Dr. Don Carpenter is an accounting professor who has been teaching for seven years with the Baylor Business School. Everyone knows that if you are taking Financial Accounting you have got to go with “Don.” Friendly and full of zeal, he makes the potentially dry subject of accounting entertaining and interesting. Students also appreciate his unusual cooperativeness with deadlines and managing one’s workload. His teaching style is distinct, consistent, and effective, and as a much beloved professor we thought he would make an excellent subject for a Professor Spotlight.
How did you come to Baylor?
“My undergrad was here, and my children went here, so we had a tie to Baylor. The other thing though for me was, I don’t think I would’ve done well in a secular environment where you’re discouraged from speaking about matters of faith, and it’s actually kind of belittled. I think I could have done it, but I don’t think it would’ve been as rewarding to not have those kinds of conversations. And I do like the fact that our student body is diverse.”
“I tell people when friends of ours are looking to send their children to Baylor, ‘Baylor is not a church camp.’ It is not. And I would not want my child going to a four-year church camp. But it is a place where exploration of your faith is encouraged, not discouraged. And within that environment it is more supportive.”
“Generally, when you’re at college, that’s the time when your parents’ faith becomes your faith. You have to own your faith and it’s gonna be different. I’d rather know they were in a period of that self-development where the environment is encouraging to faith as opposed to being discouraging.”
I have noticed the way you bring your faith to the classroom
“Yes, I do not teach a religion class. Exactly. That could be demeaning to the faith when you’re in an accounting class and somehow making it a religion class. There are times when it just naturally works and sometimes it can work in humorous ways, but that’s not the focus of my class. I wasn’t hired to teach scriptures or something. But [I] don’t also want to back down and hide it either.”
Did you always plan on teaching?
“I was not always going to be a professor. So, when I left Baylor, I went to work in industry, initially in international tax and then moved into accounting for two Fortune-500 companies in Houston. It was during that time I went back and then did my graduate work, which turned out to be fortuitous because I could not have taught without that, but I didn’t do it with that intention. So, it was probably only in the latter 10 years or so of my career that I began to think about teaching afterwards.”
Does your industry experience impact the way you teach?
“It’s changed the way I think about teaching. Being in the business world, it brings kind of an experience of why this is important, a context. Because, you know, students, particularly in something like accounting, which is very technical, you also need the context of why, which then makes the technical a little more applicable and, and you see a purpose behind it as opposed to [it] as just a mental exercise.”
“I think that through working in industry you kind of develop more of a sense of customer service. I’ve always said as a professor you have to decide is a student, a customer or a product and you can’t do both because they are in tension with one another.”
“A product is something I’m trying to make, a customer is [someone] I’m trying to serve. And let me give you an example. My idea of extending homework, as long as you get it [done] before the test, that’s more of a customer thing. I want you to learn the material saying, ‘No, here’s a hard and fast deadline. If you don’t meet it too bad, tough luck.’ That’s more of a product. [In that case,] I’m trying to teach you a lesson that you have to do something by a certain time, and if you don’t get the material, I really don’t care. I’m more concerned about you learning to meet deadlines.”
How do you implement that view in the classroom?
“It’s a fine line. Class is not storytelling time. You have to balance the technical [side] with putting it in context. You can keep people entertained by telling stories, taking a minute and saying, ‘Why does this matter? How does this work in the business world? You know, how, why do people do this?’ And then within that context, this is why someone would care. At any time in class you should be able to stop and say, why should I care about this?”
“What we do is what I would call entertainment. [We] have got to earn the right to be listened to. I mean you are paying tuition and you need this information. But if [we] come into the classroom thinking I have got to earn the right, there’s got to be something engaging about what I’m doing in the classroom as opposed to just spitting information. It’s the obligation of the speaker, not the listener to initiate the engagement.”
Since you started teaching seven years ago, has it become more difficult to keep students’ attention?
“The period after Covid was difficult because there were a lot of concessions made. For instance, there was an awful lot more flexibility when we were online, so people had more self-determination. I think at least for a period of time [after Covid] there was this concept that that’s how it should be. [Students were saying] ‘If it’s not convenient for me to be there in class, what are you gonna do for me instead?’ For the sake of the greater good, the train has to keep moving. So, there is some responsibility on the part of the customer. It’s just like at a store. When a store closes, they’re not gonna open back up for you at nine o’clock cause store hours aren’t convenient.”
