I Got Served By Meir Kohn

by Peter Gray | 2/2/07 6:00am

"This is not Camp Dartmouth and this is the last lecture you'll receive from me," began my introduction to Meir Kohn, the feared grand-master of Economics 26, the introductory finance course at Dartmouth and possibly the best one of my academic career.

Kohn's class structure turns the average Dartmouth class experience on its head. Most classes progress in this way: Reading is assigned, student reads but does not actively question or retain the knowledge, lecture or quiet discussion fills in the basic gaps of understanding, cycle repeats for three weeks, paper is assigned, student returns to material to realize how he is only understanding it now, with 12 hours until the paper is due.

Kohn assigns chapter reading from his own text book (the man is not afraid to say he's right) accompanied by a required set of conceptual questions. What sets him apart is that he doesn't require them to be turned in but they are also not just food for thought. He fills the hour and five minute period by randomly calling on students, asking them to provide in-depth responses to the assignment, and mercilessly "serving" anyone who falls short of his high standards of excellence. Recently, in response to a what-do-you-think question, a student began with, "Well, going on my intuition I'd think that..." Eight words later, Kohn interrupted him with the crisp delivery of a British accent on the wane: "Well your intuition isn't very good then."

His priceless expressions of exasperation at students' inability to see it "his" way include, "Aaaah! You're giving me a heart attack" and "Just so you all know, that really was not a very good answer." The effect is electric. I've never seen more self-assured frat boys and jockeys sweating bricks in an academic setting before. I repeatedly get blitzes from other students asking me if I want to skip my class prior and go over the answers. It has the intensity of a corporate interview, except he's going to tell you that you blew it, as opposed to just writing it down on a notepad.

His system works because it is entirely egalitarian. In the second class, he asked a student to answer an eight-part question. On each section, the student would get five words out before Kohn let out an emphatic "no," and culled another answer from a sea of raised hands. Nobody was ever safe. He has no favorites and three successful responses in a row gives you zero cushion for messing up the fourth.

It is the only class where participation is actually given quantifiable incentives. Teachers usually put class participation as an after-thought, even in discussion-based classes: a measly 10 percent, which has a negligible effect on your grade. In Kohn's class, your responses over the course of the term comprise 20 percent of your grade and despite the fact that he selects a student to deliver each answer, the class is awash with eager hands, salivating for the chance to "chime in" after an unsatisfactory response. In this free market of information, students are compelled to deliver their best at all times. Silence means weakness. The ashen-faced student on the fringe will not be left alone. Kohn will sniff out the unprepared and subject them to a public fleecing if need be.

Kohn is the first professor at Dartmouth I have encountered who is perfectly comfortable telling me that I'm wrong, and no less of a feat, in front of the rest of the class. This is a broader issue: Our society is terrible at telling us we're just plain wrong. He demands excellence and a complete grasp of the material, not just on the exam or in a paper, but at all moments of the class experience. The lessons are profound. Weakness will be exploited. If you miss an opportunity, sharks are waiting in the wings to snap it up. And yes, there is such thing as a wrong answer. It is a rare preparation at Dartmouth for the hard, cold world we will find ourselves in at the end of our over-nurtured, over-stroked years in Hanover's loving arms.