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With books on Feminism, immigration reform, and media studies, Ira Harris’ office betrays his wide interests and dedication to educating himself and his students on a variety of topics. Dr. Harris, Associate Professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, believes this range is necessary to fully participate in the academic, political, and business world: “We don’t live in a compartmentalized world; things are so intertwined that you do yourself a disfavor if you only read the books from your own field.” Dr. Harris brings this passion to his self-designed course Critical Thinking on Business Issues—an undergraduate seminar which uses detailed discussions on a variety of complex topics to give students practice in the process of thinking deeply and critically. Dr. Harris explains, “I wanted to develop a course that focuses on critical thinking, forcing the students to think more analytically and to think broader, because all of us suffer from biases and judgmental heuristics…our society’s contemporary problems have many different perspectives and interested stakeholders. I want our students to appreciate the variety of different perspectives and accompanying complexity faced by today’s managers and citizens.”
In order to give students the supportive environment in which to practice thinking critically, Dr. Harris begins with a brief introduction to the theory of critical thinking, then structures Critical Thinking on Business Issues around the discussion of books introducing a variety of contemporary social and political issues—ranging from immigration policy to poverty and education reform. The best seminar sessions are not those in which students necessarily change their minds, but rather “by the end of the session they realize that ‘I felt very strongly about this at the beginning of the hour, and now, I haven’t changed my mind, but I am more aware of other positions on the topic than I was before,’ which is a good sign, because it means they have been open-minded; they have moved away from that strong position they had at the beginning of class.” Unsurprisingly, through the course Dr. Harris’ students form a distinctive learning community completely unlike many of the other classes offered at the McIntire School of Business: “The relationships in the room are different than in your typical class because they have had to open and reveal their thinking to each other, so I feel there is a much stronger bond than in a more typical class.”
Dr. Harris is passionate that the skills he teaches in Critical Thinking on Business Issues are not only applicable in the business world, but also necessary for our ever-changing society. Dr. Harris explains that “our society is moving so quickly that companies realize they need good thinkers—good thinkers across both industries and across functional areas within an industry. Organizations need people who are able to think without the supervisor laying out the exact “road map” in ever situations.” These critical thinking skills will not only allow students to react quickly and independently to changing environments, but also provide an overarching vision for the company, because “what students—eventual managers—need is an understanding of not only simply analytical tools, but also an overarching way of thinking to be able to investigate the problem, figure out what’s broken, identify where the opportunities are, and formulate a plan on what needs to be done in your organization to adapt to whatever change has happened.”
While the belief in the value of critical thinking skills is becoming increasingly evident throughout the business world, universities are not responding quickly to train their students. Dr. Harris notes that “there are companies now—Lumosity, Disney, and others—that are in the business of teaching you to think; many people are interested in thinking better, and the largest and most convenient time to teach students’ to think better is their time at a university, but universities don’t often provide courses in ‘pure thinking.’” In this regard University of Virginia and Dr. Harris are forerunners in providing students the opportunity to study critical thinking. However, Dr. Harris explains that the arbitrary distinction of academic disciplines often prevents students from studying outside their departments and programs—a phenomenon Dr. Harris is anxious to change: “I’d love that across the University we’d be more willing to have students move across academic units. Good thinkers aren’t confined to one discipline—they simply demonstrate how to think; they understand their biases and their natural limitations, and then formulate approaches to overcome their limitations.” Dr. Harris is eager to work with the Contemplative Sciences Center to create more courses focused on critical thinking which attract students from across disciplines, because “the reason for a course like this is stronger than it was ten years ago because in a world moving faster, change is occurring more frequently, and it is putting more of a burden on us individually to make decisions.”