Amy An
Thursday, October 18, 2018
By Rebekah Tilley

There are some professors whose impact sticks with you long after you leave. Perhaps for you it was Cristi Gleason, Tom Carroll, or Kevin Den Adel. For others it was a tax professor who claimed to be 5’0” and in the middle of a lecture would casually mention "my fourth ex-husband," leaving you wondering if either was true.

 

“Any questions before class?” Amy An asks the classroom full of glassy eyed Introduction to Taxation students on a chilly April morning as they turn in their last major assignment.

“If you’re simply competing in Tax Idol, does that guarantee you two extra points?” asks a student.

As a pedagogical technique, accounting lecturer An often breaks down nuanced tax principles into lyrics to the tune of popular songs. "Don't you wish your girlfriend were short like me?" An sings to reinforce that corporate net capital losses all transform into “short losses like me.” 

The idea was expanded into an American Idol-style end-of-semester event where students perform their own tax code songs – known as Tax Idol – often embellished with elaborate choreography and costumes. An claims to have a video from 2008 of Jeff Tarpinian, a UI football player who signed with the New England Patriots in 2011, singing his heart out at Tax Idol wearing a silver mini-dress.

"I told him that video will fund my retirement," she deadpans.

It all adds up to an uproarious variety hour of students competing for a couple of badly needed extra points. If you listen closely though, Tax Idol performances are often off-key, poorly rhyming spoken word poetry about the rigors of An's class. They mournfully lament the loss of near perfect GPAs and free time. As a group of four students passionately sang to the tune of “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus:

I came in like an A student!
Passing all my tests with ease!
All I wanted was to be the best!
All you ever did was bre-ea-eak me!

What's broken is often a student’s identity as a "smart kid" for whom academics has always been easy.  Since 1990, An has been part of the team that laid the academic, professional, and relational foundation of accountants trained at the University of Iowa. The accounting curriculum at UI is extremely rigorous, and An's class is students' first experience of that rigor. She sets them up for success in a number of ways: her infamous "course pack" – a Cliff-notes version of her lectures that some students reportedly carry with them into their professional lives – and "The 'Incredible' An Code."

The An Code

Amy An2

The An Code is an eight-page manifesto on how to be a successful student and accounting professional. It's a creative mixtape of How to Win Friends and Influence People, Emily Post, and your parent's dinner table admonishments. It ranges from how to communicate professionally through email, to demonstrate respect for her and the teaching assistant's time during office hours, to approach and engage accounting alumni and accounting firm recruiters, and how not to waste one's breath.

"I will not answer any personal tax questions or provide any tax-planning strategies. Furthermore, I will not provide any tax evasion strategies."

In the classroom, it's clear that An's students have taken The An Code to heart. All cell phones are tucked away. They attentively follow along with the lecture, jotting notes in their course pack while An talks them through specific tax case studies. Her Hello Kitty watch jingles slightly as she gestures – a watch that references a decades’ old classroom prank and matches the Hello Kitty shoes given to her by a group of students.

The An Code also includes a study guide encouraging students to read the course pack before the lecture, regularly review notes, and use quizzes and assignments as learning tools. It also encourages students to find support from upperclassmen who have taken the class, and sketches out the big picture.

"Relax! This course is tough, but no student has ever died as a result of it," The An Code reassures.

A former student who wishes to remain anonymous reported how The An Code not only taught him the material, but taught him the self-discipline and study habits he needed to succeed. 

"I finally... began reading the course pack notes before lecture, reading a chapter assignment solution before bed every night, and listing off the order of 1231 assets' tax treatment whenever I found myself waiting in a line," he said. "I developed the idiosyncrasy of mouthing tax solutions to myself, which led to several bus rides next to some person who would immediately regret sitting next to me, a man visibly arguing with himself."

Something about this combination of innovative teaching and tough love made An a beloved figure to a great many of her students. Over time her reputation was distilled down to one label: Tax Mom. 

Tax Mom

 

Amy An

"Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but I never wanted to be a mom," An confessed. “Not because I didn’t like kids, but because I felt my career was important to me, and I knew if I became a mom, it would be with a capital M-O-M.”

She followed her (one and only) husband to Iowa City in 1980 from Montreal because he had accepted a faculty position at the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (Before explaining a difficult tax concept, An would often preface it with a reference to an "ex-husband" - a pedagogical tool to get sleepy students to sit up and pay attention.) A French major as an undergrad, An resumed her studies at UI.  She graduated in 1982 with a Master of Accountancy degree and took a job as a tax consultant with Arthur Andersen in Chicago. She loved how tax offered absolute right-wrong answers, and she loved the big city environment.

"I think tax is the most stimulating and dynamic career to pursue," An said. Her enthusiasm for the subject has never waned, though as she predicted, it was eclipsed by the birth of her son Andrew in 1987. Her devotion to her son is similar to how she approaches all things: directly, unapologetically, and tongue-in-cheek.

"Drew is my S-U-N," she says. Just before his birth, she left Arthur Anderson and moved back to Iowa City where she was finally talked into the teaching profession in 1990. It was a job that allowed her to “be the mom that I wanted to be."

In addition to teaching, An served as advisor to the annual tax competition team and in the summers conducted staff training for three of the Big Four firms, giving her insight into each firm’s expectations for technical skills and professionalism--insights that she built into her curriculum and The An Code.

If you ask her though, it's clear she is most proud of her time as Beta Alpha Psi advisor from 1996 to 2006. She conceived and organized the first Meet the Firms accounting job fair in 1996, which is still going strong today. Like many things with Amy An, you're left in limbo over whether Meet the Firms was motivated primarily to help current students find accounting jobs or provide her with an opportunity to catch up with her Tax Babies who returned to campus to recruit for their firms.

An has a strict sense of professional distance and regularly reminds her current students: "We are not friends. Teaching is not a popularity contest." Despite this, she regularly provides academic counselling and advice. Advising often continues long after their time in her class is over--as students look for their first jobs, as they struggle to determine if accounting is where their passions lie, and on one occasion when a student need help with a marriage proposal.

One student recounted a conversation with An, which she described as "one of the most critical points in my academic journey." As had happened many times before with many other students, An listened attentively to the student's flood of fears, confusion, and concerns, then sat for a moment in silence before offering the student a piece of candy.

More than the advice that followed, it was in that quiet space that some unspoken need was met. That's the comfort of Tax Mom. 

Amy An retired at the end of the 2017-18 academic year and, ever the jet-setter, almost immediately set off on a seven-week journey to Thailand, Malaysia, and India with her husband Phil and her “sun” Drew. Her Facebook feed has been filled with pictures of Amy and other alumni she’s encountered on her journey. 

Amy An Tax Student Support Fund

A fund has been established in Amy An’s honor to support student participation in tax case competitions and other areas of tax education needs at the University of Iowa. If you would like to honor Amy’s legacy with a contribution, please visit givetoiowa.org/accounting and direct your contribution to the Amy An Tax Student Support Fund. 

This article first appeared in the 2018 edition of The Iowa Ledger, a magazine for alumni and friends of the UI Department of Accounting.