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The Rapper Who Teaches Business

Timothy Vogus of Vanderbilt's Owen School is among the best 40 business school profs under 40.

Timothy Vogus of Vanderbilt’s Owen School is among the best 40 business school profs under 40.

It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a group of MBAs everyday teaching them how to become better managers. It takes even more zeal to stand in front of the class and rap about it. Tim Vogus is not your typical professor. Sure, he conducts valuable research studies that address widespread safety concerns in health care organizations. He even spent his former life working as a consultant at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). But what sets this professor apart are the rap performances he’s been known to put on for students at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

My interest in rap music goes back to 1984 when I was 10 years old. Growing up in Pontiac, Michigan the area always had a really strong Hip-Hop vibe to it. I was first introduced to Hip-Hop when I got hold of a cassette tape. The tape contained a song by Run DMC called It’s Like That. It blew my mind and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.

My favorite rappers include classic groups such as Run DMC, Public Enemy, and EPMD. From the more current generation, I enjoy groups like MF Doom, Jurassic 5, and the Roots.

As a professor, I certainly have a performance jones inside of me. Some way or another the students at Owen heard about this professor who can “bust a rhyme” here and there, and that’s how I began performing at school functions. Normally students will solicit me to help sell the program in some way or to speak about myself as a professor. So, my performances are typically done at quasi-class events such as this.

My performances follow a couple different formats. Sometimes I simply perform a song I enjoy and that corresponds well with the material that I teach. So for instance, one of my favorite negotiation-type songs is “Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim. Other times, I’ll take an existing track and transform the lyrics. I’ve done this on the Beastie Boys, Northern State, and even Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell.

You might expect someone who loves to perform also wants to do all the talking, but that’s not how I run my class at all. I try to be really interactive and I want the experience to be highly personalized. My overall approach to teaching follows the philosophy that there are three stages of knowing anything in the world. The first is called unknowing simplicity, followed by confused complexity, and finally profound simplicity.

My goal is to create an experience in the classroom where students have to surface their intuition and distill it into an articulate course of action. What I try to do is challenge their intuition through questioning, exercises, and presenting new frameworks for thinking. I also like to set traps along the way to show the systematic mistakes that people make in management. To do this, I will occasionally ambush the class.