Wednesday, August 08, 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH AF MATHEW

This was initially done for a website, unfortunately, didn't get published because of editorial concerns. Sadness. Nevertheless, I'm sure Mathew's fans will enjoy it. Publishing it here in full.

A brilliant photo of Mathew taken by Pratap Kaul, a MICAn.

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Professor AF Mathew. The name conjures up memories for MICAns who are years out of their alma mater and would have forgotten their 4Ps and brand Hofstedes. Mathew is an ex-professor of a host of subjects at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA) (and subsequently Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kozhikode) where he taught sociology, cinema, culture appreciation and a lot, lot more. The impact the man makes is felt long after he leaves the classroom. In the words of a batchmate from MICA, "Mathew doesn't tell you to follow one particular path. He puts all the options in front of you, and expects you to make an informed choice." Long associated with MICA, Mathew is now moving on to IIM Kozhikode in his homestate of Kerala where he hopes to "enlighten young minds".

While no doubt those in b-school circuit would have heard stories about the man and 'Mathewisms' regularly invade Facebook and Twitter during his classes (coughcough), his genius lies not in one-liners with social media currency. To say that would be akin to saying Mark Knopfler was a genius because he helped sell guitars, or Messi because he kicked a ball. Mathew is known to open up minds in a way few would have imagined, especially while entering the cold, ruthless world of business school education. I was fortunate to be taught by Mathew during my two years at MICA, and I'm sure his coming to IIM-K might just help the B-school go a notch up in the 'most wanted B-school by students' section of various rankings. Here are excerpts from an interview I had with him a few days ago, a short while after he quit MICA, and his first ever media interview, I must proudly state!

The author of the blog with a fellow Mallu a few days before convocating.

Can you tell us a little about the courses that you have been teaching at MICA and other schools?

My training --- MPhil and doctorate --- is in sociology. But I take multi-disciplinary subjects when I'm teaching. My broad area of teaching includes subjects like Cultural Studies, Areas of Globalisation --- its economic past, the social past and the cultural past. I also take two elective courses in Cinema Studies --- both Indian and global. These courses are not on cinema per se, but through cinema, they explore the socio-economic, cultural, historical perspectives.

I’m a teacher and if you’re in an educational institute, the main purpose should be education, right? How does one disseminate education? I believe that using various teaching methodologies, you can actually show a slice of life. I use cinema as a medium and try to show what is happening around the world. And this kind of an understanding is necessary irrespective of what career or profession you’re going to pursue. I think a rudimentary, critical awareness of the world is necessary for you to perform well in your work.

And I also take a course on India which is also a socio-economic, political and historical overview. I take all these courses at IIM-K and I’m also a visiting faculty at many places around the country.

You have largely been involved with a lot of marketing schools and courses that celebrate capitalism. How do you make your relatively left-leaning beliefs fit in when teaching at these schools?

Sociology is a very foundational subject to help understand the world around you, regardless of your profession. It’s also important for business. Actually all these subjects are taught in most important business schools all over the world, especially of late. Why? Because it’s a very important requirement for any business student to have these fundamentals at the back of the mind for his/her work. It’s also important in terms of business. You need to have a balanced critical base to your mind which will also help you with your work. This is one of the most fundamental requirements for even business studies. A sociological view of the world will always keep you grounded so that you can do your work in a more efficient, progressive manner. It gives you a sense of perspective, teaches you to look beyond your own world-view and how your decisions will impact various levels of people.

It’s not about capitalism or socialism or anything like that. The focus is to give a balanced perspective to education. All perspectives should be taught. Then let the student decide what he/she wants to do.

The best description of your class I’ve heard is, “He gives us all the options on a platter and says: Now you pick and choose.” For instance, many students might not have a socialist leaning, but the fact that such an ideology exists shows that there is some reasoning behind it. It’s important for students and future manages to be aware of all such perspectives, according to you. Your classes have helped open the minds of your students...

