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

Reflections on 5 Months in Colombia

Earlier this year, I had the honor of being a Fulbright Scholar to Colombia. From January through May of 2014, while on sabbatical from Binghamton University, I worked at Pontificia Univeridad Javeriana in Bogotá, where I taught a graduate Seminar in Public Management to municipal leaders from all regions of the country and conducted research on the recent evolution of graduate level public affairs education in Colombia. The experience was rewarding on so many levels and can be measured in terms of the new friendships I established, my personal research productivity during the period, vast improvements in my Spanish language abilities, a pending formal agreement between the two universities, and the multitude of subsequent professional collaborations that have arisen as a result. There are many opportunities and motivations to build on the professional relations and activities and thus they have understandably received the bulk of my attention since my return. What has been less incentivized and thus easier for me to neglect is deliberate reflection on the experience and how it affected me on a more personal level.

International travel is not new to me, evolving from family vacations as a child, the tourist excursions as an adult, and international conference presentations and consulting activities as an adult. I have had opportunities to visit countries throughout the Americas (North, Central and South), Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, for periods of a few days to a month. The Fulbright experience was the first time I lived for an extended period outside of the United States. Living there and having the benefit of the professional networks afforded by my Fulbright scholarship and my host institution in Colombia afforded me a very different experience than any prior travels. To be sure, I was still a foreigner (even though I could pass for Colombian in many contexts and when people pegged me as being a foreigner, they more often guessed I was from Brazil than the United States!). A foreigner yes, but not a tourist or a visitor just passing through.

I had the good fortune of being in Colombia at a fascinating point in the country’s history, with progress being made in peace negotiations that have the real potential to put an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict, and campaigns and elections for both the national legislature and the presidency for which peace was understandably a central issue. I took advantage of every opportunity to talk with people about these issues; I asked questions of my students, other professors, taxi drivers, neighbors, store clerks, and people I met in the park while walking my dog (yes, I took my dog with me). Beyond what I learned from these casual conversations, two experiences profoundly influenced my thinking about these issues.

During my first week at Javeriana, as part of the orientation for the College of Political Science and International Relations, I learned that one professor had recently secured approval for a new program to teach classes to ex-combatants of the National Liberation Army or Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla group in a prison in Medellin as a way to improve their chances for constructive re-integration in society upon their release. I expressed interest in learning more about the program. Rather than merely providing me documents about the program, the Dean offered me the opportunity to co-teach a day-long course on local government as part of the program. Meeting these men in the prison and spending a day teaching them, learning from them and sharing meals with them challenged many of my preconceived images. Were it not for the multiple levels of security through which we had to pass in order to enter the designated area for the ELN prisoners, I could have been in a classroom in any university anywhere in the world. Were it not for the knowledge of the types of offenses committed by ELN guerillas, I could have been with any small group of highly engaged and dedicated students (they did the assigned readings and were prepared to discuss them critically and apply them to their experiences). Were it not for environment in which me met and the formal nature of our class meeting, I could have been at a gathering of friends and family. These were individuals who, under different circumstances, could have been my students, colleagues, friends or relatives. They were thoughtful and reflective; they were neither apologetic nor dogmatic; they were committed to bettering their communities and their country; they chose methods that I and the standards of society deem unacceptable, but they were not bad people. I left the prison that day feeling more conflicted and having a better sense of the complexity of the issues.

I was also able to accompany a group of student volunteers from Javeriana and their faculty leader for a two-day visit to Barrancabermeja, the site of a 1998 massacre of innocent civilians in the clash between guerrilla and para-military groups, and then up the Magdalena River to the village of San Pablo, another community that was the site of extensive violence in recent years. In both communities, I was able to learn about their tragic histories and see the wonderful work that volunteers from Javeriana University are doing as they engage in community projects through the Jesuit Refugee Services organization. Much more than reading statistics, visiting these sites makes their histories come alive.

There is not space in this post to delve into how these experiences have shaped my thinking as a teacher, scholar or human being. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this blog entry that the influences were profound. I have a great appreciation for value of being in another country as more than a tourist or short-term visitor. I have a strong desire to experience this again in other parts of Colombia or in other parts of the world. I also hope that many of my students and colleagues have similar opportunities and I look forward to hearing about their experiences when they do.

Nadia Rubaii, ’85, MA ’87, PhD ’91 (Political Science)

Associate Professor, Public Administration