How do you deal with cell phone use in class as a competing form of entertainment?
“I take the view [that] when you’re in class, as long as you’re not disturbing someone else, this goes back to ‘you’re not my product, you’re my customer.’ If you’re doing something in class that’s not fully engaged with me, but you’re not disturbing someone else, that’s your responsibility.”
“I think where students have difficulty is when we flip flop back and forth: ‘In one aspect, you’re my customer and another you’re my product.’ There’s tension and there’s inconsistency. It’s just better to stay in one lane. Now, if someone chooses the product lane, that’s fine, but stay in that lane so the student doesn’t have these stresses [from] being pulled different ways.”
How did you decide to pursue the customer approach?
“I think I just kind of naturally fell into it. My view is always don’t make a rule unless you absolutely have to make a rule. That’s because when you make a rule, you then have to enforce it and you have to enforce it consistently.”
“I think sometimes we put up too many rules and then we’re forced to either live with them, which comes off as harsh or we’re making exceptions, which seems arbitrary and unfair.”
Do you think that is a good general leadership philosophy?
“Yes! You naturally identify with people in classes and other environments, but that can’t then bleed over into any kind of, you know, inconsistency. I may like you better than the person sitting next to you, but when it comes to your grade and how you perform, if I’m consistent, then the fact I like you doesn’t change where you come out relative to [someone else].”
What do you think of curving?
“I don’t curve anything. You know curving inherently results in actions that I don’t want. If I curve, it’s actually in your interest for the other students to perform poorly. And like, why do I want to encourage people to be in an environment where they had rather their cohorts perform poorly? I’d rather have you in an environment where working together and learning from each other is in your interest, not your disinterest. If you do well and I do well, the fact you do well doesn’t hurt me. That’s a work environment. If we’re all working in the same organization, I want everybody helping one another.
“If I can’t prepare a test properly to get the average that I want to be achieved, I’m either not teaching you properly or I’m not testing you properly, and either one of those is my failure.”
“If I give you an exam and the average is 50, we’ve got a problem that’s not solved through curving. I can usually tell within two or three points where the exam gonna come.”
How often do you find that people cheat on exams, and what do you do in those situations?
“There may be people cheating that I don’t know of, but to my knowledge really, I’ve not seen, you know, anything extensive as far as cheating. I go in with the view that everyone is honest. I’ve had students ask before sometimes, ‘Why do professors always treat us like we’re cheaters?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s a really good question because I [take] the view that almost everyone is honest and only when proven wrong am I going to assume [differently].”
“And oftentimes you look at someone and say, ‘oh, I think this person’s not being honest.’ Then you look at their performance on the test. ‘Well, if [that] is the best they can do cheating, then good luck to them. They’re not even good cheaters.’ The only one that’s willing to cheat with you is generally no more competent than [you are]. Eventually it all catches up. You’re expected to know, when you go into a career, certain things and if you’ve not actually learned that it will come to light.”
“I mean I’m under no illusion it [doesn’t happen], but I don’t think it may be as systemic as sometimes we professors [think]. Now, I think if we just said fair game, I’m treating you all like you’re Mother Teresa, it may not go so well. But, I appreciate there’s a point where you can only go so far.”
Lastly, it is common that honors students are assigned extra work, but you had your Honors and Business Fellows students read two books not explicitly related to accounting. How do you approach Honors students or Business Fellows in class?
“There has to be something that enhances [the class]. Otherwise, you’re not really treating it as honors. It seems counterproductive to give more work, because you’re clearly in honors because you are viewed as intellectually gifted. So, you actually ought to be able to master this with less work, not more work. I thought the better way to do it is to broaden the experience with things that complement it. Don’t just require you to do more in that same area. Otherwise how is that really [helpful]? You already got the material.”
What did you try to show by assigning Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Every Good Endeavour by Timothy Keller?
“The readings were designed to [show] the other side of business decision making. [Blink showed that] you have to trust your intuition. And then with Every Good Endeavour, the theology of work, which [focuses] on the faith aspect, but we don’t do a good job of talking about the theology of work and the dignity of work. There actually is redemptive value in the work we do.”