In: Turn to Film
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This book has been written by organization studies scholars; it explores uses of film in management education. The focus is on the understanding, which seeing, experiencing, discussing, reviewing and reflecting on film, can provide. This is not a film studies book; it is more a management learning book. The authors have accepted the task of considering what can be learned about organization, leadership, globalization, territorialization, work and bureaucracy, by watching and contemplating film.

There are multiple potential adressees to this book. Chapters wherein specific films are examined for their pedagogical value to the business school classroom are meant as exemplary for lecturers, but are also appropriate for classroom use. There are also chapters that explore the frontiers of film: such as its potential research use or the nature of the commercial advertising campaign. And there are investigations exploring underlying issues of theory, from McLuhan to Rancière; and Deleuze to the turn-to-affect; these are focused on the senior student and academic readership. Lecturers who use film in the business school classroom will find analyses, suggestions and will, we believe, be theoretically stimulated; furthermore, many chapters are appropriate to be assigned as coursework.

As we explain below, our analysis is grounded in a tripart conceptualization of film. The most rational and accessible level is that of the storyline or plot, which we call the ‘text.’ The film’s ‘intent’ is harder to grasp – what is the purpose of the film, what points are being made, what is the filmatic message, perspective and point of view? And finally, what ‘significance’ do we attribute to a film’s effect(s) upon us? The films reported on in this book produce strong affect(s) – do we want to be influenced, moved, confronted in the ways of their viewership?


Film is often used in the classroom and in articles or books to merely illustrate management and organizational studies themes. A justified criticism is that film too often is drawn on to merely point to pre-determined concepts such as bureaucracy, emotional suffering, and exploitation; and it is not used to actually explore the themes. The teacher or writer simply points to the film and says: ‘Look there, at office life, at bullying, at capitalist privilege.…’ The film then is what we will call ‘text.’ And the ‘text’ is implicitly portrayed as unproblematic. The learner or reader is meant to recognize and acknowledge the text as self-evident.

Such ‘texts’ are one-dimensional, supposedly conveying: ‘It is, what it is.’ And thereby, the points supposedly made, are easily ‘test-able.’ Increasingly, (higher) education rotates around such ‘test-ability’ (Apple, 1990, 1993; Craig et al., 2014; Koretz, 1995; McDonnell, 1997; Mehrens, 2004; Sacks, 1999). Teaching may not be multi-interpretable, vague, questionable or unclear. Educational goals have to be explicit and controllable. The lecturer has to specify ahead of time what is to be learned. Examinations must match preset curricular goals. Education has to be efficient and effective, which means pre-defined, well-organized and predicable. Likewise, articles and books have to have ‘impact’ – that is, to reach predefined audiences with predetermined learning and application goals. The production and consumption of ‘text’ is increasingly submitted to a regime of disciplining. Hereby, film in the classroom and in scholarly writing is reduced to mere ‘illustration.’ Just as in children’s books, illustrations are there to hold the reader’s attention and to make the storyline clearer. Films are used to illustrate the point of the academic writer and/or to hold the reader’s/student’s attention. The film is not supposed to be experienced or to become a source of a new experience; it is to be part and parcel of a predefined regime of ‘text.’

The ‘text’ bound relationship to film, we assert, reduces the film to something much less than what it really is. Films are not one-dimensional; they are complex artifacts. There is indeed a ‘textual’ level – if you wish, that of the plot. But in film there are also visual and auditory levels that entail motility. The reduction of film to ‘text’ denies everything that in film is specifically filmic. Films ‘happen’ – they signify in time and through the senses. They carry the viewer from a starting point to some place, further along. The ‘voyage’ of the film has to have some sort of intent, if the film is not to be experienced as pure chaos (which is a rare paradoxical form of intent). The second multifaceted level of film, we call ‘intent.’ The movie viewer, or reader of a book/article referring to film, is subject to filmic intent. The film makes a sensory impression on the viewer – however diffuse, paradoxical, disperse or confusing. For a film to hold together – i.e. to be a single thing or experience for the spectator – it must have some sort of unifying ‘intent.’ Above and beyond the ‘text,’ there is filmic intent. And filmic intent is something that we can discuss, debate and reflect upon. The plot is on the surface level, but the ethics, politics and ideas of the filmic intent, give the film its identity. And it is this identity that characterizes and differentiates the one film from the other. The film’s unicity and importance is to be found in its intent. Retelling filmic text is fairly mechanical and can be accomplished via rote learning; but debating filmic intent involves interpretation and viewer involvement and commitment. One has to engage with the film to experience and comment on its intent. The reception of intent cannot be preprogrammed; different viewers/commentators/writers will ascribe different import to a film. There is a zone of interpretation where debate and personal differences are real possibilities. Higher education, we believe, ought to function on the level of awareness of intent; but too often, contemporary ‘educational factories’ are mere text machines without reflection or depth learning. Higher education needs to be a multifaceted, experiential project, wherein faculty and students explore possibilities and interpretations.

