Faculty in Focus: Giving the ‘gift of understanding’
What do jigsaw puzzles and teaching MBA students have in common? For Gina Fong, a clinical associate professor at Kellogg, both are at the core of her favorite times as a faculty member at Kellogg.
“A lot of my favorite memories at Kellogg are around the small moments students and I have, and when I can really tell that they are having fun in classes because that typically means they are learning,” says Fong. Putting forth effort to transform the classroom into what she calls a “curiosity gymnasium” where creativity can breathe, Fong aims to instill a joy for discovery — much like the burst of motivation and encouragement you get when you snap a puzzle piece into its exact right place.
“There is an approach that I do in my classroom that students have told me is somewhat unique in an MBA school called ‘progress, not perfection’ — the students informally nicknamed it ‘PNP,’” explains Fong. PNP allows students to resubmit assignments once they’ve turned in their first attempt and having met the deadline. The purpose of her approach is to foster a growth mindset among her students and take the pressure off getting it “right” the first time. “Students really embrace this mode of learning, and it’s actually fun because you’re in your own mode of discovery. You’re curious and eager. You’re not trying to perform,” says Fong.
The opportunity to redo a project also prepares students for what they’ll encounter in a real workplace setting. “I don’t know many people who can say they submit something to their boss or team, and it was untouched,” she says. “The benefit of PNP also gets them used to feedback, and the idea that things are evolving and organic. They’re not static,” Fong shares. This supports students’ ability to be nimble knowing they will have as many attempts as possible at arriving at the best possible outcome or solution — all in the spirit of innovation.
Each year Kellogg faculty are recognized for their teaching and research, and it’s no wonder Fong was named the recipient of this year’s L.G. Lavengood Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. Graduating members from the Full-time MBA and the Evening & Weekend MBA programs vote on who receives this honor at the culmination of the academic year. “It was so meaningful to get it,” says Fong. “When I received the award what it said to me was, they understand how much I invest in the course, how much I invest in them and how important it is to learn about and conduct ethnographic research,” she shares.
An ethnographer by training, Fong admits that the business world has often led with quantitative thinking, especially now as big data is at the forefront of business conversations and organizations and companies grow more curious around artificial intelligence. “I sit in the qualitative world, and I really want to make sure that qualitative research doesn’t get lost,” she explains. “It’s a really important skill set because it allows you to understand your audience, Fong says. “I became a teacher to make sure that ethnographic research — a valuable skill and art — isn’t lost in the shuffle of all the spreadsheets and data.”
Fong and her teaching style are reflective of the school’s mission to develop effective, well-rounded business leaders who can effect change. “I certainly see this idea of ‘high-impact, low ego’ in my classroom, where students want to do really great things in business but doing it in a way that’s really humble.”
Currently, in her sixth-year teaching at Kellogg, she reflects on how she has built great relationships with her students partly due to the stories she shares during her classes, allowing them to get to know her beyond the classroom — Fong starts each of her class with a personal anecdote to help improve learning retention— and one of them being her love for puzzles. “Last quarter, some students wanted to do jigsaw puzzles with me, so we met on a Sunday afternoon. I brought a bunch of my favorite puzzles, and we did one together and that was really fun,” Fong laughs. “Then we started trading puzzles in class. Students are now giving me puzzles as gifts which is really awesome because I love to do puzzles. They are getting to know me beyond just a professor, and it’s in a way that we can all connect,” she says.
Students have also picked up on her affinity for handwritten thank-you notes. “As a result of becoming more curious and observant — both are important skills for ethnographic research, so I teach them — they understand that thank you notes are my love language. And so, at the end of the course, they’ve started to write thank-you notes, which is lovely,” she says. It is not so much about the action but about the comprehension of what the action means: “The gift of understanding. They are learning how to understand someone so deeply they can surprise and delight them.”
For any student who has taken or is considering taking one of her classes, she has this to say: “I hope you walk out understanding how to be a joyful customer advocate. I hope that you understand how to give someone else the gift of understanding.”
More words of wisdom from Professor Fong
As this year’s Lavengood Award winner, Fong addressed graduating students at this year’s convocation. Watch her address below.