01 Sep 2006
Down the Memory Chute
WAC, WOC, and Doing the Write Thingby Garry EmmonsTopics:
Recent alumni may not believe it, but there was a time when it was the Written Word — more so than cold calls or attacks of classroom amnesia — that struck fear in the hearts of HBS students. Every two weeks, authorial dread would descend over campus with the approaching onset of the brain-bruising written assignments that were, for several decades, a requirement for first-year MBAs. These exercises came in several different incarnations, best known by their course acronyms: EA General (Elements of Administration – General); WAC (Written Analysis of Cases); WOC (Written and Oral Communication); and MC (Management Communication). For generations of MBA students indentured to a demanding Muse, the trials and tribulations of report writing became legendary.
As far back as 1914, the HBS faculty voted to require a series of reports in a first-year marketing course, “such reports to be graded not only in substance but also on English,” HBS professor Melvin Copeland later wrote. Four-fifths of the students promptly failed. Thus began decades of experimentation and modification, with decidedly mixed results. “I believe it is fair to say,” Copeland noted, “that even in 1955, the system was not ‘entirely satisfactory.’ ”
Integral to these report-writing courses was the corps of red pencil–toting young women who were hired to assess students’ papers. It was Copeland himself who “in desperation” hired the first woman reader in 1919 to help with a glut of papers. He noted while “some of the first-year students felt that their painful literary efforts deserved male consideration,” HBS had discovered that “competent young ladies could be employed and trained to do a more careful, dependable job than most of the men willing to accept such employment.”
HBS professor Thomas J.C. Raymond (MBA 11/’47), who also held a doctorate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, was the WAC’s godfather and influential leader for thirty years. Written reports, Raymond said in 1954, address “one of the deficiencies of the case method” because “when schooling is over and the graduate has embarked on his business career, no one will hand him a ‘case.’ ” Instead, Raymond argued, the graduate will have to go out and in effect put together his own case before he can use the skills learned at HBS. WAC report writing was designed to train students to do just that.
With WAC, the longest running of all the report-writing incarnations, the prototypical assignment featured formal and informal discussions of the case at hand, followed by each student’s own fevered analysis. Then came multiple handwritten drafts and hours of typing, all combined with the pressure of ironclad deadlines and word length. The result was a classic love-hate relationship. “While in the MBA Program, students tend to dislike report writing,” the Bulletin noted in 1978. “As alumni five or more years out of the School, the same students tend to give report writing very high ratings in terms of direct practical benefits.”
But report-writing courses were dogged over the years by confusion about what they should accomplish and how; shifting standards of evaluation and grading; faculty ambivalence about the courses’ role in the curriculum; and student uncertainty about what was expected of them. Formal written analysis of cases came to a close with the demise of the Management Communication course in 1993. It marked a quiet ending to what many older alumni would recall as one of the most valuable aspects of their HBS education. A reprise of WAC at HBS seems about as likely as a return of the slide rule. But no one seems quite willing to consign the WAC once and for all to the annals of HBS history.
Hired in 1961, Virginia Plexico was one of some two dozen female WAC graders that year, most of whom were recent college graduates and English or history majors. “I was WAC Reader #14 — yes, we were each assigned a number,” says Plexico. “I had just finished college, and I wanted to live in Boston, so HBS was perfect. Before we began, we all attended classes in accounting, case management, and other subjects for several weeks.” By the 1970s, WAC had become WOC, and Rich Wailes (MBA ’77), hired in 1973, was one of a pioneering handful of male readers. “For some students,” recalls Wailes, “it was the first time they’d had to write a business analysis on a regular basis (every two weeks), under a word limit (2,500 words, excluding exhibits) and a deadline (due by midnight Friday in the WOC chute at the west end of Baker Library).” Exceeding the word limit, or turning in the paper after the deadline, Wailes notes, would incur a one-grade penalty (e.g., from Satisfactory to Low Pass).
Gordon Marshall (MBA ’58) taught the WAC course in the early 1960s and was course head for three years. Of the readers, Marshall says, “We were the only employer in Boston at the time that was hiring young women to use their minds.” Classes focused on analysis of cases (some fourteen a year, specially prepared for WAC) to help students prepare for the weekend’s written reports. Once papers were completed, the only after-action assessments were the readers’ comments, penciled in the extra-wide margins of the special green report paper, with a page-long overall commentary attached at the end. “We each read about forty papers,” Plexico says. “The pay was paltry — $57 a week after taxes. The students could discuss their grades but I believe they were allotted only a ten-minute appointment!” Although marriages did occur between graders and students (as well as less-sanctioned sorts of arrangements), Plexico concludes, “We were not universally loved!”
Prospective readers were asked to analyze a case and grade a sample paper, Rich Wailes recalls. “There followed two months of training, including case discussions with faculty members and the editing and grading of sample papers. During the training, as well as throughout the academic year, the readers and a faculty member would select three to five papers for grading by the entire group of readers. We would use those benchmarking sessions to try to assure that evaluations were consistent from reader to reader.”
Wailes later became one of only a few graders who themselves would enter the MBA Program. Getting into HBS was actually easier than being accepted as a WOC reader: In 1973, there were approximately 400 applicants for 4 WOC reader openings. Says Wailes, who as an MBA student was not allowed to take the WOC, “Whatever the mythology was about the deadlines and word limits, the truth is there were very few papers that were tardy or exceeded the word limit.”
TALES FROM THE CHUTE
A Hopeless Cul-de-Sac
WAC student Warren McFarlan (MBA ’61)
The WAC was the only course that had regular and detailed feedback and thus was considered a litmus test as to one’s overall first-year performance. All 630 students received the case on Thursdays and began writing on Saturdays. My first drafts always had 3,500 words, so I had to chop, chop, and chop some more.