In addition, there is the level of interpretative judgment. What do we think – politically, morally, aesthetically – of the film’s (possible) intent? This level requires self-reflexivity. Films have possibilities of intent, which can be laid out before us; but, so what? What do these possibilities of thought, emotion, aesthetics and ethics, mean to us? What are our self-reflexive comments, thoughts, and conclusions about the existential possibilities that film evokes in us and in others? What are the differences and similarities of interpretation and what can we learn from the variety of responses?

We are convinced that learning experiences are profoundly linked to this third level. And we think that the role of film in learning indeed needs to be embedded in the third level. Film is not really suited to one-dimensional ‘text’ learning, because it entails complex perception and awareness. But as already mentioned, contemporary educational ideology favors closed learning agendas and unreflective learning. Predictable curriculum has no truck with the individual perspective or with developing ethical responsibility. Higher education has been de-individualized. What and how students are supposed to learn is often defined long before the students ever show up. The students are defined as empty vats into which pre-defined content is to be poured. There is no process of interpretation or reflection intended or permitted. Often a creative answer to an exam question will receive a very poor grade; the correct answers are pre-defined and there is no room for innovation. Such curriculum teaches conformity, standardization, and the fear of freedom. Likewise, creative critical writing finds its way with much more difficultly into print, than does the repetition of mainstream ‘truths.’

We believe that the liberatory power of experiencing film is why film belongs in our classrooms and it is why we refer to films in our writing. Film is a potential form of experience, with an enormous potential richness of reflection, individualization and real-life learning. Film does not belong in our classrooms as a pacifier or soporific; it belongs in the learning process because of the complexity and human relatedness that it evokes. Seeing, discussing and reflecting upon film, is a form of being socially involved, relational and process-oriented. Film brings motility into learning; while learning has to be a form of action, event and movement, and not a static process of rote repetition.

Genuine learning is all about significance: where what signifies for whom, where and why, are all up for grabs. Significance, here, is embedded, circumstantial and relational. Film introduces experiential affect and complexity to learning. Who does what, where and when? And arouses: ‘What would I (and others) do about it?’ It (re-)territorializes or makes content circumstantially concrete. In film things happen to someone, somewhere; and that situational, personified perspective is profoundly important. Lived content is not disembodied and context-less; ideas, circumstances and professional techniques occur in real time and space. What film shows, is how the setting is always essential and action is always contingent. Things happen somewhere and to someone.

Contemporary ‘text’ based education pretends all too often that knowledge has no physical or temporal dimension. Truth just is; transcendent from all circumstance and people. Film shows events as concrete and embedded. It is the substantial time and place of ideas, coupled to concrete actions, which counts. We bring film into our learning environments to engage in complexity and to acknowledge lived circumstance. Film provides a window on responsibility and on life itself.

This book is about lived-learning; learning via engagement and commitment. Film is an important means to achieve pedagogical (re-)territorialization – which is, discussion and awareness of place, circumstance, event and responsibility.

The first part of this book focuses on how films provide insights and relevant information appropriate for student consideration. Each author, in his own way, argues that some crucial issues or aspects of the learning required to become a manager can best be examined and understood by looking at, analyzing, and discussing film(s). Textbooks and articles, of course, have a lot to offer; but some issues really can exceptionally effectively be revealed if addressed with filmatic material.

