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Chris Corker is our Director of Undergraduate Programmes. His research focuses on the history of the steel industry.

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I became an academic by complete accident

I was studying A levels with the intention of becoming an airline pilot, but that fell apart when I flunked physics. So I thought, “Well, I’m interested in history,” and applied to study in my hometown, Sheffield.

After my degree, I still didn’t feel ready for the real world, so I stayed on for a Masters. I needed to pay for it, so I applied for a student internship in educational development. That was my first job in a university, when I was 21, and I’ve been working in higher education ever since.

Sheffield steel inspired my PhD

When I was five or six, the bus to my grandparents’ house went through all the old steel districts. It was around 1993, and there were lots of factories getting torn down. It made me wonder about what used to happen there, and what these companies used to do. When I did my undergraduate degree, I realised I could find out.

That interest evolved into my PhD project, which looked at the Sheffield armaments industry. This was five companies which, before the First World War, made armour plate, armour-piercing projectiles and gun barrels for the entire world. They had customers as far afield as Japan, Argentina and America, as well as the Royal Navy.

It’s all about innovation

My research explored how the armaments industry used technology to drive business and gain a competitive advantage. I had to do weird and wonderful things, like learn metallurgy: what happens when you put a bit of nickel and a bit of chromium in steel. I read heaps and heaps of patent records.

It revealed a complicated story about what these companies were doing differently, and what made them better than anyone else. Because of their innovation, we now have stainless steel. All the knowledge that goes into trying to make a better weapon, you use it in a different way, and you get a new product with a whole load of different applications.

Moving into management

My PhD took me nearly seven years, part-time, to complete. In the middle of it, I started presenting my work to a wider audience. The first conference that I spoke at was at York. It was there that I met academics from the Management School, who encouraged me to focus on the business side of my historical research.

I now teach Strategic Management, which is a core module for 2nd-Year students on the BSc Business and Management and the BSc Accounting, Business Finance and Management. We talk about strategy in contemporary organisations, and how we can make sense of what managers and strategists do.

I use history in class

Strategic management draws on theories from history, sociology, law - it’s a bit of an interdisciplinary melting pot. If you’ve only looked at business from a mathematical or financial perspective, this is a really different way of thinking. The key for me is to be critical: question everything - don’t take anything at face value.

With historical case studies, you get to see if a strategic decision was smart or not. You can see how things played out. Having that crossover between what I research and what I teach helps me to give students fresh perspectives. Lecturing is the closest I’ll ever come to stand-up comedy: you need to keep your audience engaged. But if you’re knowledgeable and passionate about something, it’s easy to talk about.

Passing it on

One of the things I’m interested in right now is how knowledge moves forward in time. How does expertise spread out from an industrial centre? What happens when a smith trains somebody, and then they train somebody else, and they train somebody else? How do we evolve from one man with a little workshop at the back of his house, to modern industry?

In terms of teaching, you have a bigger influence on people than you realise. When you're at graduation, and a student says, “Your module changed how I did my placement, how I approached my final year, and now I’ve got a first, and now I’ve got a job,” that’s something to be proud of.