Tales from the Ivory Tower Six Months In

Published February 20, 2015

By Rachel Corbett

Many readers of this blog may know that I took a leave of absence from the Sport Law & Strategy Group in the summer of 2014 to begin a temporary, full time teaching position at Brock University. Half-way through this life-altering experience, I thought I would provide an update.

I have been a consultant, working for myself, for almost a quarter century. Over that time, I have never had a real job (a fact I enjoy relaying to my students as I encourage them to think more creatively about their own futures). It has been a great life and will continue to be once I return to it. But I had reached a point of being tired - multiple deadlines, competing demands, the same organizational crises repeated over and over, time wasted in airports and hotels. Following the maxim that "a change is as good as a rest" I began to put out feelers to see if I might teach in the sport management program at Brock University in St. Catharines, the city where I live and where I have been an occasional teacher from time to time.

My timing was lucky and I was able to compete for and earn a position as Lecturer for one year. This was made possible by a maternity leave, a secondment of a Professor to the position of Associate Dean, and the secondment of yet another Professor to a unique position at the Molson School of Business at Ryerson University. I was in, teaching eight courses in the year (a Professor teaches four, but I did not have research or service obligations). I signed a contract for a nice salary and promptly went to Glasgow, Scotland with Team Canada for one month. Upon my return I took two weeks holiday. Then I hit the ground running to get ready to teach nearly 300 students in three  courses starting the day after Labour Day.

Brock University's sport management program is quite unique in Canada. It is our country's only undergraduate business degree in sport. Students earn a BSM, Bachelor of Sport Management, over four years of comprehensive business-related study that includes many practical courses and experiential components. Our students take field courses that engage them with major games and events, they support Brock's 27 varsity athletics teams in managerial roles, and they complete a four month internship in the industry before they graduate. While Brock's enrollment is declining (which is true of most Canadian universities), our program is a juggernaut that continues to grow. This winter, 1,170 young people have applied for admission into 170 positions. As a result of this high demand, our students come to us out of high school not only with a love of sports, but also with a good graduating average.

I have taught occasionally in this program for over a decade, usually focusing on courses that I had a hand in designing such as Sport and the Law (which has earned an award for its unique non-classroom experience, Sport Court) and Negotiation Skills, modeled after the Harvard course but using sport cases. In my new position, I didn't have much choice in what I would be teaching - so I got human resources, organizational theory, research methods, introduction to the sport industry, power and politics, and sport sponsorship. Needless to say I am learning as much as my students!

I have long said that in my consulting work I help clients make sense of complex things. There is no better way to hone such skills than to try to teach complex things to 19 to 21 year olds who have no real life experience. As a result my teaching revolves around story telling from my world, because they don't yet have stories from theirs. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of an audience will remember a story, while only one in twenty will recall a recitation of facts. Fortunately, my 25 years in business has given me lots of stories, and I know the students appreciate my approach as a valuable complement to the theoretical approaches that they experience with other Professors.

I never thought that I would enjoy a career as an educator, but I now understand the satisfaction that caring teachers receive from their work. Most of my students are average and forgettable - I will forget them, and they will forget me - but each semester there are a handful who are extraordinary in their own unique ways. For some of them, I may have an impact on their life course. Certainly, I learn as much from them as they do from me, and I have hope for the future of our industry knowing that these remarkable few will soon be entering it.

My teaching stint will draw to a close in July and then I am remaining on leave to be involved in the Pan Am and ParaPan Games, to pursue some other projects and do some travelling in the fall. I will return to the Sport Law & Strategy Group refreshed in 2016. Despite many harrowing moments (remember, I teach 100 percent more than anyone else!) I have no regrets. I have loved not travelling, having a schedule, cooking my own meals, getting exercise (I commute on foot to and from the university, one hour each way), gaining confidence every day as I interact with hundreds of students, and being part of something bigger than just myself.

I am reminded of this compilation of TED talks, "6 ideas from creative thinkers to shake up your routine". I didn't know of this compilation before I shook up my routine six months ago, but it sure makes sense from my experience so far. In this compilation, Jessica Gross discusses the power of time off (recounting the story of a designer who every seven years closes his studio for one year), keeping to a schedule, going for walks, seeking inspiration, stopping while you are ahead, and taking a mid-career sabbatical. While I have worked really hard over the last six months (no time off, no stopping, no sabbaticals yet!) it has been rejuvenating for all the many reasons presented in these talks.

I would like to thank my colleagues at the Sport Law & Strategy Group who have been so accommodating of my disappearance, and my clients who have been so understanding too. I hope to see many of you in Toronto this summer.


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