Winfield teaches ethical accounting

24 March 2017 | Story by Newsroom
​​​​​​​Assoc Prof Jimmy Winfield tries to improve his commerce students' decision-making from an ethical perspective.
​​​​​​​Assoc Prof Jimmy Winfield tries to improve his commerce students' decision-making from an ethical perspective.

Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students' minds a little, he says. Winfield, who is one of six UCT academics to win a Distinguished Teacher Award for 2016, spoke to Yusuf Omar from UCT's newsroom about his teaching techniques.

Why did you become a teacher? 

Well, when I was young I wanted to be an astronaut, an ice-cream seller or a teacher. When I got older, I discovered that South Africa doesn't have a space programme and that an ice-cream seller needs his own bike. No, seriously: teaching is a noble profession and that is important to me. Of all the noble professions, it's the one best suited to my qualifications and skill set.

What do you enjoy about teaching at UCT?

I love the almost-tangible feeling that one can make a real, positive difference to many other people's lives. Outside of medicine, I'm not sure there's much else you can do which gives you this feeling so strongly.

Please provide a brief synopsis of how you came to be an academic at UCT's College of Accounting.

I studied accounting at UCT, tutored for the department as a student, and ended up as an academic trainee. Then I went away and did a lot of other things overseas, but when it came time to return to South Africa, the department was a natural place for me to come back to.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

I think there are all sorts of teachers and all sorts of ways in which they can be good. I guess the thing they all must have in common is really deeply caring about the students and their learning.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Engaging, fun, reassuring, personal, thought-provoking. Of course, this is just what I aim for – I'm sure I don't manage it all very often.

Tell us about some memorable and/or powerful moments in the classroom.

The most powerful moments are when students teach me something. One particular moment several years ago comes to mind: I had just delivered a lecture about affirmative action, in which I used myself as an example to indicate something that I thought was true of people generally. This very conscientious black female student waited until after class and then politely approached me to say that she really liked my lectures, but I had absolutely no clue what it is like to be a young black female South African. She then proceeded really to educate me about her perspective and the perspective of her friends. It was a great conversation in which I learned an enormous amount that I have been able to incorporate into my teaching ever since.

What is the importance of the kind of recognition that comes with the Distinguished Teacher Award?

Well, I said earlier that teaching gives you this feeling that you can make a big difference to people's lives. It's always nice when the feelings which you hope are true are somehow verified: that's what the DTA has done for me.

What do your academic responsibilities entail besides research, and how do you balance teaching and research?

I balance teaching and research by striving to be the best teacher I can be, and then seeing what research opportunities emerge from that. The other very significant responsibility I have is for the administration of courses. People outside of academia don't usually see this, but there is a huge amount of admin that comes with running a course, especially when you are a convenor of large classes, as I am. It's like running a business that serves several hundred customers every day.

When he's not teaching, what does Jimmy Winfield do?

I spend time with my wonderful young family and my many excellent friends. I trail run. I try to get a little better at playing the acoustic guitar. I sing and I brew my own craft beer.

What is the thinking behind the business ethics course, and why is the course important?

It's the only humanities course that virtually all commerce students are required to take, and so it is intended to open their minds a little, and to improve their critical thinking and writing abilities. It also aims to help future business professionals improve the quality of their decision-making from an ethical perspective by making them more aware of the many moral aspects of the business world, and by improving their ability to reason carefully through difficult moral dilemmas.

Is there anything you wish to add?

Yes, I'd like to sincerely thank the real unsung heroes of the university: the full-time administrators, who expertly build and maintain the foundation that allows the academics occasionally to shine. I work with several brilliant administrators, and I am forever grateful to them.

Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Robyn Walker.


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