Teacher, author, program coordinator, inspector. Stefan Svenningssons engagement is lively and multi-faceted, and it has earned him a reputation among both teachers and students at the university. I talked with him to discuss his work, and sources of motivation.
When I meet Stefan Svenningson in his office I get the feeling he has been looking forward to this meeting. He gives off an aura of constrained excitement and directs me to a nifty little seating group in the other end of the room. I am immediately struck by his amiability as well as how deeply consumed he seems to be in his work. The walls surrounding us are filled with shelves upon shelves of various respected business and organization writings, many featuring himself as an author. It is not long before Stefan takes out a couple and starts to discuss them.
Stefan: Some journals are more popular than others. Leadership Quarterly is an American one – lots of methodical stuff in it. But it is ranked as the number one journal in leadership research. In the Anglosaxican world, one article here is worth more than 25 books on the subject. In Sweden, books are more well-respected, however. Thankfully.
Walter: Why thankfully?
Stefan: So you can commit to writing books instead of being an “article-nerd”.
Walter: Are you featured in the copy I am holding here?
Stefan: Oh yes, we had an article that was very frequently referred to.
Walter: So it is featured in the curricula of various academic courses now?
Stefan: Yes and no. We usually take concepts from the article and develop them in books in a more comprehensive and understandable way.
Walter: What’s most fun: writing books or articles?
Stefan: Books no doubt.
Walter: And between that and teaching?
Stefan: Well, the privilege of working in academia is being able to do both. On one hand, I can do field work and go to companies and organizations to examine their practices. Then I collect and analyze that data to put into writing, which is solitary work. It can get a little boring after a while. But then I have teaching, which I think is fun because of the social aspect and the interaction with all the students.
Walter: Which part was is that drew you to the university in the first place?
Stefan: Like most other people here I wanted to pursue an academic career. This means doing fieldwork in the first hand. But I got into teaching pretty early and quickly took a liking to it. This was in 1985.
Walter: So over 30 years ago.
Stefan: Big laugh. Okay! I don’t dare to think that far back in time. It has been a few years. In my opinion, education is the principal task of the university, and where most resources should be spent.
Walter: How would you describe your teaching style?
Stefan: For me, it is important to encourage engagement among the students. I try hard myself to be engaged while giving lectures. And I find it important to make the students interested in the subject and to initiate discussion. Normally people have a lot to say and want to speak – therefore I try to make room for everyone to speak up and to ask any question they want. Traditionally teaching is about a teacher standing in front of a class and telling them how things are, but I think that in my subjects interaction plays a key role. Also the people feeling uncomfortable with speaking up should get an opportunity to speak. No worries if you say something weird or clumsy. This is school after all – if there’s anywhere you should embarrass yourself it should be here. And it’s not even about embarrassing yourself, it’s about taking an opportunity and gaining valuable experience from each interaction. I express myself clumsily as well, but no damage is done because of that. I try to tone down the idea some students have to display themselves as smart. This isn’t about identity, it’s about learning. I aspire to create a good atmosphere in the classroom. This is easier if you’re meeting with the people regularly, which I do with the people that are studying my master’s program [Managing People, Knowledge and Change]. They come from all over the world, and it easily happens that you mostly hang out with the people from the same part of the world as you. But I try to create a collective MPKC-atmosphere in order for people to feel like they can be with any person in the group. I arrange a few activities for that group. A mingling session among other things, in August, at Lunds Nation. There are tea sandwiches, wine beer if you want. So pretty early on people start to get to know each other under more informal circumstances. I also arrange a spring party. On top of that, the students themselves arrange activities.
Walter: Is this a usual thing?
Stefan: No, it isn’t. But I do it because I know that it means a lot to the group. My program is called Managing People, Knowledge and Change, so I feel like I myself should manage people. It has been very appreciated. Then in spring, it is the “Legendary MPKC spring party”.
Walter: Where is that?
Stefan: At Lunds Nation. You do know that I am the inspector there?
Walter: I did not! For how long?
Stefan: Six years.
Walter: Were you a part of the quratel during your study time?
Stefan: I was not, but I was involved with the nation. Way too little, really. That’s another thing I always tell the students: get involved in union or nation life. Because that’s something you’ll never regret. It is extremely meaningful for a lot of people and you get friends for life, in a way. So I didn’t do enough back then, but I’m catching up now, I guess. There are fun inspectors everywhere, we meet up sometimes.
Walter: Is there a lot of work?
Stefan: Some! I’m the chairman of the nation’s board, part of the senior’s collegium, scholarship committee, inspector’s Collegium. There is a lot of economics to keep track of. It’s fun to help out. It’s a supporting role, you help out. A student nation is a student nation. There are new students arriving each year, they’re there for a year, repeat old mistakes. It’s an incredibly weak structural capital. And that’s the way it should be. We have our academic year with rituals, ceremonies, sittings, dinners, parties, balls and so on. Then the quratel is supposed to control the nation. But it shouldn’t be institutionalized to a great degree. Not be formalized or standardized either. It should be an organization that enables the student to learn and develop, and that includes making a few mistakes. And that’s why I say that a student nation is a student nation. It is important to remember that it is different from other associations. It is also hard to classify juridically. Maybe an ideological association, but it is not so clear.
Walter: Will you still be at the university in 15 years?
Stefan: Absolutely not, then I will be retired. I’m a little older than you.
Walter: Yeah, but some people say they want to work until they die.
Stefan: It’s true that us teachers have the advantage of having a job that we basically could do for how long we like. Writing and so on. However, it’s not as easy to keep working at the university as it used to be, with the professor emeritus role. Now things are very strict so that when you turn 67 it’s time to go.
Walter: Maybe it’s nice to go into retirement?
Stefan: Yeah, perhaps if you have something fun to do. Like being inspector, then you become inspector emeritus, that’s even better. You don’t have to give speeches, or anything at all for that matter. Only going to dinners and having a good time.
Walter: Does it take a lot of effort to be energized for your teaching?
Stefan: There are a few things that are important when it comes to teaching. First of all: you should like to teach. You should respect the students as people and care for them and teaching. Thirdly, you should know your subject. That is rudimentary. That doesn’t mean to be able to answer every question, you shouldn’t worry about that. But you should know your subject and preferably be active in it. Write, publish books, articles and such, which is an expression of you being knowledgeable in your subject. Otherwise you “just” become a teacher. In academia, it is important to keep up with research and be engaged with it yourself. And as long as you’re doing that I think you can keep the fire burning.
Walter: And always be able to bring energy to a lecture?
Stefan: I mean when you’ve worked here for over thirty years you can’t perform at 110 per cent every time, but for the most part, which I think is connected with that I think it is fun. I don’t think I’ve never felt that I can’t keep the fire burning. Students give you energy.