September 13, 2019 | By Clare Becker | Back to news
First-year students pose for a picture while making the "W" for UW-Madison
First-year students will benefit from the launch of this year’s new business FIG, taught by WSB’s Thomas O’Guinn, a professor of marketing. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

Nursing and Global Health. Black Life Narratives. Biology of Vision. These are just three of the approximately 60 First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) available to first-year undergraduate students each fall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The seminars help students transition into the university’s academic environment by learning together in a small cohort that takes three courses around a specific theme or topic of interest.

This fall, the Wisconsin School of Business will offer its first business-focused, business-led FIG thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) granted in partnership with UW–Madison’s College of Letters and Science. The course, “The Sociology and History of American Marketing and Consumer Society,” is taught by Thomas O’Guinn, professor and chair of WSB’s Department of Marketing, and the Irwin Maier Distinguished Chair in Business. The FIG is created specifically for direct-admit business students—those who received admission to WSB directly out of high school.

WSB’s Thomas O’Guinn, professor and chair in the Department of Marketing and the Irwin Maier Distinguished Chair in Business. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

“The first-year interest group is designed to immerse students in marketing, sociology, and history, and most importantly, their connections, how they interact. Marketing, and the consumer culture it helped produce, isn’t just about some bag of commercial techniques; marketing was made by, and in turn made, the character of contemporary society. You can’t adequately teach our history without some deeper recognition and understanding of marketing. This class does that, and does it within a supportive, cross-disciplinary learning environment,” says O’Guinn. “I’m very excited to launch this first business FIG and believe students will benefit from it as they learn more about UW–Madison and what it means to be part of a global academic community.”

Merging business and the humanities

The business FIG was designed with a broad vision behind it: finding common ground between business and the humanities, two disciplines that are typically taught in isolation from one another and where students and faculty can benefit from stronger cross-disciplinary integration.

The initiatives funded through the NEH grant, titled “Navigating Uncertainty Through Humanities-Business Connections,” represent a cross-disciplinary collaboration between WSB and the College of Letters and Science aimed at bringing the two fields together at both the student and faculty level, says WSB’s Chris Dakes, faculty associate and director of educational innovations and learning design. The more integrated approach of a FIG is a step toward breaking down the perceptions that business is primarily focused on applicable hard skills and humanities are more ambiguous.

“We need to have an integrated, holistic educational system—not just accounting, not just finance, not just marketing, but a system where the humanities are integrated within the disciplines of business, and business concepts help to inform the humanities. The FIGs are designed to make those connections more intentional, more integrated, at a critical juncture when students are new to the university environment and expanding their ways of thinking.”

FIG structure

The FIGs are created as a type of academic learning community in which student groups of about 20 people move through a series of three courses together—a main course and two additional linked courses. For example, O’Guinn’s business FIG, as a main course, is paired with two linked courses in sociology and psychology.

In addition to the FIG taught by O’Guinn, two other FIGs are open to direct-admit business students:

  • “Capitalism in America,” taught by the History Department, with linking courses on microeconomics and sociology of race and ethnicity.
  • “Sustainability in the North: Culture, Environment, and the Economy,” taught by the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic, with linking courses on environmental studies, microeconomics, and personal and professional foundations in business.

The FIGs align with desired learning outcomes for undergraduate business students, Dakes says, such as making ethical decisions, identifying problems and developing potential business solutions using critical and creative thinking, and communicating effectively across diverse social and professional settings.

Lecture series brings outside perspectives to campus

The NEH grant also funds a partnership between WSB and UW–Madison’s Center for the Humanities that brings high-profile speakers to campus in a series titled “Forseeing the Future.”

The lecture series kicked off in April 2018 with Mihir A. Desai, the Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance at Harvard Business School and a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Desai focused his lecture on his book, Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, and included a panel discussion along with the audience.

Seth Partnow, director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks, spoke in March 2019 on his work with the team and the role of analytics in sports. In addition to his talk, Partnow’s visit included a hands-on workshop designed for undergraduate students to help them put their data analytics skills to use. Students acted as analysts for a Women’s National Basketball Association team, selecting players who would add the most value to their group teams, and then presented the results.

The Fall 2019 lecture will feature Marcia Chatelain, author and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. An Andrew Carnegie fellow, Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, a book that examines the double-edged sword of fast food chains in African-American neighborhoods that provide employment yet come at a nutritional cost to the community.

From the FIGs to the lecture series, the goal of these cross-disciplinary initiatives is to broaden knowledge and perspectives, says Dakes.

“It’s about navigating uncertainty, understanding things beyond your own context,” he explains. “To the extent that we can get business students interacting with English or Scandinavian studies or philosophy majors, or whatever the major may be, that’s intellectual diversity. Within that also comes demographic diversity and a deeper understanding of different cultures, of ourselves, and of others.”


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