Barry McNamara  |  Published August 14, 2017

Chevy Chase and accounting

Mersch strives to make taxes fun, stresses ‘real world’ experiences
MONMOUTH, Ill. – During her previous career as a manager at Glaxo, Inc. (now GlaxoSmithKline), Monmouth College faculty member Connie Mersch came to an important realization – the young workers joining her tax division of the international pharmaceutical company were equipped with technical knowledge, but they came up far short in other areas.

Mersch said those younger employees – many from such schools as the nearby University of North Carolina – were sorely lacking in the “soft skills,” such as writing and presenting.

“Technical skills are important, but if you can’t communicate what you know, you’re not going to be very successful,” said Mersch, who joined Monmouth’s faculty in 2011 and was promoted to associate professor of accounting earlier this year.

That realization led Mersch to pursue full-time teaching, which she’d gotten a taste of while completing her graduate studies in accounting at the University of Texas-Arlington.

“I had it in the back of my mind to go into teaching,” she said. “I thought, ‘I think I can make a difference.’ I wanted to focus on teaching and getting students up to speed on ALL the skills they’d need – the writing and presenting, in addition to the technical skills.”

But unlike her experience in grad school, where she taught up to 70 students at a time and had little control over her curriculum, Mersch wanted to find a smaller college.

“I wanted to get to know my students, and not just cram technical information into their heads,” she said. “The whole driving force is to see them be successful in the real world.”

Mersch taught part-time at a community college in Virginia but realized she wanted to do it full-time. After her husband retired, pursuing a college job in Illinois was her preference, as she grew up in Freeport and attended Northern Illinois University.

Teaching at Monmouth has allowed her to bring her own brand of creativity to a subject she admits “can be dry.”

“The problem I have with a lot of textbooks is that they are disjointed,” she said. “They have sample problems, but there is no continuity from one question to the next. It doesn’t work that way in the real world, where you are handed a set of material for the client and you have to prepare a return for them from that material.”

That’s where the Clark Griswold character portrayed by Chevy Chase enters the scene. Mersch has fashioned a course built around her imagined financial dealings of the Griswold family, using the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as the basis.

Mersch loads the students up with the Griswolds’ material, mixing in facts from the movie with financial information she creates herself – Clark’s wife, Ellen, works at a holiday decorating company called Deck the Halls, for example – and the students have to wrestle with issues such as whether the cats that Clark raises in his garage – his penance for electrocuting his aunt’s cat during one of his Christmas lights mishaps – are a hobby or a business, and whether it’s deductible.

“We use the same case study throughout the entire semester,” she said. “The students have to look in multiple places to pull all the information together, which is what you have to do in the real world.
They’ve got a complete return by the end of the semester.”

Also at the end of the semester, students’ “soft skills” come into play, when they write a technical research memo about the case, as well as a client letter, summarizing their findings using language their client would understand.

Mersch’s belief in giving her students “a taste of the real world” is also the thinking behind the fictional factory, Premier Paper Products, that she created for her “Managerial Accounting” class, where students learn basic cost accounting concepts on the first day by building towers using marshmallows and bamboo sticks and then accounting for the costs. Among other tasks related to the fictional factory, students are asked to look at the company’s procedures with a critical eye and perform process value analysis, determining which non-value activities can be eliminated.

But the real world is most present in the College’s accounting department each spring during the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, in which the College has participated for nearly two decades.

Monmouth students prepare actual returns for members of the community, and Mersch enjoys seeing the students grow.

“At first, they’re very nervous,” she said. “They don’t want to make a mistake. We try to pair up a student who has done VITA before with one who is inexperienced and, of course, there is a faculty member present for each return. It’s exciting, because you never know what will walk in the door. By the end of the tax season, it’s like they’ve been doing it for years. They come so far in such a short period of time.”
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