Victorian Literature for Accounting Majors

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

June 26, 2013

During the spring semester at the University of Richmond's business school, 10 accounting majors sat in a loose circle, deep in conversation, every Wednesday afternoon. They weren't discussing complex accounting rules or the U.S. tax code. They weren't prepping for the comprehensive CPA examination or comparing job offers. Instead, they were sharing insights on three masterpieces of Victorian literature.

At various times, those accounting students (nine seniors and a junior) talked about why, in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham asks Pip "to play" when she first meets the young boy. Or why Mr. Hale leaves the clergy in North and South and moves his entire family to a rugged mill town in the north of England. Or what George Eliot is asserting about the value of formal education at the beginning of The Mill on the Floss.

Literary analysis is not typically in the curriculum for accounting majors around the country. And indeed, those same 10 students spent every Monday afternoon this past spring in a class discussing topics more typical to the field, like generally accepted financial reporting standards and modified accrual accounting.

So why connect a Victorian-literature class with a senior-level accounting course? What were we, as the teachers of those two classes, trying to achieve? And what possessed 10 students in a highly regarded business school to enroll in an elective course on the study of 150-year-old novels?

Challenges to traditional college education seem to be lurking everywhere today. One of the greatest is the rush of students toward business and, hence, away from the liberal arts that have long been the foundation of the college experience. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business now accredits 681 business schools in nearly 50 countries and territories around the world, a number that has increased sharply in recent years.

Rising college costs and mounting student debt loads seem to be forcing a growing number of students to focus on immediate career options in choosing majors. The signs of that migration are plentiful. Garrison Keillor on his Prairie Home Companion radio show often refers to a fictional organization known as POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors) to describe the sheer futility of holding a degree in English. The group's motto could be "Do you want fries with that?"

We believe, though, that accounting majors—and college students who have embarked on other professional tracks—continue to need a solid foundation in the liberal arts. Selecting a career-related major does not reduce the importance of gaining a deep appreciation for literature, visual arts, history, political science, and the like, not to mention the critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that students can hone in those fields. Unfortunately, many students concentrating on business careers seem obsessively focused on the narrow confines of their majors.

Our goal for the semester was simple: We wanted a group of accounting majors to reconnect with the liberal arts near the time of graduation—just as they begin making the transition into a professional career.

We began by speculating as to why some accounting majors might lack interest in liberal-arts courses. During the first two years of college, students in bachelor's programs usually take a number of general-education requirements that expose them to a broad array of academic disciplines. Why does that introduction to the liberal arts fail to generate enthusiasm in many of the students who are drawn to professional careers? Based on, between the two of us, more than 65 years of teaching, we saw two primary obstacles: The timing of those courses and the competition within them.

First, on entering college, students have already had many courses in history, English, math, and the like. Rarely, though, have they experienced a high-level business course in high school. General-education requirements can appear to be an extension of high school, standing between future accounting majors and their first accounting or business course. Over the years, we have advised many students who speak of simply "getting through" their general-education requirements—hardly an attitude that helps develop a love for literature, art, and other liberal arts.

Second, general-education requirements are taken in courses with a broad array of students, many of whom are truly drawn to the liberal arts. Potential accounting majors—who often perceive themselves as less verbal than their peers—can find themselves "hiding in the shadows" of a course where they fear appearing stupid. As Aaron Shapiro, one of our students, put it, "Victorian literature is not easy reading, and the average accounting or business student would be intimidated or hesitant to take a Victorian-literature class with actual English majors."

To open up the liberal arts to business majors, we chose to offer an upper-level course to accounting majors in the second semester of their senior year. We placed the course at the very end of the college experience rather than at the beginning, so that it would not seem a barrier to career-focused courses, but a valedictory experience before embarking on a professional career. We wanted the class to be composed only of accounting majors who already knew each other and felt comfortable in class together. Rather than "hiding in the shadows," those students would have to carry the conversation by themselves.

Their accounting professor (Hoyle) approached an English professor (Gruner) to design a half-credit course in Victorian literature, which was taught for the first time this past spring. We assumed that few senior accounting majors would sign up without some incentive. So we also created a half-credit accounting class on government entities and not-for-profit organizations. We informed senior accounting majors of that new elective by e-mail, describing the importance of the knowledge (especially for passing the CPA exam). From the beginning, we let students know that they could take that accounting course only if they also signed up for the Victorian-literature class.

As Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the business school, explained, "Many of us believe that our business students can benefit from a broad-based liberal-arts education to complement their business curriculum. Convincing them this is the case is not always easy. When a business faculty member works with a liberal-arts faculty member, students can more easily see the value. Further, rather than having two years of general education and then two years of business courses, integrating the two can allow students to progress to higher-level thinking in both domains."

Some seniors were reluctant to join the experiment. As one student confessed: "I became an accounting major so I wouldn't have to read books and write papers!" And, yes, students were told from the start that written papers would be required; the course was not designed to be a book club. We required students in the course to read three long novels (North and South, Great Expectations, and The Mill on the Floss) and write two papers totaling about 10 pages. Ten students made it past the first week and stuck with both courses.

No artificial attempt was made to tie the two classes together. The accounting class was taught as an accounting class, and the literature course as a literature course. The students still managed to draw numerous connections in their class discussions between these novels and their future lives in business.

"When I first realized that I had signed up to be in what is essentially an English class with only accounting majors, I expected the conversation and discussion of the books we read to be lacking in depth and analysis," said Elizabeth Applin, a senior. "I did not expect any of us to truly be able to delve into the reading in the way English majors are taught to do. However, with each passing class, I find myself both stunned and proud at the thoughts that my fellow classmates and I have on the readings. I underestimated both myself and my classmates."

Teaching the accounting course was relatively straightforward, guiding majors through material they could use on the CPA exam and, possibly, in their careers. The literature class posed a more difficult challenge. An English professor is an interloper in the business school, facing students who knew each other but did not know her. She was teaching in "their" building with one of "their" professors sitting with them.

We chose texts that we thought would be relevant to the students' lives, even if the connection was not always immediately obvious. As we wrote in an e-mail to students before the semester began, the books were chosen because we wanted the students "to enjoy them, and the best way I know to help you do that is to enjoy them myself and communicate that enjoyment to you. So I've chosen novels that come from the period of literature I know and love the best, the Victorian period (England, 1832-1901). In fact, as it happens, they all come from within about 10 years of each other; these are writers who knew each other's work, in other words, and who in some cases even knew each other personally. They are part of an ongoing conversation, and it's one that we get to eavesdrop on and even to join in."

Then, for 75 minutes each week, we met, read, talked, and wrote. The students prepared presentations to provide contexts for the novels—on Victorian industry, the British Empire, 19th-century crime and punishment, and the role of Victorian women in society. They came to class with assigned questions prepared; they wrote in response to prompts; and we all read, analyzed, and discussed three outstanding works of fiction.

The novels raise thematic issues that we hoped would resonate with students nearing the conclusion of their college experience—questions about the means and ends of education, the purpose and value of work, and the relationship between work, gender, and identity. Characters in two of the novels learn accounting during the course of their tales. In each book, characters lose all of their money. Such issues seemed particularly relevant to accounting majors and made for lively discussion. But the conversation was not limited to business themes: Love, marriage, crime, imperialism, and other issues came up, as did aesthetic questions about narrative technique and the use of description.

One of the most telling conversations came at the end of our study of North and South. The students were asked what they would do if, like the heroine Margaret Hale, they suddenly came into a large sum of money. A few said, rather tentatively, that they would still want to work, but perhaps not as accountants.

That might seem like a sad commentary, given that most have accepted positions with accounting firms following graduation. However, we felt that the discussion was not at all sad. The novel gave the students the opportunity to discuss life choices at a time when they are still tentative, still a bit unformed. The novels even make suggestions about why students might want to continue on the paths they have already chosen.

Can this experiment be replicated? We see no reason why not. Linking courses across disciplines could be set up at other colleges rather easily. Those courses might be more interconnected than ours. For example, an organizational-behavior or marketing course could be tied to one in psychology. Or a course in finance might be created in tandem with one in computer modeling.

But we caution against working too hard to link courses; serendipity was a key part of our experiment. Our experiment succeeded, we felt, because of the way it asked students to make their own connections, drawing out the essential lessons of the liberal arts—providing them the freedom to analyze and synthesize new knowledge on their own.

Joe Hoyle is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Richmond, and Elisabeth Gruner is an associate professor of English there.