Shortly before five in the morning on a Tuesday in mid-September, C.J. Skender M.B.A. '81, who teaches accounting, commenced his pre-class routine, the first of a series of rituals that have come to distinguish him as one of a rare and curious breed. Beginning with the socks and under-apparel alphabetized in his top drawer, Skender dressed himself according to a schedule determined weeks in advance: charcoal suit, yellow shirt, tropical-fish suspenders (pair number 242, "Blue Lagoon," out of 300), and, because it was Tuesday, a peach necktie--a necktie, not a bowtie, which he wears only on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
He ate breakfast at Waffle House, where he graded tests, and, after paying for the meal, arranged the dollar bills in his wallet numerically. He then drove to campus where he got, as pleases him immensely, the first parking space and walked to Room 112 in the Soc-Psych building ready to begin the show he performs twice a week. The show is billed as a class, Accounting 83: Intro to Financial Accounting, but that day, Skender's lecture was an act, his students the audience, and Skender himself, looking every bit the part, was pure entertainment.
At 10:53, two minutes before the official start of class, he initiated yet another ritual: a mental warm-up of movie-quote and song-lyric trivia for candy-bar prizes. Standing before a desk composed as neatly as a chess set on display, briefcase, textbook, calculator, and clock in perfect spatial harmony, Skender turned to the class:
"Quick: What's the meaning of life? Dale Beaverman. Who? Dale Beaverman. She's about yay tall. Didn't you see her at the hospital tonight? Kevin, there are several quintessential moments in a man's life. Losing his virginity, becoming a father, getting married, and having girls smile at you...."
"St. Elmo's Fire!" said a blonde woman in the second row.
"Jeez, took you long enough," said Skender grinning. "Good job. Want a Mr. Goodbar?" he said handing it over. "Okay, here's the song: 'Fifty thou' a year buys a lot of beer/Things are going great, and they're only getting better/ I'm doing all right, getting good grades.' "
"Oh! Oh!" yelled out a husky kid in the back of the room, grabbing his desk by the sides. "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades!"
"You da man! You. Da. Man!" Skender boomed, hustling down the aisle. They high-fived. "Have a Milky Way."
And then, in an instant, the show was over. Skender moved on to the business of the day: adjusting journal entries. "We're going from a cash world to an accrual world. And the vehicle that enables us to do that is our ability to record adjusting journal entries," he said. "And if that doesn't excite you, well, you don't have a pulse."
A forty-nine-year-old father of three, C.J. Skender is like few in his line of work and, most likely, in his demographic. Akin to his passion for order is his near-fanatical love of pop songs and movies. "We called him 'C.J. the D.J.,' " says Joe Alleva, director of athletics at Duke and an old fraternity brother of Skender's at Lehigh University. "He knew the words to every song, had tapes of every song, spent hours and hours with his music. My son took his course and said C.J. was one of the best professors he'd ever had at Duke."
Skender is current, too. Not only does he know who the rap star 50 Cent is, but he also owns the hit album Get Rich or Die Tryin', has the poster hanging in his office, and has committed the song "In Da Club" to memory--all part of the job, Skender says. "It's a different world than it was twenty, thirty years ago. If you want to engage your audience, if you really want to grab their attention, you have to know the world they live in, the music they listen to, the movies they watch. You know, to most of these kids, it's like 'accounting or a root canal,'" he says, his hands weighing the options evenly. "But, when they hear me quote 50 Cent or Nelly or Sean Paul or whoever, they say to themselves, 'Whoa, did that fat old guy just say what I thought he said?' And then you've got 'em."
Indeed, over the past twenty-five years, Skender has gotten many. Since he began teaching in 1979 as a grad student in the Fuqua School of Business, Skender has been hailed as a sensation, a crowd pleaser, highly recommended as the antidote to one of the university's least enticing, if most practical, subjects of study. As early as 1983, four years into his career, Skender was named one of the "Top 15 most outstanding professors at the university" by the Teacher Course Evaluation Book, a defunct student publication. In the same pantheon were such silvering greats as Ronald Witt of the history department, Ruth Day of psychology, and the now-retired chemistry professor Pelham Wilder, all legends in their respective fields.
"Professor Skender--Take this professor!" read the description. "Most say he is the best they have had in four years at Duke.... If the only reason you are taking an accounting course is because someone older than you once told you that it is a helpful thing to know, then this is the professor for you.... His sense of humor makes this unbearable course a joy to take."
More students elect to take Accounting 83 every year than there are seats available. "Once, back when I was starting out, I let in sixty-five people, and we only had sixty-three seats," Skender said. "I thought it wouldn't be a problem if we squeezed in two more. Well, Bob Dickson, who was chair of the management sciences department at the time--he was my mentor before passing away, he really took me under his wing as a new faculty member--called me into his office and said sternly, 'C.J., your class is overflowing. I don't know what in the heck you're doing in there,' and then he smiled, 'but keep it up.' "
One thing Skender was doing, and still does, was calling all of his students by their first names, hardly a novel concept, but with a class of sixty-five, not an easy one in practice. "You don't feel faceless," says Lindsey Paluska, a senior in his class last fall. "The first day he had everyone fill out note cards with all of our information--where we're from, what we like to be called, all that stuff--and by day two he knew it all."
Last October, when President Nannerl O. Keohane gave her annual address to the faculty, she urged professors to "reach out" to students. "Personal encounters are what students tell us they find too often missing in their educations," she said. "We need to reach out to them in ways that touch where they are when they come to us, not just subject them to regimens that feel comfortable to our generation because we've always done things that way."
No one reaches quite as far as Skender. That Tuesday, with arms outstretched in mock desperation, he reached out to a woman in a red cardigan. "Brinkley! Brinkley!" he cried. "I wanted it to be you! I wanted it to be you so badly!"
"You've Got Mail?" said the woman.
"Bingo!" he shouted, tossing her a Kit Kat.
March 31, 2004