A conversation with Jaron Wilde, Associate Professor of Accounting and Carl Follmer, Associate Director of the Accounting Writing Program, about the Speaking Truth to Power Assignment.
Tell us a little about the course and the writing assignment.
Jaron: Advanced Tax is an undergraduate/Masters of Accountancy course that builds on accounting students’ knowledge from their initial tax class and takes a deeper dive into the taxation of business entities. An implicit aim of the course, and the writing assignments in the course, is to prepare students for successful careers in accounting. The learning goal for the assignment is to help the students identify and thoughtfully consider now, while they are still in college, what they will do when they face ethical dilemmas in their future careers and to develop skills to communicate clearly in such situations.
Carl: Advanced Tax is one of the classes supported by the Accounting Writing Program, a curricular initiative that works with faculty to teach and hone communication skills (writing, presentation, visual) throughout a student’s time in the Accounting major. There are multiple writing assignments in the course, but the one we’re discussing here is what’s become known as “The Speaking Truth to Power” assignment. In it, students are provided with this scenario: they are working in their dream job, but in the course of their duties have come across inconsistencies in the financial statements that suggest the CEO is manipulating corporate data to satisfy shareholders. The assignment requires students to write an email to the Chair of the Board of Directors, who happens to be a friend of the CEO, and delicately raise their concerns about the financial data.
What are the learning goals for this assignment?
Carl: There are other writing assignments in this course that assess course content, but this assignment really pushes students to think critically about an ethical dilemma. From a writing perspective, students must be extremely thoughtful about their tone and the exact phrasing they are using to express their concerns. This assignment requires them to think of a typically informal mode of communication (email) as one that could have large ramifications. They are aware that a misstep in messaging could lead to retribution from management, which could harm their prospects at the company or in their career.
What kind of instruction and support have you built into the assignment?
Carl: We give them significant amounts of instruction and feedback for the other three writing assignments in the course, so for this one, we kind of let them loose to see how they incorporate that information and guidance independently. Students receive a rubric that identifies the specific communication aspects we’re looking for (organization, tone, language precision, etc.). It is always interesting to see how students interpret the prompt. Many students are cautious about raising their concerns, but some really don’t mind burning the bridge and threatening their employer – either by going to the SEC or to the press. It presents an excellent learning opportunity to encourage students to think about the ramifications of their message.
How do you motivate students to care about this writing assignment, to be invested in it, and to do their best work?
Jaron: We try to make the assignments real to them in two ways. First, for the speaking truth to power assignment, the students meet an actual whistleblower who shares his story with them in the class (virtually this year). His presence there makes the assignment much more personal. We also require students to work together, providing feedback to their group members who share incentives to do well on the writing assignments.
Carl: The real-life whistleblower’s visit to class very much impresses upon the students the consequences for simply going along with a company’s illegal accounting practices. Yes, the assignment associated with the ethics module is worth points in the course, but talking with someone who became trapped in his employer’s crimes and served time in prison very much emphasizes the importance of engaging with ethical considerations now when the stakes are low.
How has the assignment evolved over time?
Carl: It was difficult from a grading standpoint – ethical concerns are inherently tricky to assess. We discovered that some students could write a successful whistleblower email even if they didn’t take the course of action we had thought was best. The keys were tactfully raising the concern, brevity, and using a tone that indicated a concern for the company, the board member, and the author of the email. If students created emails that contained these elements, there were a number of possible recommendations they could make, not just the one I had been prepared for. All of this made the scoring process pretty arduous that first time. As with any assignment being introduced for the first time, we were kind of flying blind and it took some time to refine the rubric and feedback we provided, but the effort really paid off.
Describe some of the best papers you have received in response to this assignment.
Carl: Since we began this assignment, I’ve had conversations with several students who said they thought it might be the most important document they wrote during their time at Iowa. Even the ones who admitted to not being overly concerned with ethics found themselves considering things like tone and what information to include in the message. The best submissions get in, provide context, state their concern, and get out. The longer the message goes, the greater the chance the student will include a piece of information or make a statement that could have a negative impact.
What do struggling students find difficult?
Carl: Jaron has created a rich prompt complete with many details that are important for the student to understand the situation but are not necessarily wise to include in the whistleblower email message. For example, one of the assignment’s details is that the recipient of the email (the Chairperson of the Board) is personal friends with the subject of the email (the CEO). So, I know an email is in trouble when students include phrasing that tacitly threatens/implicates the recipient, like “I know you are friends with the CEO, but it’s important to put that relationship aside for the good of the company.” Then, there are the students who step boldly into the void and threaten to go to the press with incriminating documentation, or who put deadlines or other forms of pressure on the Chairperson of the Board. Their courage is noteworthy, but is unlikely to result in their desired course of action.
Anything you’re experimenting with related to writing in your teaching?
Jaron: One of the unique things we do in Advanced Tax (although it is not new) is require students to give feedback to each other that helps them develop as writers.
Carl: Jaron has been wonderful to work with and is always willing to try new things in the class. In addition to the memo and whistleblower email assignments, his students also work on team presentation skills and visual communication for a tax analytics data visualization assignment later in the semester.