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James Johnson: The constant advocate

April 9, 2012
James Johnson

James Johnson

“My ‘end game’ teaching goal,” says James Johnson, “is to put myself out of business. I believe I have been successful if I can help students learn how to engage and evaluate subjects on their own, no longer requiring or seeking my guidance.”

The cornerstone of Johnson’s teaching methodology, honed through more than 40 years in front of the classroom, is learning by doing.

In the classroom, he creates an environment that is demanding, exciting and fun. Expectations are clear from Day One, fostering mutual respect.

He then challenges students with complicated homework assignments that lead them on a process of discovery and accomplishment; arriving at the correct answer and the learning that took place on that journey carry equal value.

Johnson, meanwhile, serves as a partner, offering direction and encouragement if necessary.

“I believe that students need to engage themselves and work hard to understand concepts or complete challenging projects, but I offer guidance as it is needed,” Johnson says.

“It is pointless to allow students to flounder undirected, then to sit in judgment of their work. This method leads to frustration and, most pivotally, fails the crucial test: Is the teacher truly teaching?”

Edward Buckley, a 2008 executive MBA graduate, remembers a professor “who consistently demonstrated his adherence to set the bar high with his expectations of us.”

“His commitment to our entire class, whether during class or outside of regular hours was unwavering,” Buckley says. “Always well prepared for class, he could answer questions at least three levels in detail deeper than what he was teaching. Truly amazing!”

“When I had questions about projects in other classes that involved finance topics, I consulted with Dr. Johnson for advice,” former student Galena Phillips adds. “He didn’t solve problems for me, but he offered gentle nudges in the right direction, always challenging me to open my mind to head to the right conclusion.”

Johnson, who came to NIU in 1987, earned his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. That’s where his professorial career began in 1971 as a teaching fellow. He also holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, where he taught as an assistant professor of finance for two years.

At NIU, he explores and develops innovative and effective instructional methods and technologies. He serves on curriculum committees for the Department of Finance and the College of Business, and also sits on the college’s assessment committee.

He also has participated for seven years in the team-taught UBUS 310, a nine-credit, entry-level business class that touches on finance, management, marketing and operations, and serves as a “coach” at the college’s Experiential Learning Center.

Students and colleagues frequently nominate him for honors; he was won the Golden Apple Teaching Award for the Executive MBA and Professional MBA programs multiple times.

“From the experiences of his own extensive education, Dr. Johnson recalls what he did not like as a student and works diligently to avoid those aspects in his classes,” fellow professor Diane Docking says. “For example, he paces his lectures such that they give the students time to ponder the information presented.”

Department chair Marc Simpson says Johnson “epitomizes all of the things that a great teacher should be.”

“The students are readily able to understand the importance of what they are learning, and how it will affect them, their future employers and the world around them,” Simpson says. “It is a common sight in the Department of Finance to see students lined up out the door waiting to see Dr. Johnson. (He) is a constant advocate for our students, seeking always what is in their best interest.”