Atlas Black Shrugs

Jason Fertig

College students are studying less and less.  The last thing they need is a pat on the back from academics for doing just that.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened last week at Inside Higher Ed with the site’s positive article on the use of a graphic novel (i.e. comic book) as a management text

Professors Jeremy Short, Talya Bauer, and David Ketchen authored two comic books titled Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed and Atlas Black: Management Guru in response to what they feel is a market filled with ineffective management textbooks. These comics work the standard principles of management concepts into the comic book story of slacker student Atlas Black’s attempt to become an entrepreneur.  While I applaud the authors’ creativity and effort, I contend that the product only lessens the credibility of my already questionable academic discipline.

As a management professor, I do agree that the popular management textbooks are deeply flawed in their content and approach.  Successful entrepreneur and master teacher at the Acton School of Business, Jeff Sanderfer, best evaluated such texts over at the PopeCenter last year when he noted that business textbooks “stress memorizing useless jargon or offer outdated academic theories about business.”  Ultimately, the take-home points of the Atlas Black books do not differ much from standard management texts – they simply take the same jargon and theories and package them into a cute comic story.  On top of the jargon and theories, there are other glaring flaws.

The most notable flaw is the story’s reinforcement of the futility of teaching management to a classroom of undergraduates.  The Atlas character is portrayed as disinterested in school; the lessons that he learns are all from his real-world attempts to start a business. To further this point, when Atlas visits his management professor to ask for advice on starting a business, his professor first advises him to get an accountant and lawyer.  His professor then picks several words at random from a management textbook glossary, sprinkles in a few articles and conjunctions, and cranks out this memorable quote:

Business school isn’t really about the mechanics of starting a business.  The idea of this class is to help you analyze environments for the long haul and to learn how to analyze individuals and conditions related to your firm that might lead to long-term competitive advantage for organizations and their employees.

In other words, “my class is about teaching material to the wrong students at the wrong time with the hope that they will remember the material when it is the right time, but I really don’t care because I have tenure and my research matters more anyway.”

This sounds more like the Onion than a serious attempt to teach management principles.

Atlas’s tale also unintentionally conveys the culture of entitlement and grade inflation that is prevalent in the modern college.  The Inside Higher Ed article missed the mark by characterizing Atlas as “a bit of a slacker.” In fact, the Atlas character is a completely clueless immature “boy” – weeks late on rent, sleeps late, does not pay attention in class, and wears t-shirts and jeans to a career fair. 

At one point in the story, Atlas needs money and takes a job delivering pizza for Pilgrim Pizza.  Part of his new job involves wearing a pilgrim costume on delivery runs, which causes teasing from friends and thoughts of “I have to get a better job.”  The job is certainly goofy, but it is also an honest attempt to put money in a college student’s pocket.  Given Atlas’s initial weak job history and poor work ethic, he has to start somewhere – an idea lost on many of today’s college cohort.  The condescension shown towards his delivery job furthers the message of the inflated worth of college students on the job market.

Grade inflation comes into play with the admission that clueless Atlas has a 2.76 GPA.  A friend he annoys in class responds, “I predict you’ll be getting a C on the next exam.”  So the Atlas character, who appears to have retained nothing from his classes, is still a “C” student, not an “F” student.  I cannot imagine the work it takes to fail a course at his university.  Thus, this comic book unknowingly supports the bottom-up phenomenon of grade inflation, which enables students to graduate college without demonstrating much competency in anything.

Aside from the content issues with Atlas, the obvious issue of using comics in higher education cannot go unaddressed.  Short justifies the graphic novels as a response to “boring textbooks” and as an attempt to create a text that is “more like a movie,” which will better engage students.  The Inside Higher Ed article further cites praise from the authors’ students on how Atlas is “easily comprehendible” compared to other “long-winded” textbooks (while also trying to convey that the comics have some rigor by noting that there are “paragraphs of text on certain pages.”) 

But business students have enough visual stimulation.  They need more time with rigorous texts instead of facing a steady diet of terminology and in-class videos.  But where are the rigorous management texts?

Ideally, “management” has the most value in the classroom when the students are all practicing managers.  Yet, most students who enroll in management courses will not practice management for several years, if ever. Imagine how effective a “Principles of Parenting” class would be for a class full of singles.  Therefore, I advocate a different approach – the historical perspective. 

As business historian Dan Wren notes in his book, The Evolution of Management Thought, it is too lofty to expect the students to learn the concepts of management now and to integrate those fragmented concepts when needed at a much later date.  By teaching management through history, students are not expected to be competent managers off the bat.  Instead, they receive de facto experience through the stories of management practice from ancient through modern times. 

There are many text options to this historical approach.  Wren’s text is effective at integrating the practice of management over time with the development of management as an academic discipline.  For a more practical approach, Professor H.W. Brands’s book, Masters of Enterprise, offers a series of entrepreneur biographies, from John Jacob Astor to Oprah Winfrey.  In the end, the goal of using history in management education is to infuse teaching management with the principles of a good liberal education – providing students with broad knowledge of the world around them, both past and present.

The Inside Higher Ed article states that reading Atlas Black provides students with the “basics of business management.”  The book does no such thing.  It provides students with the basic academic terminology of the management discipline through a medium that is best suited for a middle school or high school student.  The practice of using entertaining texts combined with vapid content further contributes to producing what Mark Bauerlein calls “The Dumbest Generation.”  

To be fair, I enjoy the use of entertainment in the classroom when appropriate, and my former students can certainly attest to that.  However, I strongly caution against this trend of overdoing it to the point that learning is compromised for a few laughs. 

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