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Giving teaching (back) its proper place

As accounting educators, our job is to impart knowledge and skills that will make our students successful in their careers, and then test them on how well they retained them.

Right?

My 10-year-old son's primary school farewell party last week made me wonder if that is all, and not for the first time.

The kids had made a heart-warming 25-minute video for their teacher. Asked about what they liked most about her, many said things like, 'she explains in a way that I understand', 'she is creative and always has good ideas', and (most often) simply: 'she is always nice, and she likes us'. The teacher, meanwhile, along with many of the parents, was moved to tears. I found myself thinking, 'What a great way of spending your work days – guiding a bunch of kids along on the path of life, and gaining their love in the process.'

As accounting academics, we are not primary school teachers, our students are not kids (well …), and we are not out there to win their love.

But what are we here for? I my view, (in addition to putting food on the table) our job is ultimately about (1) helping improve society in our own modest ways, mostly by doing research and teaching, and (2) having a good time while we're at it.

Let's look at research. As I said here, I believe that some of the lucky (tenured) ones among us experience research as deeply rewarding, whereas I suspect that many other (untenured) colleagues view it as part of a stressful game where the odds are stacked against them and where talent and effort do not necessarily map very precisely into publication outcomes. On top of that, as Kris Hardies blogged here, "the sheer number of accounting researchers trying to publish in (top) accounting journals outnumbers the number of available 'slots' in such journals many times. This provides a rather gloomy prospect for young researchers (especially those outside the US) hoping to publish in these journals." So, alas, seeking to derive our job satisfaction and sense of achievement from publishing in top journals seems like a long shot for many of us. Also, the notorious research-practice gap makes it unlikely that most of us will have a profound impact on the world of practice – at least if we don’t change the way we do research. I realize this sounds gloomier than I want it to, but bear with me.

Let's turn to teaching. No doubt fueled by the move towards online teaching triggered by the corona pandemic, there is massive demand for teaching-related resources, including among EAA members. The EAA addresses this need with its new Education Task Force and a range of online activities and resources being developed (examples are here and here).

I, for one, have experienced that there is massive potential for job satisfaction and a sense of achievement in doing our teaching well. Doing it well, in anything, invariably implies doing more than is expected of us, and clearly more than being that ‘one textbook chapter ahead’ of the students. What are the rewards? In addition to a sense of joy, I see three main areas: First, students who experience their accounting classes (and professors) as inspiring and inspired are more likely to 'catch on fire' for accounting, to do well at it, to choose it as a career, to even consider academic careers in accounting, and to generally ‘carry the torch’ of accounting later in their lives. (They will have fonder memories of their time at school, and thus will be more loyal alumni, too.)

Second, many of us teach large classes, which can seem stressful. But consider the reach we have! Every year, hundreds of open minds representing the young generation are locked into rooms (or glued to Zoom) with us, and they have to listen to what we tell them. They are young and (to some extent) pliable, and many of them believe and respect us as their professors. Why not use this influence for the good, by imparting not only professional knowledge and skills – but also sharing our deeply held values and our passion for, and belief in, academic research? Why not try and instill in the students the urge to not only have a career, but be a force for good?

And third, our students likely won’t make us farewell videos. But if we honestly care about our students’ learning experience and progress in life, and if we see them as individuals (which, surprisingly, Zoom with its ‘name tags’ facilitates!), there will be a human element, even in large courses. And that may be the most rewarding aspect of all.

The hiring, remuneration, tenure, and promotion criteria in many institutions, as well as the social norms of our academic community, provide powerful incentives to get our teaching done in as little time as possible – so we can spend most of our time and effort on producing high-quality research that gets published in good journals. Talented researchers are lured with promises of low teaching ‘loads’. Growing up in this system may well ingrain in young academics the sense that teaching is a low-value activity best avoided, that we should pour most of our energy, passion, and creativity into research, and discharge our teaching ‘loads’ as efficiently as possible.

Far from it, I think! Let’s not allow our incentives to deprive us (and our students) of the immense rewards that good teaching holds.

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About Thorsten Sellhorn

Ludwig-Maximilian University Of Munich
Professor of Accounting

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