For us, 9 p.m. was the cutoff time — it would vary over the years — and cheering crowds would gather at the chute at Baker. Afterward, there were huge parties where you compared analyses. Invariably you went home depressed, convinced that you had argued yourself into a hopeless cul-de-sac and that the brighter minds had all gone somewhere else.
Now It Can Be Told
WAC student Gordon V. Smith (MBA ’59)
The WAC case, which could be as short as 3 pages or as long as 100, was passed out earlier in the week but serious WAC work didn’t begin until Friday evening and then continued through Saturday — no Saturday football games! Typing began late Saturday afternoon and, unlike today, once a sentence was typed, it was virtually impossible to make a change without starting all over.
WACs were due at 9 p.m. but if you lived off-campus, you could mail it in, provided it were postmarked by midnight. Some classmates would make the last-minute dash to the downtown Boston post office where it was known that for a dollar or two, the postmaster would put on a midnight stamp at 3 a.m. Corruption run rampant!
WAC student Bobbi Clarke (MBA ’72)
It was rather obvious to female MBA students that we were not among the WAC readers’ favorite students. Clearly, a number of the WAC readers hoped to meet HBS students and form a long-term (read: marriage) relationship with them, as two readers did with sectionmates of mine. It was evident that certain male students were favored with better grades by certain other adoring WAC readers.
The female students were under no illusions about this and had to tolerate grades that, while not particularly harmful to our record at HBS, were not truly representative of our performance. The one woman in our class who was significantly older than the rest of us, and therefore not a social threat to the WAC readers’ hopes and marriage intentions, did in fact receive higher WAC grades than the rest of the female students. Who knows... maybe she really did write a better case analysis...or maybe not!
Don’t Chute! We’re WAC Students!
WAC student Lou Bevier (MBA ’55)
In the spring of 1954, after safely depositing our WAC papers in the proper slot, I and my suitemate, whose name I will not disclose, prepared for our special event. Dressed in black tie and tux and carrying a flaming paper torch, we raced to the chute, this time with bogus papers. There was, as always, the usual throng cheering our action. We deposited the papers and began running back to our dorm. While acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd, I was tackled by a security guard who charged me with resisting arrest and took me in for questioning. I was brought before the “board” (of which I happened to be a member) and made my only statement: “If I thought I was resisting arrest, I would have run faster.”
Time Is a Lousy Teacher
WAC student Richard A. Schaub (MBA ’56)
I originally entered HBS as a member of the Class of 1953 but was called away for a three-year military obligation before finishing all the required coursework. Before I left HBS, however, I did complete a WAC assignment I recall as the Apex Clock case.
Upon returning to the School (as a member of the Class of 1956), I was once again confronted by the Apex Clock case. This time we were asked to evaluate three previously submitted student analyses of the case, one of which was my earlier effort, for which I had received a Low Pass. For my new submission, after acknowledging my inside information and polishing off some rough edges and flaws in my original effort, I came to the same general conclusion as I had before and recommended a similar course of action. The result — another Low Pass!
A Wing, a Prayer, a WAC
WAC student Sterling Dimmitt (MBA ’61)
As an HBS student, Navy vet, and weekend warrior reporting to the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, my difficulty in meeting WAC deadlines was settled immediately by a decree of “No exceptions” from the “WAC ladies.”
My weekends often meant flights on a Grumman S2F with another pilot to Jacksonville, Florida. As he flew, I typed my WAC on a small Olivetti in the left seat, navigated, landed, got a bit of sleep, and got a turnaround flight back to Massachusetts in time to deliver the WAC by Saturday midnight, before heading back to the base.
One weekend, stuck in Florida with no return flight, I missed the WAC deadline! The result was a quick and final “No Pass.” A week later, we flew to Jacksonville and back in record time, and I made both the Baker Library chute and the Sunday Navy, too.
So I found ways to meet both WAC and Navy requirements. But finally I got a note on a returned WAC that said, “Think more, say less, and try not to smudge oil on your wrinkled WAC!”
Pssst, Got Any Ideas about This War?
WAC student Bruce Bockmann (MBA ’67)
During our first year, my class — about one-third of whom had served in the military — had a long WAC case on what to do about Vietnam and why. Henry Kissinger spoke to us, as did at least one military adviser and one CIA officer. It preceded a big troop buildup and came a few months after all reserve military officers were retained for Vietnam service. [The case was written by WAC instructor George Lodge, later an HBS professor, shortly after his return from a fact-finding trip as an AID consultant assessing anti-Vietcong programs in rural Vietnam. Lodge, whose father was the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam at the time, says this daylong WAC discussion, held in a Harvard athletic facility, included Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Samuel Huntington from the Harvard faculty, and Peer de Silva of the CIA, among many speakers both for and against the war. – Ed.]
WAC student David W. Salter (MBA ’58)
One of my worst nightmares at the B-School was to drop a WAC into the chute only to hear it skitter across the floor too late for the receptacle inside — so I made certain that mine was deposited with plenty of time to spare. My roommate, on the other hand, felt that his “creative juices” flowed better with deadline pressure, and I usually made the trek over to the chute with him just in time to beat the deadline. One evening, as the usual gaggle of students near the chute was disbanding, a large, black limousine came screeching up to the curb, and a young man in a tuxedo leaped out of the vehicle and ran over to the chute. It was evident that the receptacle had been removed, and with curses that I had not heard even in the Navy, he took his manila envelope, ripped it in half, and climbed back into the limo and sped away. We were all dumbfounded until someone examined the remnants of his envelope and discovered that all the sheets inside were blank. It was then that we realized we had been “Lampooned.” Those were the days!