Tuesday, January 1, 2013



Before I get started today, I want to wish every teacher out there a wonderful 2013.   During the upcoming year, go out and make a positive difference in as many lives as you possibly can.   This teaching job might not always pay well but having the opportunity to be a positive influence on so many lives (especially the lives of young people) is absolutely priceless.   Enjoy every day you have in the classroom!!   Happy 2013!!!!

I want to experiment more in my teaching.   I guess that is my new year's resolution.   This is my 42nd year in the classroom and it is easy to get into a rut.  There are days when I can do this job in my sleep.   Sometimes I really have to stop and push myself to get outside of my comfort zone.   I never want to get into a position where I just go through the motions.   I do better work when things aren’t so easy.

For that reason, in the coming spring semester, I am going to help teach an experimental course called “The Appreciation of Literature by Accountants.”   (That’s not the official title but close enough.)

Yes, you heard correctly.   I did use the words “Accountants” and “The Appreciation of Literature” in the same sentence.  

One of the outstanding English professors here at the University of Richmond has volunteered to teach the course (I am just serving as the teaching assistant) and 14 senior accounting majors and one junior accounting major are signed up to start class in two weeks.  

 Over these 14 weeks, we are going to read and study:

--North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (my favorite of these books)
--Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
--The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This course might turn out to be an abysmal failure.   But, in all honesty, I think we have a chance to have a genuinely positive effect on the future lives of these 15 young people.   Plus, it is something I have never done before.  And, that is important to me.

We might never teach this course again (whether it is a success or a failure, the scheduling might never work out again) but I wanted to see what the impact might be.   I believe college teachers should try more such experimentation.   There will always be some losing efforts but the successes will more than make up for that.  Don't let the fear of failure restrict what you try to accomplish.

Here is the backstory.

I wanted to teach a half-unit course (meeting for 75 minutes per week) this coming semester covering Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting.   Historically, we have not had a free standing course covering these areas and I thought we should.   The class was scheduled to meet from 1:30 until 2:45 each Monday.  The assigned room would hold 15-16 students in a seminar type setting.     That meant that the room would stand vacant on Wednesdays at this time.

I have always felt that accounting majors (who tend to be left brained) need a better appreciation of liberal arts in order to have a more satisfying and well-rounded life after graduation.   No matter how exciting a person finds debits and credits, adult life should also be full of theatre, the arts, good books, and the like.   In my mind, accounting programs often take some of the brightest members of our population and make them too one dimensional by failing to help them learn to appreciate aspects of life beyond business. 

In my opinion, we make a tactical mistake in the way our college programs are structured.   We force accounting and other business students to take liberal arts courses when they first come to college (their “gen ed” requirements).   Thus, they often rush through these initial courses to get to the material they really want to learn.   Furthermore, the left-brained accounting majors take art, literature, philosophy, and the like with students who want to become art majors, English majors, and philosophy majors.   The accounting students often hide in the background because they feel inferior to these students who appear more verbal and in tune with the liberal arts mentality.

Ask your senior students what they think about liberal arts courses and they will often roll their eyes and complain that they weren’t as good as the other students and wanted to get on with the important work of learning business and accounting.   The liberal arts courses were to be endured rather than appreciated.   In other words, many of them do not leave school with much inclination to continue reading good books, going to museums, seeing plays, and the like.   I think that is a shame.   Why take liberal arts courses if it all ends when the course is over?  

Consequently, I went to my dean and asked her if I could use that empty classroom from 1:30 to 2:45 on Wednesdays to create a literature appreciation class for senior accounting majors.   I liked the idea for two reasons:

(1) – It would be taught to these students right before they graduated so the influence might be more likely to carry over into adult life.   Once the pressure of classes, papers, and testing has ceased, students might find reading a great activity to continue.

(2) – Only accounting majors would be taking the class.   The students would all know each other and not feel intimidated or embarrassed by being put up against English majors.   In other words, I wanted to form a comfortable community to study these books as a group.   The class would not be a competition but a shared exploration.

