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University of Pittsburgh

December 5, 2013

ON TEACHING: Elise Boyas

boyas“I want to talk about dividends,” says Elise Boyas, clinical assistant professor of business administration, to the 50 or so students who have shown up for her last lecture before Thanksgiving.

She is the first to admit that the exercise on stockholders’ equity she has passed out to these students may not constitute the most riveting educational experience they have ever had — and that the subject of accounting may even scare some of them.

But among the 395 undergraduates she is instructing this semester in three sections of this core course, Introduction to Financial Accounting, as well as the graduate students she often educates, her teaching methods are prized — literally: Boyas is the first professor to win three College of Business Administration teaching awards in a single year. She has earned the CBA Teacher of the Year, Best Teaching in the Accounting Major and Best Teaching in a Core Course (large enrollment category) awards, as well as the Part-time MBA Student Choice Award for Outstanding Teacher.

She speaks steadily and deliberately in class, enunciating clearly in her slight New York accent. When she isn’t using her stylus to write on the tablet in the console of her lectern — projecting financial examples on twin screens above her and recording them, along with her voice, for student access online — her hands move to bracket one point, then emphasize another.

She sometimes brings in cookies to show what happens when a company pays dividends in its own stock, rather than cash, crumbling them into smaller and smaller pieces to demonstrate how no one makes more money from these additional shares — at least not initially. Today she tells the class about her father, who owned Bell Telephone stock when the company switched to issuing stock dividends: “He was amazingly happy to think that he was getting more shares of stock. I remember sitting down with him and drawing a pie chart: ‘Dad, you have not gained anything.’” But when Bell began paying cash dividends again, at the same per-share rate as they had years before, her father finally did make a profit — something that happens most often with smaller companies, she reports to the class.

As students complete the exercise at their tables with her prompting, Boyas’s explanations are clear enough that someone stepping into the course for the first time, with no accounting background, can understand nearly all of the lesson.

Then her lecture moves on to stock splits — when companies create a greater number of lower-priced shares to make them more broadly appealing to investors. She asks if anyone knows how much one of the most famous American investment companies, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, now is charging for one share of its stock. Several students obligingly seek the answer on their smartphones: More than $175,000 a share.

Buffett doesn’t believe in stock splits, she tells the students, since it costs the company money to administer the change. “You have to watch Warren to see what he is doing,” Boyas says. Then she asks them to look up what Twitter is trading for: slightly more than $40, after opening at $26. “And I don’t know why,” she says. “It has no assets; it’s never made a profit.”

“People are tweeting about your class,” a student volunteers.

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Boyas earned her undergraduate degree in accounting from Fordham University, then worked as a senior auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York and New Jersey before moving to several businesses. She is both a certified public accountant (CPA) and a certified management accountant (CMA).

“Frankly, I wasn’t very challenged in industry,” she says. “I thought it was pretty boring.” But she recalled having a good experience teaching in Pricewaterhouse’s internal education program, so began working on the side as an adjunct instructor at Fairleigh Dickinson, Montclair State and Rutgers universities. “You punch around, because you certainly don’t do that for the pay,” she notes. But she enjoyed “lots of direct student contact” that came with the posts.

Simultaneously, she was earning her MBA part-time at Rutgers, which provided her with grants — as did KPMG and the American Institute of CPAs — to pursue her PhD there.

When she completed her final degree, she says, it was clear that she wanted to be in the classroom, not doing research. It also suited her family’s schedule, since she was having children — who now are 20 and 23 — and her husband’s corporate posts were moving the family around.

Boyas has been in Pittsburgh for a dozen years, first as an adjunct, then spending five years at Robert Morris University before landing at Pitt in 2009. Her desire only to teach fits the University well, she says, since the business school’s accrediting body requires that a certain percentage of classes be taught by professors with PhDs. “It’s sometimes difficult for business schools” to find instructors with doctorates, she says. “So my role is to teach a lot, and to teach big sections.

“My favorite place to teach is Pitt,” Boyas says, “because of my colleagues in this accounting group” who are both very professional and very helpful.

She’s also quite fond of Pitt’s undergraduates, even though students conjure up multiple reasons for missing classes, homework and quizzes: “Pretty much this semester I’ve heard every excuse … I’m going to believe what’s been told to me and I’m going to treat them like I want my child to be treated — I’m going to treat them with respect.”

Her one pet peeve about the students, she volunteers, is in-class texting.  “I don’t know how to control the texting … In a small class you can call them out, tell them to put the phone away.” But this fall, she has noticed, her students no longer text secretly in their laps, they hold their phones right in front of their eyes. “They don’t care that I’m seeing them. They are completely brazen.”

Boyas expects her students to manage the coursework on their own; students who miss classes are encouraged to watch her recordings. And they can drop one homework and two quiz grades at the end of the class — which means they can even skip two quizzes with impunity — but consequently no makeups are allowed.

“I’ve had really good attendance — even with the recording,” she says. Students likely appreciate that she makes the subject palatable with real-world examples. “Because accounting is boring! And a lot of them are afraid of it. It’s a challenging course.”

She prides herself on answering student emails promptly and uses Blackboard to post class information regularly — quiz solutions on the day of the quiz, quiz grades over the weekend and, most recently, final exam guidelines. She sends students several emails each week, including notices of her Blackboard updates. “They don’t have to check all the time — that’s annoying — so I hope they respect that I don’t waste their time.” And, in turn, they aren’t wasting hers: “No one can say to me, ‘I didn’t know.’”

Her teaching awards, she speculates, came about “maybe because they feel they can talk to me … because I have children their age, so I can really relate to them. I will say things in class and they will look at me and think, ‘God, she’s a real person!’

“My job is to present difficult material in a way that is understandable. Every discipline has a foundation. And there should be some theory that ties it together. It should make sense. I try to explain the reasons why. I tell them, ‘Your brain’s not big enough to memorize all this. You have to understand…’

“My role here is not only to teach them the subject but to get them to be a better learner,” she adds. “The K to 12 system has made them passive.”

On the first day of class, she says, she tells her students in this introductory course that they may feel the first four weeks are repetitious if they took an accounting course in high school. But she warns them to pay closer attention after that. She recalls one recent student who didn’t take this advice seriously: He got almost 100 percent on her first test but nearly failed the second one. He came to her office afterwards.

“‘You warned me about me on the first day,’” she recalls him saying.

“So now what are you going to do?” she replied.

“‘I’ve got to step it up,’” he said.

“He and I talked about it honestly,” she says. “I didn’t judge him for that. I would never say, ‘You’re sunk.’ I try to give them hope.”

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Boyas also guesses that her teaching has drawn praise from students because they feel they can talk to a female professor about more than accounting. They come to her for help with their resumes and finding a job after graduation, she says.

Overall, her students “are really refreshing,” she says. “They have a decent work ethic, probably more than other places.” She notes that Pitt business grads have the highest CPA test passing rates in the state and are also one of Pricewaterhouse’s top hiring sources, both locally and nationally.

“It’s great to see them be successful — to get that first job,” she concludes. “I’m really fortunate to be a part of that.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 8

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