Curtis K. Chan
Assistant Professor of Management and Organization
Boston College, Carroll School of Management
Curtis Chan might have the most unique beginnings to pursuing a career as a business school professor. As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Chan started as a pre-medicine student. Until he joined the breakdancing student club. “Over time I came to deeply immerse myself in the street dance community in Boston, learning about not only the dance moves but also the cultural values, understandings, and practices of the community,” Chan says. “Through this, I realized that I was more interested in social science than in natural science—especially in how people do what they do and make meaning out of what they do, in the social contexts they are in. So, I switched my major to anthropology, and I conducted an ethnography of street dancers in Boston as my undergraduate thesis.”
Chan eventually switched to sociology for his master’s degree and organizational behavior with a sociology track for his Ph.D. Chan is an award-winning business professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. At just 33, Chan joined Boston College in 2017. This past year, Chan was awarded the Teaching Star award by Carroll School leadership. While earning his Ph.D. from Harvard, Chan was awarded the Best Student Paper Award in 2014.
Current age: 33
At current institution since what year? 2017
Education: Ph.D., Organizational Behavior (Sociology Track), Harvard University; MA, Sociology, Harvard University; BA, Anthropology with Psychology Minor, Harvard University
List of courses you currently teach: Organizational Behavior
LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… It all started when I joined a breakdancing student club as an undergraduate. Really! I started college as a pre-med, and I joined the dance crew for fun. But over time I came to deeply immerse myself in the street dance community in Boston, learning about not only the dance moves but also the cultural values, understandings, and practices of the community. Through this, I realized that I was more interested in social science than in natural science—especially in how people do what they do and make meaning out of what they do, in the social contexts they are in. So, I switched my major to anthropology, and I conducted an ethnography of street dancers in Boston as my undergraduate thesis.
After college, I worked in management consulting. While working, I was reminded of my thesis on street dancers: I came to see that people’s work and workplaces were—like street dance communities—examples of the social contexts that shape what people do and experience. And work was a really, really important example, because for many people work can take up an entire third of their lives. By doing some informational interviews with some folks in business school PhD programs, I learned that being a business school professor focused on organizational behavior, sociology, and management would allow me to more deeply explore these topics through research and share about them through teaching. So, I applied to grad school, got my PhD, and am doing exactly that today!
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? Broadly speaking, I research how people experience, interpret, and enact their occupations and professions, in the context of their workplace organizations. I’ve studied or am currently researching occupations like airport screeners, consultants, university career advisers, teachers, and graphic facilitators. I tend to follow an ethnographic and qualitative tradition of studying things “in the field”, meaning that I’ll go to some place with some people, and I’ll observe them, talk to and interview them, and try to fully understand how they live and work.
One of the current research projects I’m very excited about is my study with Aalto University doctoral student Tomi Koljonen, wherein we have studied teachers in Finland who have faced a call to change the way they teach by digitalizing their pedagogy. It is often difficult to convince professionals to change—especially when professionals have a lot of autonomy and when change requires substantial, unfamiliar efforts. But, we discovered that one way to facilitate such change is by tapping into the occupational values of the teaching profession. By connecting technological reform to shared professional values around working hard and maintaining expertise, some teachers persuaded their peers—who might otherwise grumble about the difficulties of technological change—to make the shift.
If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… A professor of sociology or anthropology, focusing on street dance culture, especially breakdancing (typically known as “breaking,” “b-boying,” or “b-girling” to practitioners).
One thing I’ve never seriously considered pursuing as a career is being a professional street dancer. For all the study that I’ve done of street dance, I’ve never said that I was good at it!
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
Maybe my expressed passion during teaching! I don’t think that feeling that passion makes me stand out necessarily, since I know a lot of professors are passionate about what they teach and research, but I do try to express that passion with as much energy as I can muster. I am actually somewhat introverted by nature, but as I tell my students, personality is not destiny, and I do my best to bring my enthusiasm—and a tall cup of tea/coffee—to the classroom.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Intense.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Okay, so someone did tell me this before I decided to get my Ph.D., thankfully, but I wish someone would’ve told me this even earlier in my life: the topics, ideas, and settings that you can study and teach about as a business school professor are much broader than one initially imagines when one hears the word “business”. At least in my field of management, I tend to conceive of what I teach and study as centered around something less concise than “business” but perhaps more resonant with the broadness of the topics covered: “social science about humans at work”.
Professor I most admire and why: Ah, there are too many to name. I feel so fortunate to be embedded in a field where I admire—for a wide variety of reasons—such a large number of professors. But if I had to name names, I will mention two professors who were my dissertation co-chairs when I was in grad school: Michel Anteby and Leslie Perlow. They both taught me so much about crafting qualitative management research and staying true to the field data while also conveying a compelling, important, and intriguing story. I was lucky to be part of their group of student mentees in their course “The Craft of Inductive Qualitative Research” (a group we affectionately called “Crafters”), and, truly, they were and are master craftspeople of such research.