Robert Earhart explores film, memory and experience; is the film we remember the film we can view at will? And how do our memories of great filmatic experiences (dis-)agree with what happens when we share a film with students? The time and place of film is encountered in the film’s plot, in the director’s work, in the viewer’s experience. Ideas often are a reflection of the time at which they occur, and ideas in a film as well as about a film are no different. The futur antérieur (the ‘will have been’) twists back around on itself multiple times. This happens when one writes in the present about a film about the future; and when reflecting in the present on a former future. But does a prediction of the future remain a prediction, once the moment of that future has passed? How should we judge a prediction of the future that was too soon or only “somewhat” right? In Wenders’ Until the end of the world imagery, highly saturated colours and popular musical, contribute to his critique of the future (or was it the present?), wherein violence, escape, commercialism and dystopia are all explored. It is a film of cultural disease, that may be diseased. The paradoxes within the film and concerning its pedagogical uses, are explored in the chapter.

Rémi Jardat has written a very actual chapter. In this era of ‘alternative facts’ and seemingly unpredictable rulers, teratology; or from the Greek, the study of monsters, seems all too contemporary. Each in their own way, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, all seem fanatically attached to their own appearances of power, as well as linked to economically and/or politically weak or unstable situations. Ancient Rome was a structurally unstable state – with power divided between the Emperor and the Senators, which is the historical background to the emperor Caligula’s reign of immoderation. The film ‘Caligula’ was prescient in showing the behavior of unstable power and the effort via a politics of excess to achieve and maintain ever increasing forms of power. In 1979 (when the film was made), the theme was less actual than today, which may explain the Director’s problems with defining a tight enough scenario. Jardat invites us to consider the logic of Caligula’s reign and to investigate its many aspects. Admittedly, the film cannot be shown in its entirety (because it is too long) in the classroom – but also probably because it is too pornographic, explicit and violent. But significantly, with few exceptions, the most disgusting scenes directly follow the historical record. The total corruption of power, at its most excessive and unstable, can be examined by thinking through the lessons of this film. Jardat invites us to contemplate the extremes of collusion and collaboration that were achieved in the emperor’s court, and what this implies about modern history and organization. Contemporary leaders evoke the eroticism of power; Caligula just did this all the more so. The film and its consideration radically problematizes the psychology of power, leadership and acquiescence. Jardat proposes viewing selected sequences from the film in the classroom; and he argues which sequences he would choose and why. Hereby the educational possibilities of the study of leadership, organization and power are detailed.

The chapter of Peter Pelzer is no less actual. In it he addresses the conceptual underpinnings to the on-going crisis in finance, which has played such a prominent role since 2008. Writers like Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, 1990; Big Short, 2010; Flash Boys, 2014) have told the story of the financial industry’s power and hubris in historical and social psychological terms. Pelzer demands that we consider a very different, even opposing, aspect to the financial industry: it’s attachment to ‘control.’ Accountants control businesses; managers are thought to be in control of their subordinates. But what is ‘control’ – and in how far is it really possible to be in control? This is the question that Pelzer invites us to consider with use of the Jarmusch film “The Limits of Control.” In the film, the question is graphically posed. ‘Control’ for students, as a concept, is very abstract, and it is not easy for them to reduce the concept to a metaphor for discussion, which means that a fundamental a priori to business studies gets inadequately examined or thought through. Pelzer’s strategy of forcing reflection on the basis of the film works very effectively and gives us a means in the classroom to address a central prejudice. Are organizations better controlled than not controlled; is total control desirable and/or possible? The people who are supposedly ‘in control,’ how do they see their position? Is it not the case that those in control know the impossibility of any such construct, to the point that they often feel themselves weak and even fraudulent? But are these emotions and considerations visible and understandable for us? After all, many of us are being submitted to regimes of increasing control, where we are not in a position to critically examine those who are supposedly in control (of our finances, study, exams, futures). Thus, this chapter points to major themes for discussion, wherein crucial assumptions can be problematized.

Charles Egert approaches mentor/mentee films from the perspective of what does the mentee have to gain from the mentor? Students, as mentees or future mentees, can look to these films for insights into rites of passage. But what is the ‘real’ that film here portrays? Is it a socially accurate ‘real’ or a social-psychologically mythical ‘real’? And what is the difference? Confronted by the famous creed “Greed is good” – are we seeing correct career information or over-the-top myth? Egert balances between the ‘real real’ and the ‘mythic real,’ unable to choose between them. The films he explores simplify the written material they are based on; and reduce power and status into tokens of work-life. But are these tokens, for that, any less realistic? Students can decide to be ‘cool’ – but does that imply conformism or independence? Egert operates between three crucial points of reference: (i) Barthes and the social nature of contemporary mythology, (ii) Sennett and his repulsion for the identity destruction of contemporary work-life, and (iii) film as ethnographic material whereby careers can be examined, discussed and reflected upon. Egert insists that all three aspects remain ‘true’ and perhaps even indivisible.

