Faculty of Law, School of Government and Victoria Business School, 2018
Universities have a responsibility under the Education Act to be the critic and conscience of society. Putting the accepted and everyday under the microscope is the norm in Victoria’s Associate Professor Todd Bridgman’s research and teaching. Overcoming popular amnesia about why and how we started to do the things we do and imagining alternatives to what’s ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ he believes, calls for a creative approach.
What’s natural for a lot of New Zealanders is the reorientation of our national identity around Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. We’ve eagerly adopted the pseudonym ‘Middle Earth’ with the whole-hearted approval from the international community and share a sense of collective ownership in the ingenuity that brought them to life. Challenging their integrity, as Todd does in class with his case on The Hobbit dispute, is a revelation for many.
The Hobbit Dispute was a controversial industrial relations case and local example of Todd’s teaching topic in globalisation, specifically how globalisation has shifted the balance of power between nation states and multinational corporations. New Zealand has a history of lax employment rights for film workers which has been promoted and enjoyed by producers all over the world. It’s one of the reasons we’re so attractive to foreign direct investment in film—our people come cheap. And it’s a status quo that’s been hard to shift.
When actors’ unions attempted to change this status quo by getting actors to withhold their services and effectively boycott the film, Peter Jackson managed to recast the issue as one that created too much “workplace instability” for Warner Bros. to shoot the films in New Zealand. They rallied enough public and industry protest that Warner Bros. could hold the government ‘to ransom’ with the threat of relocation. In a bid to keep the films in New Zealand, the National government actually changed New Zealand labour law to ensure the original—and detrimental—employment conditions would remain in place.
It only took Todd about a month to transform The Hobbit dispute into an academic case and start teaching it in class; a feat he puts down to his past career in journalism. Todd’s keen eye for a story has resulted in a series of timely, New Zealand-focused cases developed using his original Critical Case Writing approach. Critical Case Writing is Todd’s attempt to dislodge the original case writing method that gets students to solve real-life problems faced by actual organisations. Todd argues that this is problematic because they’re only released into the curriculum on sign-off from the company in question and reflect their own curated version of reality as a result.
However, the original case method is still a natural default for many simply because it has been used for one hundred years. Yet when combing the Harvard Business School (HBS) archives, Todd discovered its much-celebrated lineage was false. In the 1920s and 1930s, in response to major labour and financial crises, HBS Dean, Wallace Donham, recognised the case method was too short-sighted an approach to equip students with the critical skills to cope with such significant macro-economic shifts. He broke free of the school’s organisational echo chamber by incorporating unionist and labour perspectives into case study material. Curiously, this entire episode has been airbrushed out of the school’s history.
Todd agrees that to some, his approach may seem a little, ‘subversive’, especially when the light is shone on traditionally venerated histories, identities and ideologies. But as a past student I can attest to the fact that it’s enthralling when Todd takes a readily accepted concept and exposes a darker side which you never would have considered.