The Friday Funny: The first Scriven class at Claremont

This week’s Friday Funny is an edited excerpt from a short after-dinner speech given by Jane Davidson at the Claremont symposium to honor Michael Scriven’s career (August 2011).


I came into CGU in 1996 to study organizational behavior. In my first semester I waived out of Methods and Stats and took a Theory-Driven Evaluation course with Stewart Donaldson.

[Of course, my first challenge as an international student was understanding American English … Stewart kept talking about stakeholders, stakeholders … and everyone else seemed to know what he meant, but I wondered for ages: “Who were these people, and just why did they have to stay cold?”]

I was in my second year of doctoral studies at CGU when this guy called Michael Scriven walked in the door and changed the world – as you do when you’re Michael Scriven …

I will always remember the very first class. There were close to 20 first year evaluation masters students; several doctoral students from the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences; and a smattering of others – students, staff and faculty – from across the Claremont Colleges who’d heard Michael was in town and just didn’t want to miss anything.

Michael started his introduction to the topic of evaluation. He was making some interesting points, which of course leads one to start thinking about them while he’s talking, so you drift off a little …

The next thing you know you’ve missed the next chunk of information, and of course, this is the point where Michael throws in a question: “What’s the problem with that idea?”

Um … what’s the problem with what idea??

There was a silence … no-one dared speak first … until one of my more brilliant colleagues, who was trained in philosophy – and had obviously heard the original question – piped up.

All the other students heaved a sigh of relief that someone else had volunteered …

… that is, until they heard Michael’s response.

“Well,” said Michael, “That’s a bit vaccuous, isn’t it?”

Instantly, every single first year student – and most of the rest – swore they would never EVER raise their hand in Michael’s class.

5 comments to The Friday Funny: The first Scriven class at Claremont

  • Salaam,
    Soft and interesting story! I think we built by learn from our efforts or/and our teachers.
    Jane had good chance for having direct teachers like Scriven. More of our learning comes from our fails and good teachers built us by lessons taking from these nice experiences same Jane said that she takes from her two good teachers in the story.
    I think the bloggers get trickle down theory as a framework for writing their report! As an evaluation stakeholder! and fan of Scriven! I patiently eager to read or possibility watch! The next and full report of the ceremony so soon!

  • Katherine Dawes

    Ten years ago, at an AEA Conference training class in St. Louis, I was the first student to raise my hand to give answer to Micheal question in an AEA. His response: “That’s boring. Do better.” He waved his hand dismissively and proceeded to call on the next person who didn’t put their hand down quick enough. He infuriated me.

    Did I mention he was RIGHT? I’m certain I’m a better evaluator because of it.

  • Jane Davidson

    LOL, Katherine!

    As I said later on in the speech …
    What didn’t kill us made us (and our clients) stronger.

  • Barry Bannister

    Michael Scriven (and Dan Stufflebeam) were keynote speakers at an evaluation conference in Canberra in mid-1985, I believe it was. Ten minutes into Michaels’ presentation a young man stood up and took a photo of the presenter dressed in black like Johnny Cash but with the long white mane that was part of his persona back then. “Who told you that you could take a photograph of me?” he bellowed to the dismay of the large audience as he went down the aisle to retrieve the film. It took another 5 minutes or so before we all recovered and could concentrate on the presentation……the following day Michael (and Dan) very kindly perused a copy of my almost completed phd dissertation abstract, for which I was thankful — a few years later Dr. Scriven invited a colleague (Doug Castledine) and myself to a most memorable dinner and a tour of his publishing facilities at his home in Port Reyes north of San Franciso when we were visiting from Hong Kong. With 4 or 5 examples to ponder, it occurs to me that the public and private personas of great men (and women, no doubt) seem sometimes to be almost (bi)polar opposites. The last time I spoke with Michael Scriven was in Portland, Oregon, at the 2006 AEA meeting and he was still as impressive as ever, if a little more mellow.

  • Mahesh Subramony

    I was at a panel session on evaluation at SIOP (I think it was in 1999 – Jane you were on the panel too) on evaluation. I asked Michael whether it was practical to do any systematic evaluation in business organizations, given the short-term focus of managers. I don’t remember his answer. All I remember is everybody else in the audience looking astounded and murmuring to each other. I never really figured out why that was so – until today :)