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Not Just About Numbers

Talking to his class one day, Mike Gibbins remarked that if he hadn't become a professor he would probably have stayed withhis former accounting firm, become a partner and done well. But then he stopped and reflected. No, he concluded, he probably wouldn't have prospered as an accountant. If he was meant to be an educator it would have eventually surfaced.

After the class, a student came up and asked a question Gibbins remembers well."You mean i'm being taught by people who would have failed at being real business people?"

Most of Gibbins' students, however, see him in a more positive light, appreciating the teaching ability which recently earned him a 1994 Rutherford Award.

The honor is further proof of the contribution Gibbins makes to the Department of Accounting and Management Information Systems. Recently reappointed Winspear Professor of Professional Accounting, he is also serving as the Department's acting chair and he finds time to edit the journal Contemporary Accounting Research.   

Gibbins came to Alberta in 1984, drawn by the birth of a special new project, the University's Centre for the Advancement of Professional Accounting Education. He became the centre's first director and has been teaching and researching at the University ever since.

"In teaching accounting I've tried hard to get students to understand that accounting is a human artifact like anything else we make. It's there because it's useful for people somehow or another," says Gibbins, whose research primarily focuses on the way that corporations and professionals process information (figure out what ' information to release about themselves) and make decisions.

Mapping decision-making might not sound like accounting, but Gibbins reasserts that the profession isn't just about numbers. It's also about people. Gibbins says he has always been attracted to people problems rather than technical ones, a trait which naturally led him to teaching.

Twenty-five years ago Gibbins was a professional accountant with no idea of how much his interest in people would influence the course of his career. The turning point came in 1970 when he was asked to teach a computer course in Scotland to a group of UN computer experts. Despite the fact that the students in his first class knew more about the subject than he did, "the experience was a great success," he recalls. "I found that I could get ideas across and that I could explain things, in some ways better than the technical experts could. I guess I was hooked at that point," says Gibbins.

Teaching undergraduate students, however, has its own challenges. Giving a lecture to 400 students and keeping their attention— as well as teaching them something — isn't easy, but Gibbins has found that "learning sticks" when students can get involved with practical projects. "I'm a great fan of project-based and co-op education," he says, "I've always felt that'r the best kind of learning is learning you discover for yourself."

The Rutherford Award is not the only honor Gibbins has received in recognition of his gift for teaching. He is a past recipient of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Education Achievement Award, of the L.S. Rosen Outstanding Canadian Accounting Educator Award given by the Canadian Academic Accounting Association, and of the U of A Business Faculty's Labatt Undergraduate Teaching Award. Ironically, all this recognition means Gibbins will have even less time for teaching, for it has brought greater responsibilities such as the Department chair. "That's the reward you get for good teaching," he laughs, "you end up being taken out of the classroom."

But Gibbins isn't likely to give up teaching entirely. The most rewarding thing about his job, says Gibbins, is "finding out that students do appear to have learned something." He takes pleasure in "...having a student come back and say something you did really helped them, talking to a former student years later, or even just seeing a student say, 'Oh, that's not so hard. I see how that works."'

Published Autumn 1994.

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