That’s nice of you to say that,  but the most important aspect is to keep different options in front of the students. I try to make sure that whatever is there in terms of sociological understanding is linked to marketing or advertising. These links have to be demonstrated in front of the students to even show the utility to them, whether it’s law, medicine or engineering. Albert Einstein and other great scientists have emphasised that even to teach science, scientific research or engineering, you need to have social sciences as a backing course. 

These are the things that will help you direct your scientific research. So it’s very essential for every discipline to have a component of social sciences. And it’s the teachers’ responsibility to link it to the subjects which the student is pursuing.

Interesting you say that, because when we were in BSchools, we tended to focus on so called action-oriented courses like Marketing and Brand Building and ‘soft subjects’ like Organisational Behaviour and HR were just meant as things on the side that one has to go through them in order to get the degree. But the reports that are coming out suggest that ‘softer skills’ like HR and people management are the most valued assets as you move up in the senior management chain. If that’s the trend globally, do you think that in our country, there is a lack of the kind of courses you’re teaching?

There has been a minor shift in the IIMs, but I don’t see any shift at all in other business schools in the country. In fact, in America there has been a lot of critical thinking about the entire business school curriculum, especially after what has happened in the area of finance, with the recession and crisis in Europe. People are going back to subjects like Philosophy, Sociology and History. 

That is not seen in a big way in India. Nobody’s coming in because there’s no other way out. Given the state of globalisation today, there’s no other way but to reflect on. As far as subjects like OrganisationalBehaviour and HR are concerned, they’re also drawn from the social sciences. The main social science subjects like Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, History etc. are the mother subjects and the other disciplines that you mentioned are derivatives of these. 

Obviously, subjects like OB and HR are extremely crucial but then the main question is how are they being taught? Ultimately, it comes back to the teacher. A bad teacher can ruin any good subject and can also give a completely different twist to the subject.

Maybe we look upon subjects like organizational behavior as softer subjects because of the way Indians learn. Right from school, the focus is always on marks. When we enter college, if we have high marks, we get into science. If someone gets into humanities, it is assumed that he/she must have got lower marks. Even at B-school, this mindset persists. The subjects that will immediately get one good placements take precedence and are given more importance. So is it because of our result-oriented mindset?

Actually I would call it a short-term vision. If you study sales distribution, marketing etc, then the view is that you will immediately get a job. People who are at the top in any discipline are highly well-informed and articulate people. They will be able to bring forth a discussion on history, cinema and various topics. So in the long term, if you really want to be on the top, you need to be a well-informed, balanced person. You can’t be bigoted or a one-track fundamentalist. You need to have a broad vision and only students who are given this vision will climb their way up and reach the top.


Even in business studies, if you see the top people who are doing very well, a reasonable amount of them are actually well-articulated people. There is no substitute to the long-term vision of a good, wholesome education. There’s absolutely no way other than that.

You’ve always taught us to look beyond stereotypes. Unfortunately, a large part of marketing, especially advertising is stereotyping. (For example – typical shots of the subservient housewife, or the villager who is not at all tech savvy) Be it in terms of things like SECs (Socio-economic classifications, that segregate people by their education and purchasing power) or behavioral analysis. Is the world ready to move beyond stereotypes and how can advertising work without stereotyping?

I think that these are 1950-60 kind of ideas. At that time, the market was booming. All they had to do was present some sort of a campaign and the product would sell. The growth rate was huge. It was just after the Second World War and everything was being rebuilt.


The 1970s saw stagnation and saturation. We also had a sense of awareness among the consumer on issues of environment, progressive sensibilities with regards to portrayal of women, blacks, homosexuals etc. Now there is no way out that you can keep on reproducing the same stereotypes. There are many examples. One example I give is where one particular campaign has gender as one of the most important aspects of the advertising brief. They’ve increased by 33%.  Or how the consumers lap it up if you put environmental sensibilities into your product as well as your campaign. So the consumers are also becoming aware.

