A Taxing and Educational Good Time

Bill Moser's tough, entertaining taxation classes at the University of Missouri earn high marks, even if the subject is less than sexy

Even a separated shoulder couldn't weaken Bill Moser's commitment as a professor. When two of his former students asked him to be their faculty guest at the University of Missouri's honors graduation ceremony last December, Moser postponed surgery to be there. "When a student tells you that you've had an influence on their life, it's a tremendous honor," he says. "I was happy to do it."

In the two years that Moser has been an assistant professor of accountancy at the university's College of Business, his dedication and ability to make the subject of taxation fun has left an impression on his students, who named him their favorite professor at the university in the 2007 BusinessWeek student survey. "He had a passion for tax and was always there for me if I had questions," one undergrad writes. His acclaim doesn't stop there. In 2007, the Kansas City chapter of the College of Business alumni association named Moser faculty member of the year.

Learning From Mistakes

The 36-year-old professor is supportive of current and former students. He keeps liberal office hours before and after his individual and business taxation classes, so undergraduates can ask him about coursework, seek career advice, or even ask questions they have from other tax or accounting courses. When Tarrah Weeks needed help with a tax law class taught by another professor, she came to Moser, and he gladly answered her questions. "It was nice to have someone to go to when I needed help," Weeks says.

When students go to Moser for advice, he shares his successes and failures from his experience as a tax consultant at Arthur Andersen in Chicago. He's willing to talk about his mistakes because he feels it's a powerful way for his students to learn. "These students have so much more potential than I did," he says. "Students get more out of hearing what I did wrong than what I did right."

If undergrads attend office hours they can be assured that Moser knows them by name, and they can call their professor Bill. Rebecca Railton, who took two taxation classes with Moser, says that in this friendly atmosphere she felt at ease when asking questions or getting help. "He got to know every student," she says. "Everyone could feel comfortable calling him by his first name. It made [class] feel so much more open."

Incorporating Laughter

Moser has had the desire to be this type of devoted professor since he taught his first class as a master's student at Northern Illinois University. After he earned his master's degree, he stopped teaching to take a job at Arthur Andersen in order to get experience in public accounting and to pay off his educational debts—so he could afford to go back to his true passion. "The time that I taught my very first class, it was like love at first sight," he says.

Even though he is dedicated to teaching, the fact that his classes start at 8 a.m. and are about taxation presents big challenges. "When I tell people I'm a tax professor, they raise their eyebrows and say that it must be as exciting as watching grass grow," he says. "To some extent they're right. I don't have really fun or sexy material to teach."

That's why he brings in as many real life stories and funny examples as he can. "To expect people to pay attention is almost impossible," Moser says. "I need to get their attention long enough to get that material through."

Besides telling funny stories, Moser likes to illustrate topics on the board for a laugh. "I'm a terrible artist," he says. One of Railton's favorite Moser drawings was "Pokey Pete"—a fat racehorse with stick legs. Moser used the horse in describing viable tax shelters to make the point that taking a loss for betting on horses is not an acceptable write-off. "[Moser] adds so much entertainment and humor to class," Railton says.

The Hardest Classes

But just because Moser is funny doesn't mean his courses are easy. In fact, he says his classes are some of the toughest on campus. He emphasizes reading before class and tests this with an online quiz each session. Moser also pushes his students to write briefs about tax law and tests them with a midterm and final exam. "His classes were probably the hardest classes I've taken in college," Railton says. "But he made an effort to make sure everyone was learning."

Since the bar is high in Moser's class, he gives students many chances to prove they know the material. If a student does poorly on a midterm or assignment, there is still hope for a good grade in the end if the student demonstrates mastery of the course in the comprehensive final. A stellar exam grade replaces mishaps throughout the course. "If someone had a personal problem at some point in the semester, but can learn that material and the rest of the material for the class, [he or she] deserves to get credit for it," Moser says.

Just as Moser hopes his students will improve throughout the semester, he is constantly looking for ways to advance his class. He recognizes that the industry is changing and is in the process of rewriting his course to adapt to it. In addition, he meets with about 10 students at the end of each semester to get feedback about what needs improvement.

While Moser takes pride in making his classes better, his most rewarding moments come from getting through to struggling students. "I love my job like I love my daughters," Moser says. "If there was anything in life that I loved as much as this I would describe it like that."

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