When Life Gives You Lemons….

We have all heard (and probably used) the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Let’s consider how that might that apply in a teaching context. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned that I spent the spring 2014 semester as a Fulbright Scholar at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia. One of my responsibilities was to teach a Seminar in Public Management as part of the Especialización en Gobierno y Gestion Publica Territoriales (specialization in Local Government and Public Management). In Colombia, “especializaciones” are common graduate level degree programs that are similar to executive education programs in the U.S. in that they are designed for mid-career professionals and the classes are held in intensive weekend formats. In my case, my students included 25 local government professionals from all parts of the country and we met Thursday, Friday and Saturday one weekend in March and another weekend in April.

An introductory seminar in Public Management, particularly one with practitioners, is often taught using the case method. The case method is a proven pedagogical approach which allows students to apply theoretical constructs to a situation drawn from real-life experiences to evaluate how decisions were made, to consider what could have been done differently or better, to examine how competing models or theories would suggest different responses, and to generate new theories. The case method helps bring material to life and makes learning more relevant and meaningful. Cases challenge learners with problems set in complex, real-world situations in which there is no one correct answer. In contrast to the more traditional and still widely-used lecture, the case method shifts students from the role of passive recipient of information to active and engaged participant in learning.

The case method was first developed in the fields of law, medicine and business in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1930s and 40s it spread to public administration and currently there is no shortage of cases for courses in our discipline. There are books filled with cases as well websites based a prestigious universities across the United States that house cases designed specifically for public affairs education, including those based at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Electronic Hallway developed by the Evans School at University of Washington, the multi-media cases found in the Hubert Project based at the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, and a collection of cases based at the Rutgers University Newark’s School of Public Affairs. There is plenty of options to select cases tailored to the particular type of organization, size of jurisdiction or policy issue relevant to the course one is teaching. But of the more than 2,500 cases available from these various sites, only a handful are set in Latin America and none are set in Colombia. Even among the nearly 700 cases within the within the Centro International de Casos (CIC) compiled and maintained by the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM, for its initials in Spanish) in Mexico, only 23 take place in South America, and only 19 cases deal with Colombia.


The full potential of the case method requires cases that students can relate to and which present problems and allow the application of theory to practical situations that are realistic and relevant. My lemons came in the form of the lack of relevant cases that would allow for a meaningful application of theories and development of decision making skills relevant to the public management realities of local government leaders in Colombia. So, what is a professor to do? I could have used cases drawn from United States or other contexts and made the best of them. I could have abandoned the case method and used some other pedagogy. Or I could make lemonade.

Making Lemonade

Making lemonade was disguised in the form of writing cases….that is, students writing their own cases. Let’s be clear, case writing is not a simple nor quick task. A case must include sufficient details about the issues at hand, organizational setting, community characteristics, key individuals, governing policies, etc. It must be written in an engaging style that captures the readers’ attention and encourages reflection on decisions and outcomes. It also should not be so narrowly focused as to be useful only for a specific course or at one point in time.

I designed the class so that students would work in teams of 5 to identify an appropriate local government example, conduct research, and prepare a case that could be incorporated into our discussions and learning. The students rose to the occasion and prepared cases dealing with policies unique to Colombia (regarding responding to adolescent criminal activity, preparing youth to assume leadership roles in a post-conflict reconciliation period, enhancing representation of Afro-Colombians in the national legislature, implementing regional planning, and improving accountability in the spending of royalties transferred to local governments). Each case was based on the experiences of a particular municipality and they spanned the diverse geographic and demographic landscape of Colombia.

Thirst-Quenching Lemonade

Not only did this experience allow me and the students to realize the usual benefits of the case method, it also generated some new cases to help address the original problem of too few cases for teaching public administration in Colombia. As part of their assignment for the class, the student groups were also tasked with writing an Instructor’s Guide to accompany their case so that it could be used in the future by other professors in other classes and at other universities. Those goals were part of my instructional plan (or my recipe for lemonade, if you will). But even better than those anticipated benefits, the students reported that the process of working in teams and conducting the research to write the cases contributed immensely to their appreciation of the value of their peers’ diverse experiences and perspectives, and helped to better appreciate how to apply public management theories to their own process of working together. Despite challenges along the way, the students were overwhelmingly positive in their assessment of the individual and collective value of the process.

Lemons –> Lemonade –>Thirst Quenched. All in all, a great learning and teaching experience.

Nadia Rubaii, ’85, MA ’87, PhD ‘91

Associate Professor of Public Administration

2 thoughts on “When Life Gives You Lemons….

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