The Art of Seeing Differently

UW–Madison connects business and the humanities to open students’ eyes to a broader perspective of business.

The Art of Seeing Differently

After reading Just Mercy, a book on the U.S. criminal justice system, WSB students learn to make prints that visually depict its major themes.


HOW CAN BUSINESS STUDENTS become not only better problem solvers and leaders, but better global citizens? By learning to view business problems through the lens of the liberal arts. That idea is driving several initiatives recently put in place at the Wisconsin School of Business (WSB) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 2017, it announced its latest effort: a humanities-driven series of courses delivered in partnership with UW–Madison’s College of Letters & Sciences.

The partnership is made possible by a US$100,000 grant that the university’s Center for the Humanities received from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center will use the funding to create three elective courses that integrate history, literature, and philosophy into the business curriculum. Based on the theme “Risk and Reward: Navigating Uncertainty Through Humanities-Business Connections,” these interconnected courses are intended for freshmen and sophomores. They include Histories of Uncertainty, taught by history professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, on social movements; American Dreamers, taught by English professor David Zimmerman, on financial risk and return; and Doubt, taught by legal studies professor Karl Shoemaker, on business ethics.

In addition, the grant will support the creation of a public lecture series called “Foreseeing the Future.” Each year, a committee of business and humanities faculty will invite a visiting scholar to campus to present a lecture, lead a seminar or book discussion, and support collaboration between faculty from different disciplines.

Finally, the center will use the funding to expand an existing community outreach program called HEX (Public Humanities Exchange), in which graduate students in the humanities work with local organizations. For instance, as part of HEX, a group of literature scholars started a reading and writing group at a local prison. The new program, HEX-U, will team business and humanities undergraduates to work on problems for community partners.

“This grant provides an opportunity to foster new connections between business and the humanities, giving Wisconsin BBA students a chance to develop broader perspectives on risk that will help them become better decision makers and leaders,” says Suzanne Dove, WSB’s assistant dean for academic innovations; she co-directs the project with Emily Clark, associate director for the Center for the Humanities. “We want our students to see that the liberal arts requirements they fulfill are a critical component of their business degrees.”


These funded activities come on the heels of several years of deliberate focus on the liberal arts at WSB, says Dove. Business students at UW–Madison already take liberal arts courses to meet their general education requirements. But WSB took this one step farther in 2014, when it invited an artist-in-residence to spend a semester teaching an undergraduate elective course in aesthetics and business, which enrolled more than 30 students.

“The feedback that we got was quite striking,” says Dove, “so we decided to keep pursuing this direction.” As a result, in 2015, the business school hired visual artist Angela Richardson as its 2015–2017 Artist-in-Residence. She continues in that role for 2018–2019.

Also in 2015, for the first time, WSB took part in the university’s book club, Go Big Read. Held since 2009, the event invites students from all disciplines to read the same book and invites faculty to design related course content. In 2015, the university chose Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which examines the U.S. criminal justice system. In response, WSB offered a four-section course designed around Just Mercy, required of all of its 120 direct-admit freshmen.

In 2016, students read Evicted by Matthew Desmond, about the struggle of poor families to find and remain in affordable housing. A member of the real estate faculty who teaches urban economics had already decided to include a unit on housing affordability in his course, which was required for all real estate majors, says Dove. “When I offered him the chance to integrate excerpts from Evicted into his class, he was really excited.”

Both years, Richardson took students to Wheelhouse Studio, the school’s open-use art studio, to teach them skills in printmaking. She then guided them as they created their own prints communicating each book’s themes through art. Students who had discussed Evicted, for example, created prints that explored issues such as how a neighborhood’s walkability affects its residents’ access to food, employment, and services.


Another of WSB’s initiatives will be a model for upcoming HEX-U interdisciplinary community projects. For the past three years, WSB has run its BEST challenge (Business and English Students Together), at the suggestion of a UW–Madison alum who earned both English and MBA degrees. Through BEST, teams of business and English students tackle a real-world problem that the UW–Madison campus faces. In 2016, students were asked to present to a panel of judges low-cost ways to repurpose a space that had been an ice-cream parlor before closing in 2010. The winning team recommended turning the space into “WIdea,” where community members could give live demonstrations or “TED Talk”-style presentations to an audience.

“We viewed BEST as an opportunity to challenge the notion that business education is only practical and the liberal arts is only theoretical,” says Dove. “This project highlights the ways that business education asks students to think very deeply about the theoretical groundings of the issues and the ways that the liberal arts ask students to use practical skills to solve problems.”

WSB and the Center for the Humanities also will bring together faculty from disciplines such as business, English, history, and legal studies on a regular basis. “If these projects are to achieve long-term sustainability, both business faculty and humanities faculty need to be excited about them early on,” says Dove. Interested faculty from both sides have met several times to exchange ideas for the Foreseeing the Future seminars, the first of which was held in April. These conversations offer opportunities to highlight shared interests and “overcome stereotypes they might hold about other disciplines,” says Dove. “We want them to get to know one another.”


Dove, who is part of the Aspen Institute’s Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, is pleased to see that other business schools are thinking about the importance of integrating business education and the liberal arts in more meaningful ways. “The conversations I’ve had with other educators have inspired me to ask, ‘How might we actually do this?’ It’s one thing to talk about it, and quite another to do it. Breaking down silos in our organizations is no small task.”

Through these programs, WSB hopes to take steps in that direction. As part of this objective, WSB will add another experimental course this fall, with the support of the university’s Arts Institute. Performing Information: Exploring Data Through Live Performance will be taught by Richardson and Stuart Flack, a playwright, entrepreneur, and policy researcher.

“We want our students to apply the skills they learn from the liberal arts to the way they think about fundamental questions surrounding uncertainty and chance. We want them to become people who can move with dexterity between abstract and concrete ideas,” says Dove. “If we can provide them with intellectual agility, we can create graduates prepared to be our world’s future leaders.”


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This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].