My dean was kind enough to let me try this experiment one time to see what would happen.   I was able to talk Dr. Elisabeth Rose Gruner of our English department into leading this class of senior accounting majors (Dr. Gruner is clearly being brave and going outside of her comfort zone).  

I then went back to our seniors and told them that I had room for 16 students in my Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting course.   Because the number of seats was so limited, I would only take students who were also willing to sign up for the Literature course.   Each course was one-half unit.

 Many students simply could not work these two classes into their schedules.   Other students expressed shock and amazement that they would even have to consider taking a Literature course (“I majored in Accounting solely because I didn’t want to write papers”).   But, we also had a number who were delighted by the idea and even wanted to suggest books for the course.  

We wound up with 15 students.   

Several people have asked me how I knew whether the course would work.   My answer is always the same “I have absolutely no idea whether it will work.   If I knew that, I wouldn’t have to teach the course.   I am doing this purely because I am curious as to whether the students will view it as a favorable or unfavorable experience.   And, maybe in a couple of years, we’ll follow up to see if they have been more likely to continue reading because of this experiment.”  
Passing the CPA Exam and making partner with a CPA firm is not the only measure of success for a college education.

I love accounting and business but, if all students get from a college education is the ability to get a job, then we have failed them in some fundamental way.   Life has to be lived 24/7 and that leaves a lot of time outside of the typical work day.   I think both business schools and liberal arts programs should do a better job of helping students fulfill both halves of their future lives:   the part inside the work day and the part outside of the work day.  

I am hoping the Governmental Accounting and Not-for-Profit Accounting will assist the students as they pursue their careers after graduation.   Just as strongly, I hope the literature class helps make their lives richer outside of the work day.   To me, that really is a win-win situation.

Okay, that is my big experiment for the upcoming semester.   But, what are you going to do?   What is your new year's resolution for 2013?    Don’t sleep walk through your job no matter how long you have been teaching.   Do something that will serve to push you beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.   You might be able to help the students as well as yourself have a great 2013.


  1. Just a suggestion if you run this class again. It's probably a bit too long and unwieldy, but you might consider David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

    (amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Pale-King-David-Foster-Wallace/dp/0316074225/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357493864&sr=8-1&keywords=the+pale+king)

    Most of the novel takes place in an IRS examination center and one of its major themes is exploring the psyche of people who choose to do something that the average person finds mind-numbingly boring. It's ultimately about the usefulness and necessity of the mundane.

    1. Interesting suggestion. However, I don't want to convince the students that their future careers will be so dull and boring. I might wind up with a very depressed group of students. My original suggestion was to start with The Scarlet Letter about a woman, her husband, and her lover and how the three of them reacted to that arrangement. Then, the second book would be Freedom by Franzen about a woman, her husband, and her lover and how the three of them reacted to that arrangement. I just thought reading a book from 160 years ago and then reading a parallel book from today would make an interesting comparison in styles and how the issue was handled. (Of course, I also considered Anna Karenina about a woman, her husband, and her lover and Madame Bovary about a woman, her husband, and her lover. Apparently, it is a universal theme.) However, the English prof who was going to lead the class wanted to study books that she had already studied extensively and I couldn't argue with that logic, especially since she was teaching the class on an overload basis. And, I have now read all three of her choices and I've been pleased with each of them, each in its own unique way.

    2. Ha, yes I can certainly see why you might want to avoid that impression. I brought it up because it's the only novel I can think of off the top of my head that really deals specifically with accounting.

      I teach English at a liberal arts college so I frequently have literature classes with a high percentage of math and science types. In my experience it's always been an enlightening experience for me, and most of the time for the students, because they tends to have different approaches to interpreting literature.

      While I think the readings should be excellent (though your Hawthorne/Franzen pairing sounds great too) I have had some interesting discussions come out of novels that have a bit more formal experimentation (specifically Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, which plays with time and perspective). I found some students would initially reject the work because it doesn't make sense: to them it's not logical to present a story in a way that deliberately makes it difficult to understand what is happening. But they start to see it as a kind of logic puzzle and will really investigate with more depth.