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Meet the Professor : John Knight

Finance professor’s comedy and characters keep students engaged in the classroom
Emeritus Professor John KnightMarketing and University Communications

Professor John Knight poses as Gansta Bling, one of the characters he becomes when teaching his students about finance.

By Rhashad PittmanOct 12, 2011
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Early one April morning, business professor John Knight walked into the classroom of his finance course wearing a green mask and cape featuring black dollar signs. It was the first time in the semester that Knight had dressed in costume for his class.

The two dozen students sitting at their desks instantly burst into laughter. After months of learning complex financial formulas and concepts, it was just the jolt the students needed to awaken from an 8 a.m. haze.

"It was hilarious," recalled Diana Bains, a Pacific senior studying business. "I had never seen any professor dress up like that before."

Knight has used amusing characters and comedy to keep students engaged in the classroom throughout his teaching career. On that day he was the "Caped Cash Flow Crusader." Other days he has been "The Cash Flow Codger," "Sava Sav" or "Gangsta Bling."

With each character comes its own elaborate costume that involves such items as a large fedora-style, gold and black hat, sunglasses, and a gold necklace with a round, golden clock hanging from it, similar to the ones worn by rapper Flavor Flav of the group Public Enemy.

"The subject of finance can be pretty boring and pretty daunting," Knight said. "There's a lot of math involved and a lot of concepts that can really be mundane. So what I've tried to do is interject humor into it."

Getting into costume is not only a creative way to have fun in the classroom, Knight said, it is also a helpful teaching guide. In addition to keeping students attentive, the characters help reiterate a fundamental business concept that is essential for understanding finance.

"In the context of finance, it's all about cash flows," Knight said. "How big they are, when they happen, and how risky they are. That's basically the unifying theme for how I teach finance."

Knight's innovative approach has made him one of the most popular professors on campus. Students have selected him for the Eberhardt School of Business' Undergraduate Teaching Award six times. They said Knight explains complex finance topics with crystal clarity and applies them to their everyday lives while making them chuckle in the process.

Recent Pacific graduate Anthony Bonatto said he was fortunate to have Knight for two of his finance classes before earning a business degree in May. Bonatto said Knight epitomizes the "outstanding faculty" that made him come to Pacific in the first place.

"He teaches with the kind of flair that makes his students look forward to class," Bonatto said. "Not that his courses aren't difficult - his exams are close to impossible. But the inimitable way that Dr. Knight covers finance with a dash of humor ensures that his students remember both him and the intricate concepts of finance long after graduation."

Bonatto is currently working in London as a fixed-income operations analyst for UBS Investment Bank, a global financial services firm. The position is part of a year-long internship that he received with the help of Knight, who wrote a letter of recommendation on his behalf.

The Birth of "Cash Flow" Characters

Long before the idea of teaching crossed his mind, Knight enjoyed getting into character. In high school he acted in school plays and competed on the debate team.

"I've always had a little bit of the theatrical in me," said Knight, with a slight smile.

Although he enjoyed theater and public speaking, Knight's interest in business guided his career path. After graduating from Tulane University in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in economics, Knight had planned to pursue an MBA from the University of Chicago. But facing a strong possibility of being drafted into the Vietnam War, he decided to volunteer for the U.S. Navy, where he served as a communications specialist, gunnery officer and engineer. 

He never faced combat during his years in the Navy, and eventually became chief engineer of the U.S.S. Henry B. Wilson, a guided missile destroyer known as "Hammering Hank." After 12 years of long stretches at sea away from his wife and daughter, he decided to enter the Navy reserves and teach in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC).

As part of NROTC, Knight taught navigation and electronics courses at Southern University while earning an MBA and Ph.D. at Louisiana State University. The NROTC position exposed him to the teaching profession, which he found to be very gratifying.

"I enjoy almost every aspect of my job," Knight said. "Not many people can say that about what they do." 

After a few years of working as an accountant in Southern California and teaching at a local community college, Knight spent five years working at the University of Connecticut as an assistant professor of finance and real estate before coming to Pacific in 1995. Shortly after arriving, his creative approach to teaching began to take root.

One day in class, Knight noticed a student wearing a peculiar tie, which led him to start collecting ties of his own that featured dollar signs and other symbols of money. With contributions from students, his wife and his daughter, the collection now surpasses 100.

A friend jokingly suggested Knight should have a symbol that represents him like the musical artist Prince was using at the time. Shortly after, Knight proclaimed himself "the Professor Formerly Known as Knight." Instead of using his name, he used a dollar sign lying on its side to represent him. He even had it embroidered on most of his shirts.

Next came the costumes and cash flow characters. The characters are a great way to revitalize the students in the midst of a long, tedious semester, he said.

"It's just stuff I do for fun to make learning more enjoyable," Knight said. "Who knows if it has any impact on what they retain?"

Bains, who will graduate in May 2012 with a business degree, believes it does. By using humor and characters, Knight makes the subject interesting and easier to understand, she said. 

"Dr. Knight finds a way to make finance fun and enjoyable," she said. "His stories always relate to what we are doing and he seems to actually care about the students."

John Knight receives distinguished faculty awardRecognition for His Work 

In addition to being praised for his teaching, Knight has been lauded for his research. Business professors have selected Knight for the school's Faculty Research Award three times. 

Knight's research on the inner workings of residential and commercial real estate has appeared in more than 30 publications. Knight has found that sellers who put their home on the market at too high a price reduced their pool of potential buyers, took longer to sell their homes, and ultimately sold them for less than market price. Had they put their homes on the market at the average price, the sales would have occurred much quicker. His findings were published in "Real Estate Economics," the top academic journal on real estate, and later were cited by Forbes Magazine.

Over the years, Knight's scholarship has led to a national reputation as a real estate expert, leading to interviews with major news organizations such as CBS "60 Minutes," which sought his insight into the national foreclosure crisis.

Between his research, teaching and public service, Knight has received a great deal of recognition. In May, he stood before 5,000 audience members during the 2011 Commencement Ceremony and received the University's Distinguished Faculty Award from President Pamela A. Eibeck. The award is given annually to a tenured faculty member for outstanding accomplishment in teaching, research, service or creative endeavors. 

Yet with all of the honors and praise that Knight has earned over the years from various roles, it is the role of teacher that he finds most fulfilling.

"I believe it's where I'm making the biggest contribution to civilization, helping educate these young minds," Knight said. "It's invigorating seeing the transformation that takes place. It's invigorating and very rewarding."