course
Mistake, Misconduct, Disaster: How Organizations Fail

May 2014

I took Professor Vaughan's class last fall and absolutely loved it, possibly one of my favorite classes at Columbia so far. I loved the wide range of case studies-- from plane crashes to stock market traders to religious fanatics-- and while there was a lot of reading for this class many of the readings were focused on these interesting cases. Vaughan knows what she's talking about, and she's clearly extremely knowledgeable of her field (she's considered the #1 expert on shuttle crashes, and was asked to testify at the investigation hearings for the Columbia shuttle explosion). While Vaughan is not the most incredibly vivid and lively speaker, her familiarity with everything she talks about comes across in lecture. I worked hard in this class, but I was easily motivated to do so simply because I was interested in the material. If you find this isn't the case, this may not be the class for you. While there is a lot of reading, some of it can be skimmed, and you really get most of what you need to know in lecture. So combining doing (most of) the reading with attending lecture will get you far. In the end, I was really happy with this class and even today much of what I've learned has stuck with me.

Dec 2013

This course is a joke. I learned absolutely nothing and the only thing I achieved from this class was fulfilling a graduation requirement. Vaughan is a very amiable and personable teacher who manages to ingrain no knowledge in your head after an entire semester. She agrees with pretty much anything any student says, often goes on tangents and talks about irrelevant stories about her life, and never clearly explains any theory or concept she talks about. She doesn't ever use the board or follow a progressive teaching process - she jumps from topic to topic with little cohesion. For example, if it's so important for us to know about the Bounded Rationality model and Practical Drift, she should actually take the time to explain them clearly and write down a short definition or quick points on the board. She just asks us about what we learned from the readings and says it's all good (it's not). She assigns an unreasonable amount of reading (easily 150 - 200 pages per week) about boring case studies that get into more detail than necessary. She makes you read 3 entire books in addition to the numerous articles too. The readings can sometimes be interesting and you might actually learn something from a few of them, but by and large, they are meaningless babble about unnecessary details of nuclear power plants or something. I personally didn't do any of the reading for the second half of the semester and only paid attention in class. With the little knowledge I was able to glean from the lectures, I was able to get a good score on the exams. This just goes to show how ridiculous this class is. The midterms asked for definitions and short essays on various incidents. She only asks about incidents she talks about in class, so you can skip the rest of the readings. You have to write a 12 page paper on a film, analyzing it using her organizational causal model. You just have to segregate points in the movie into various subheading of her model. Not hard - doesn't require much effort. I do not recommend taking this class.

Dec 2010

Mistake, Misconduct, and Disaster was a very interesting course regarding the "dark side" or complex organizations and the deviance they can systemically produce. It consists of applying a causal model, which can get a little complex, to numerous organizations, along with learning some basic sociological theories regarding decision making. Unfortunately, this was the first semester that the course was offered, so it was a little unorganized. Lectures did not always follow the syllabus, which often changed. Additionally, some key points were not easily deciphered either from readings or in class making this course somewhat confounding. Regardless, the course offers valuable and practical insight into the organizations that some of us hope to work for. I enjoyed Professor Vaughan, who has devoted her career studying organizational deviance. She is warm, friendly, supportive, but mostly passionate about her work. Her book on NASA's space shuttle Challenger provides insight regarding how and why such a disaster can occur. It is the foundation of the course. She keeps regular office hours, and I would recommend you go. As long as you sincerely show a concerted effort, she's very helpful. Class discussions were interesting, especially when we split into groups and practiced decision making. Everyone viewed the same information in different ways, yet we have to make a consensus. Lots of inner squabbles and positioning which is exactly the point of how and why large organizations make decisions. This is not an easy class, and definitely not an easy A. You need to devote a great deal of time to the assignments, which are lengthly. I was lost for a couple of lectures, but it finally came together toward the end of the term.

Dec 2010

Vaughan was an enjoyable and amiable professor. Every class she would ask a multitude of softball questions and agree with more or less anything that students said in a sort of "Oh, that's a nice contribution to the discussion," even if it were completely wrong. That said, if you're looking for rigorous instruction in sociology, don't bother. She's well-published and knowledgable, but her agreeableness means that the lectures aren't emphatic enough. You spend the majority of the class learning a relatively simple model and apply it to a bunch of cases. You can do this stuff in your sleep.