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Making The Grade

With the new Tom Cruise movie Collateral topping ticket sales this past weekend, we're bound to hear the story of FedEx again since he actually worked there to prepare for his role in the film. In case you haven't heard the FedEx story yet, here's an oversimplified version: In 1965, Fred Smith was an undergrad at Yale. He wrote a term paper that proposed using an air freight system for delivering packages overnight. His paper received - as he put it - "a poor grade", but the idea was obviously a winner.

Another interesting college term paper project: A student at the University Of Chicago wrote software to analyze music reviews on the Pitchfork Media website. He then used the analysis to write and record music that would generate critical acclaim. Here's a link to one of his songs: Kissing God. And this is his website detailing the project: Pitchformula.

My favorite college project story is far less brilliant, but highly effective nonetheless. Ahhh, I remember it like it was just ten years ago...


It was the spring of 1994 and I was a semester away from graduating from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. I was in over my head at the college radio station as the station's general manager & alternative music director along with being a dj too, so my classes were becoming an afterthought.

Between me and graduation stood a class called Organizational Communication.

The first few weeks of class were typical lectures and tests. Thanks to the enormous amount of time I was spending at the radio station, I was failing this class in a big way. But we spent the majority of the semester working on a project that would equal half of our final grade.

The project consisted of building a fictitious company from the ground up including a core product that company would make, & then marketing the company and product to the rest of the class. On sales day, everyone would be issued $3,000 in fake money to buy the fake products of our choice. Real world economics were built into the project, and it was a given that some groups would lose money - thus, we were graded on our performance rather than the outcome.

We were divided into groups of three. As the semester progressed, we built companies and products. The company names were all stupid and disposable - but I remember a few of the products distinctly.

My group announced our product to the class: "We've designed a programable freezer/refrigerator/microwave combo. This enables you to have a hot meal waiting when you walk in the door after a hard day's work." The next group announced their product, called "The Beermaster 2000" and we knew we were fucked. The following group proudly announced their invention ("The Orgasmitron!") as I upgraded my group's status from 'Fucked' to 'Royally Fucked.'

Our only hope laid in a technicality: Any gimmick could be used to sell our products on sales day so long as it was LEGAL, Not Alcohol, and Not Porn. The group that generated the most revenue was given an automatic A as a final grade for the entire semester.

OK! See, here's the thing you should know about me: Tell me the rules, and I'll play by them - and I'll probably win. A fair win is so much sweeter.

Since I was in charge of all 'alternative' music at my college station [remembering that it's 1994 and alternative is huge], I wheeled and dealed with the record reps I dealt with for music to give away in class.

My plan as to sell real music in exchange for the students fake money. I didn't discuss this plan with anyone - not even the other two girls in my group. I was afraid that if the professor found out, he'd put an end to it, since my dumb fridge/freezer/microwave combo had nothing to do with Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots.


Sales day was the next to last day of class that semester. We all showed up at the old gymnasium rather than the classroom, and set up our shops. Since the gym was mostly used by the drama classes, there were lots of tables and risers around. I secured two tables and a series of steps to stack on top of one of them. This was to be my record store. The other table was set up far away for marketing our fake fridge.

My job was to sell music. The second member of my group was to sell our fake fridge, and the third member of my group was given the task of keeping the professor away from my table at all cost.

At the stroke of 6pm, sales day began. The Beermaster 2000 group was pouring shots of nonalcoholic beer, and the Orgasmitron group was setting up their display of JC Penny bra ads (no porn after all). Some other group was grilling hot wings, and I was putting the finishing touches on my record store. Who knows what the remaining groups were doing.

Initially, there was a feeling of professionalism in the room. Everyone was inspecting each other's displays of fake products & listening to sales pitches. And then they'd arrive at my table...

I had records, tapes, CDs, posters, pins and more. All anyone had to do was give me their fake money & they could have whatever they wanted from my store.

Once people realized my stuff was real, things got chaotic. First came a crowd of basketball players who bought any hip hop I had. The cheerleader crowd followed the jocks, so I got them too... and since nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, my tables were packed all night.

By the end of the evening, I was holding more than half of all money issued to everyone for the entire project. I was also the most hated person in class.

We returned for one last class meeting after that. The professor announced that, every year, some groups lose money. This year, almost everybody lost money. However, after subtracting real world expenses from our sales day cash totals, three groups had managed to turn a profit.

Needless to say, we got the A, and the professor would rework the rules to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

::::: | Monday, Aug 09 2004 at 5:21 PM
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