Joan Conrod, a professor of accounting at Dalhousie University, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 in the coming weeks.
Who knew that “consolidation” could actually be a student’s favourite course? But that’s the Joan Conrod effect. Students of Conrod, a professor of accounting, have admitted to loving the technical nitty-gritty that is accounting. Leanne McCarvill, now a chartered accountant, once wrote in a note to Conrod: “Two years ago when I took my first course I was scared of you, and now I can’t imagine not seeing you every week.”
Conrod calls that one of her most memorable compliments. “I think one of the things I am most proud of is I teach really hard courses, really technical, and my students go on to harder things,” she says. “My job is to make sure that not only do they understand the content, but they enjoy it.”
Conrod’s own love for accounting stems from her love of language. In high school, she wanted to be a writer and a teacher of English or history. But when her father disagreed–he was a chemist who wanted her to study science— they compromised on a commerce degree, and that’s how Conrod found accounting. It wasn’t as much a departure from her earlier plans as it appeared to be.
“As a language, I was really drawn to how [accounting] uses math to communicate with people,” Conrod says. Using numbers, accountants tell a story. The choices they make, of how to categorize and reconcile that information, shape the story, and even shade its meaning.
“Students come into accounting and think it’s very cut and dried, and then you pull the rug out from under them” and show them the subtleties.
As a student, Conrod’s enthusiasm and skill weren’t lost on her mentor and instructor John Parker, who recruited Conrod from the private sector to teach at Dalhousie—her alma mater—when she was only 24. “It was terrifying,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was teaching students only a few years younger than I was.” But she’d found her niche, and over the past 30 years has taught thousands of would-be accountants, many who feel Conrod took a personal interest in their success.
“She really challenged us, but was there to support us,” said Kimberly Morse, who graduated from Dalhousie in 2008. “She was tough. You were expected to attend classes and there was always homework.” But Conrod also took the time to make sure each student understood the complex concepts before moving on.
She prints fun cartoons on exams booklets to help students relax and gives out prizes for top marks and most-improved scores. Conrod is not only a teacher inside the classroom; outside it, she’s a mentor. “She made an effort to get to know us on a first-name basis, and know about our lives outside of class,” says Morse, who still contacts Conrod for career advice. “Everyone, if they could get into her classes, wanted to be there.”
Over the years, Conrod has seen students use accounting to pursue their passions, like the dedicated hockey fan who now works for the Calgary Flames. “I often say to students, if you have a love of horses you can go off and work at Spruce Meadows.” Accounting is an “incredible door-opener,” she says. That is, after she’s taught you to love it.