One of the most important areas now is segments that were never there earlier in the 1960s, for instance the gay and lesbian segments. That’s a huge market. Most students can actually be homophobic right now. Having said all this, I’m not saying that we’ve reached a situation where no stereotypes are being used. It is still continuing in majority. But it’s not the same as it was before and there is no need now to inculcate better sensibilities among the marketers and business students. The market is not the same as it was earlier. Now marketing professionals need to incorporate all these sensibilities in their work, otherwise they may not actually reach out to the consumer. This debate will continue for some time but it’s not like the earlier times where you could do anything and get away with it. It’s not so easy any more. Although I must admit that stereotyping is still the norm, but it’ll take some more time. Stabilisation doesn’t come in a minute, no?

A slightly controversial question. A large part of the takeaway from your classes has been through unconventional methods - films with nude scenes, UCB ads, Madonna videos, hints at lesbian porn etc. Is this sensationalism or is it a required part of the teaching? Or is it just to hold the attention of wavering young minds?

I don’t think I show any porn in my classes. All the films that I had shown were award winning films. They are by great filmmakers and have won awards at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festival.

But it is a deliberate methodology from my side. As a teacher or an educator, how does one give education to young students? One thing that came to my mind through what my own teacher has told me is that education is hearing things that you don’t want to hear. Anybody can tell you things you want to hear. You’ll become very happy and the teacher will be very popular. The real test is that you must tell students what they don’t want to hear about caste, religion, life, sexuality, gender, race, nations. All the uncomfortable things should be told to them so that they become better equipped not only in their work, but also in their own lives.

Cinema is a very attractive tool and that‘s why I’ve adapted it as a methodology to tell unpleasant things to students. So that they are not only shocked but they also know what is happening around the world. For example, 18 percent of France’s population has voted for a right-wing Fascist party. I think it’s very important to tell the students that this is not a right thing for the world. That is the duty of the teacher.

Tell us about your experience at MICA.

I have a total of 15 years plus of teaching experience at the post-graduate level out of which 10 years I have been at MICA. MICA is an interesting school in the sense that it’s both communication as well as marketing. Communication is an essential component of business operation. How does one sensitise students or communications management professionals to this particular area was a challenge for me. I had come from a typical state university before I joined MICA. What MICA taught me was how to connect social sciences to every business function. That has been my learning experience. In fact, that learning has also come from IIM-K where I’ve been teaching for the last 7 years. IIM-K is a mainstream business school and there also, I had to customise my teaching to the requirements of the students.

When I was at a state university, there was no pressure to link my teaching to business operations. But after joining MICA and now at IIM-K, there is a direct section that says there’s a need to connect it to business functions. That is something I picked up from my stint at MICA. Hopefully, in my present position at IIM-K, I will extend that and probably learn even better because they are mainstream business school students and will help me in trying to bring about these connections even more clearly.

You have largely been perceived as a legend wherever you go and you have a cult following. What are your thoughts on your ‘rock star status’ if you will?

Actually, that is far from the truth. They see only the end product. Wherever I have taught, it was a lot of hard work. In the beginning, there was huge opposition to what I brought to the table! Slowly, you build brick by brick and after a long process, the students actually say something nice. I don’t know about all the students but many have nice things to say. In the beginning, they were always was abusing me! As time goes by, there is some sort of a mutual admiration society that evolves.

You’ve been known to be an extremely difficult man to shop for. Since you have all the movies that one could really want, what would you like for your next birthday? Maybe you can make a wishlist on Flipkart and make it public. Then, IIM-K will have some courier work to do.

How I wish my Flipkart wishlist is fulfilled! It’s a huge list and I don’t know if my students will be kind enough to send me couriers.

There is one thing that I can think of and I will make use of my first interview or public appearance to express my ardent wish that needs to be fulfilled. That is to go the city where Pablo Neruda wrote poetry. I hope I do that before I die. I hope all the students are listening! Maybe they can all get me a ticket to Santiago in Chile in South America!

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That's all, folks, hope you liked this. Sound off your Mathew love in the comments, I'm sure he'd love to see it!

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