots from Hell" indicates to me that compared to IIML, Stanford was a reasonably easier ride, and did not show the author, Peter Robinson, all the aspects of B-school life that we see here.


I am an engineer. By virtue of being an engineer, I was spared from attending the "Remedial Course" which the institute had made compulsory for all arts, commerce and other students who had not dealt with mathematics or computers exhaustively in their life. With the other engineers, who made up 75% of the batch, I was smug in the knowledge that I could directly start b-school education without taking 2 week long courses on maths and computers.

This smug belief was punctured during the first lecture itself, when Ms. Goel walked in to take the first ever class in her life. She was to teach us MANAC1 (Financial Accounting) till the midterms, and saying that we were in trouble would be understating the risk. Ms. Goel is so obviously not cut out for teaching. Her concepts may be good, since she was ranked 4th in the all-India Chartered Accountants exam, but her communication skills sucked. Finac is already a difficult topic when you are new to it. Adding Ms. Goel to it was like telling a guy who walks across the bed of hot coals to wait for a minute between each step.

Now during these lectures, the commerce students and the CA's enjoyed themselves. A friend of mine told me that what they had learnt over almost two years, we were being taught in 3 months. So everyone was going to have to work extra hard. Now I did try to understand the material and teaching but it was just too abstruse. She gave a tough midterm exam as well, and I like most of the class, did horribly.

After the midterms we had Prof AB. Now AB is considered one of the best profs on campus, and with good reason. However he went very fast and though it did not seem all greek like when Goel taught, it was no cakewalk either. Some people managed to do well in his endterms, but I did not. My grade was C, which when translated to grade points means 3 out of 10.

Now this is the background on which we started MANAC2 (Cost Accounting) in the next term. We had a real character teaching us in the pre-midterm phase. His name was AM and he was one of the weirdest people I have seen in my life. He said "Among my course objectives, one is to become unpopular, because I have realised that if you want to teach well, you have to be unpopular". He kept on saying "Cost accounting is very very tough" and then proceeded to make it tougher than it seemed in the material. The powerpoint slides he used during the lectures were hilarious. They were cluttered with text, which would take you two minutes to read. And for some reason his slides had cartoons on them. They featured guavas, policemen, tap dancers, rumpelstiltskins, coconut trees, and what have you. It was indicative of what a cartoon he was, I suppose. His ego was the size of Uttar Pradesh (after Uttaranchal was separated), and on the advice of seniors we fed it generously by thumping our desks for applause when he made any grandiose statement. Once Kashyap raised a point of dissent, and argued with him for 10 minutes. So AM said some things with great emphasis and then said "If you want to prove me wrong, take this list of books" and proceeded to name 10 books "read them and tell me where you found material verifying your claim." Then resembling the cheshire cat in one of its better moods, he said "If you will waste my time, it will cost you your time too". And everyone started thumping their desks. The next day he asked Kashyap, "Haan bhai, have you read those books?", and Kashyap using a tone that would make a diplomat nod with approval, said, "Yes sir, I read the books and found out you were absolutely right, I never should have doubted you." More bench thumping and beaming. Generally a guy called Martand would start thumping the desk and everyone would follow suit. Later on it took on maniacal proportions. In one lecture of one hour, we thumped the desk thirteen times, including once in response to when he said "Today I am taking a quiz". He was flummoxed at such a response to the announcement of a quiz, so he repeated, "Today I am taking a quiz". More bench thumping. These desk-thumping bouts fed his ego so much that it bloated to the size of Uttar Pradesh (before Uttaranchal was separated). His lectures never made much sense. As I learnt later, he just took some easy concepts and convolved them many times over. The 5% weightage quizzes he took were bad for me as well, because such quizzes depend mainly on how much you understand in class. And two things prevented us from asking him our doubts - one was his pugnacious attitude like the incident with Kashyap showed. The other was the fear that he would muddle up whatever little we had understood as well, instead of clarifying anything.

During his last lecture, Vikash pulled the greatest joke ever. At the end of the class, he said "Are there any questions or comments?". Vikash said in his typically melodramatic and over-respectful style "Yes sir, I think you have fulfilled all course objectives, but one. You had said you want to be unpopular, but now you have become the most popular teacher in our class." His eyes actually seemed to well up as the loud deskthumping drowned out our laughter. His voice quavered when he took attendance. He had bought it! Boy, if he bought it, is he in for a surprise next year when he floats an elective with a hope that students will fall over each other to sign up for it.

Anyway, Vikash's ulterior objective was to make the milk of kindness flow in AM's stomach, and thereby ensure an easy midterm paper. No such luck. It screwed us totally, and I started looking at another C, as I had scored 1.5 out of 5 in his quiz, and 12 out of 35 in the midterm.

But that was when Vipul came in. Prof Vipul took the post-midterm classes. He looked like an efficient dictator. Each hair perfectly in place, and a scowl on his moustached lips, it was clear this guy was no cartoon. He meant business. He had a sharp tone, and a clear way of teaching. he was very strict, and would pick on anyone to talk about the case being discussed. However what helped was his attitude to doubts was very open and responsive. If you did not understand, he wanted you to ask him, so he would explain.

Vipul was so much better compared to the three previous teachers who taught us accounting. He knew exactly how to make students work, and how to make a subject clear. For me, the big confidence shift happened during a lecture on "Application of activity based costing", when I was among the only 3 people in the class interacting with him, and everyone else was having a tough time following. I thought, "Hey, I am among the only 3 people in the class who has understood this case very well! I must be good at this"

The way he taught variance analysis was especially amazing. He had written a separate text for it, and made it very easy. There was something different about Vipul. All the other professors used to ask students at random to discuss the case too, and would harshly rebuke anyone who hadn't read the case like Vipul. But in their classes, what they taught was never enough to make you understand the material. You had to go back, mull over notes, decode them and then solve the case. Vipul's teaching was so lucid that you only had to solve the case before class, and not spend time clearing your concepts from the text.

By the time the endterms came, I was much more confident about doing well. I thought that if I could get at least 25 or 30 out of 45, I would be safe with a B- and out of the C zone. The exam started. The first question, we had to find out some stuff that needed us to use a formula he had taught. But I had forgotten the formula. However the way he had taught it, I could derive the formula there in 5 minutes, and use it. The second, third and fourth questions were very reasonable questions and I was sure everyone would do them well. The fifth question was a case. I read it twice and spotted a catch or two in it. I was exhilarated because I had never been able to spot these hidden tricks in the previous accounting exams. Generally only a few students can spot these, and it makes the difference between who tops and who is average.

I finished the exam with 10 minutes to go and came out feeling supremely confident. A friend asked me how was it, and before I could realise what I was saying, the answer came out "I am getting 45 out of 45 because I have written a faultless paper". This was an ambitious statement to make, with my track record in accounting, so my friend looked at me with amusement. I too wondered why I said what I said. It was like someone else had spoken through my mouth.

Well, as it turned out two weeks later, whoever had spoken through my mouth was dead right! I was one of the 3 people who got 45/45 in the end term. I had got 13/15 in his quizzes, and so I ended up with a grade of B+, which means 7 out of 10 when translated to grade points. I was in the top 10% of the whole batch in the course, and I felt great.

By my own accounting standards, I had done well.