Canada’s best teachers: Fred Phillips

How accounting can be ’exciting’

In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M National Teaching Fellowships. Ten university faculty members are recognized each year for their educational leadership and exceptional contributions to teaching. Here we continue our series profiling all 10 of the 2011 3M Teaching Award winners, with a look at Fred Phillips, an accounting  professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

University of Saskatchewan accounting professor, Fred Phillips is rarely discouraged by the fact that students often view accountants as dull, humourless money counters. “In a lot of ways, it is to my advantage,” he says, before adding wryly, “The bar is very low.”

For him, accounting is not dissimilar to detective work. Financial statements tell a story and “that story doesn’t always go in the same direction as the cover story that people tell.” A solid grasp of accounting principles allows for uncovering what is actually going on in a firm. “It’s really a fun puzzle,” he says.

For years, Phillips used PowerPoint presentations in the classroom, but starting in 2009, he compiled all his lectures into video form. This solved a dilemma he had been facing. By making the video lectures available to students before class, time was freed up to discuss specific case studies—a valuable resource when studying a profession that demands “deep, contemplative critical thinking.”

Unfortunately, another obstacle arose. “The problem was that there weren’t a lot of suitable resources like this to draw on,” Phillips says. So he set about developing his own case studies. He produced videos highlighting well-known cases such as the fraud trial of former Computer Associates chairman, Sanjay Kumar, and the bankruptcy of Circuit City, to illustrate key accounting practices and principles. He then wrote his own hypothetical problems to present to his classes. Phillips enjoys helping his students learn: “It’s fun to help them discover where their perceptions are and are not on point,” regarding what accountants do.

Phillips’ approach does appear to be working. One of his students, Samuel Clarke, switched majors from arts to accounting, because Phillips helped him to see that the material was “exciting.”