TEACHING BUSINESS SCHOOL STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
I really love when students are simultaneously learning, contributing, and having fun in class. It’s awesome—and truly heartwarming—when I see them bringing their enthusiasm, engagement, curiosity, and ideas into the classroom. Moreover, when I hear that I or my class has left a really positive impression on them—or even shaped their thinking or career in beneficial ways—it makes every ounce of effort worth it.
Also, I treasure those small and seemingly mundane interactions with students: when I can connect with my students as human beings, or when I find myself smiling or laughing out loud due to my students’ kind sincerity and joyful senses of humor. For instance, I once received in a course evaluation a student comment that read, verbatim, “very, very happy to have taken a class with Professor Chan – seriously, it was an honor and privilege. His only con: his sideburns were never even and were VERY distracting the first few classes (sorry)”. I amusedly shared this with my class the subsequent semester, and at the end of the semester, I received another comment that read, reassuringly, “You have dope sideburns Professor Chan”.
I can die happy now.
What is most challenging? Grading!
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Thoughtful.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Unkind.
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Having high standards of quality, but fair given those standards.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
Podcasts; consuming pop culture in general (e.g., film, TV, music, and video games); going to restaurants and trying new and delicious kinds of food (when there isn’t a global pandemic); exercising.
How will you spend your summer?
Research, mostly! Also, staying connected to friends and family is important to me, so spending time with them, in-person or virtually, will certainly figure into the picture as well.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: Vacations for me are really about the food, so I tend to love more urban places with awesome food scenes, like Barcelona.
Favorite book(s): Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
Cerebral action movies are my favorite genre of film—things like The Matrix or Christopher Nolan’s movies, such as Inception. I like that they are high-concept and make you think but are still viscerally entertaining to watch. I also enjoy more lighthearted fare like superhero movies (Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is one of my faves) and TV sit-coms, as well as heavier content along the lines of prestige TV dramas.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
For fun: Anything electronic, such as electropop, EDM, future bass, house, hip hop, funk, and electronic rock. As a dance fan, I like listening to stuff that I want to groove to. To facilitate my work: Film scores or lyric-less electronic music. I can neither confirm nor deny that I also groove while I work.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… A broad and holistic sense of what “value” means, including not just economic but also societal, ethical, and environmental value, to name just a few.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… More deeply cultivating empathy and compassion for selves and others throughout their ranks—leaders, managers, and employees at all levels. In its own right, I believe that doing this is important, but I also think that there should be longer-term societal, organizational, and individual returns for such action.
I’m grateful for… Everyone who has ever supported, challenged, and—just generally—shaped me.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“He is one of the greatest professors/teachers I have ever had. Professor Chan and his course is incredibly organized. The lectures were SO engaging, and I loved how he incorporated class activities to demonstrate the concepts we were learning about. His class was so fun, and for the first time in my life I was able to pay attention to the whole class every lecture. He is also such a kind and articulate professor, which made him likable and approachable. He was also very eager to meet his students, and made ample time to be available for help. I can’t say enough what an amazing teacher Professor Chan is, and I think this course will be one of my favorites I have taken in college.”
“One of the best professors I have had in my time at BC for sure. Clearly cares a lot about his students, but also wants to challenge them and see them grow.”
“I’ve actually never been as eager to write a teacher review as I was to write this one for Professor Chan. Simply put, Professor Chan is the best professor I have ever had and will likely still be by the time I graduate next year. Not only did he show up to every class genuinely excited for the lesson, he was always vastly organized as each class seemed to unfold flawlessly. Regardless of how inaccurate a student’s comment may have been, he always seemed to be able to find some sort of value in each one. Furthermore, he was a very fair professor. Both of his exams were exactly as he said they would be and he did not take any points off of papers for reasons not listed in the rubric. The only thing I would have changed about this class is my failure to take advantage of having lunch with Professor Chan as I would have loved to get to know him better outside of class.”
“Professor Chan’s passion for the subject and for the subject’s impact on students’ lives definitely showed. Throughout the semester, he was the heart and soul of the course. I could tell that Professor Chan had put a lot of effort into planning his class sessions and activities, and so I always felt motivated to engage. That Professor Chan personally applied himself really made all the difference.”
“Professor Chan also does an incredible job of cultivating discussions, engaging with the class, and creating dynamic sessions through unique simulations and activities. The work and preparation that he puts into each day truly shines through, and it motivates students to reciprocate that care in a way that is both organic and meaningful.”
“WE LOVE CHAN. GIVE HIM A RAISE OR SOMETHING.”