The selfie, vloggers and advertisements-for-myself may have replaced the feature film as the most characteristic visual media of our times. David Sköld and Mikolaj Dymek explore the advertising film; here produced by Adidas, but characterized by a soft sell wherein not the product but the ‘cool’ entrepreneur stands central. Has the psychology of influence become all the more pernicious under the reign of postmodernism and semiological psychoanalysis? A clip like film, extorting entrepreneurship as a role-model and as ‘pleasure’ is examined. The manipulation of desire is explored as it is asserted that the psychology of the advertisement purposefully promises the impossible in order to create insatiable longing and unfulfillable yearning. Crucial to the false promises of achieving an identity of success, are the repression of partiality, pain, sacrifice and mortality. Through their (Lacanian) examination of the depth psychology of the success image presented to us in the media, the writers explore the filmatic exploitation of the entrepreneurial role-model whereby lifestyle, product and neo-liberal values are propagated.

The second part of this book focuses on the relationship of students with the films shown in the classroom. Each author argues that using film must not be(come) just one more pedagogical trick. Film disrupts the usual distribution of roles, places and intelligence; it affects and shocks usual didactic models and routine sense-making; it makes students experiment rather than repeat clichés, hereby triggering other types of thinking and relating. Teacher authority and leadership, the relation to reality, fiction and narrative, what it is to possess knowledge, are all put into question, examined, and subject to debate. Film in the classroom creates exceptional possibilities wherein political, epistemological and ethical concerns can be raised in fresh and creative ways.

Philippe Mairesse and Stéphane Debenedetti choose to address questions of power surrounding the relationship of instructors and students. Is not the strategy of pretending to have very limited power over what occurs in the classroom, while requiring that students comply to the rules and regulations set by the university as required by the administration, accreditation bodies, etc., the surest way to gain power over the students? Is using film in the classroom really an emancipatory possibility or just a trick? The chapter is based on Lars von Trier’s The Boss-of-it-all, in which, by pretending to have no control (the boss above me commands), leaders increase their control over others. Mairesse and Debenedetti wonder whether pretending to abandon the instructor’s didactic power by showing films in the classroom, does not, in fact, increase instructor power. They show how film both confirms and reverses common clichés about leadership, and its heroic figuration. By stressing how there is leadership and fiction at all levels, von Trier proposes that leaders are authors, who draw their author-ity from their virtuosity at creating fictitious stories; stories that people love to listen to. But should we go one step further: is it possible that the leaders’ power is a fiction? Is increased control over the social, based on the image of a society where everyone is at her/his right place, the ultimate pretense? Why do students love our stories about leadership? Why do we love to fashion such stories? The goal proposed here is to engage students in reflection on control and leadership. And the objective is that they become more aware of multilayered, distributed and invisible aspects of power. A strategy is proposed to achieve a less abstract, but highly normative, debate. And we are obliged to reflect on what we actually do, when we propose alternative teaching modalities.

That leadership is not just a fiction, but an immense pressure that is exerted over those who have to perform leadership, is the question raised in the following chapter by Vincent Pieterse and Robert van Boeschoten. The authentic leader is surely one of the most positive images in the business school’s imaginary. Authenticity is linked to spirituality, as the royal way to power. Many students dream to become authentic leaders and have their matching contemporary heroes. This is what Pieterse and v Boeschoten propose to confront us with. For the authors, authentic leadership always contains some form of theatricality, and thus of in-authenticity. Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam provides their exemplar where both leadership and spirituality are at their highest, and the impossibility of authentic leadership is clearly presented. Authentic leadership is not a matter of being true to oneself. In the film, to remain true to himself, the elected pope has to renounce his leadership. He can’t be a leader and authentic. The authors and the film argue that the authenticity of the leader is not a characteristic of the person who leads, but is determined by the followers. It is the belief in the person that makes that person a leader. Authentic leadership has to be performed; it is relational. To be the leader one has to follow the expectations inherent to the required performance. There are enormous pressures to perform authenticity and to give what is expected of one. Leadership is a performance and authenticity is staged authenticity – and this is a contradiction in terms. Thus: “Do you want to become a leader or to be authentic? You probably can’t have them both.” And the famous Bartleby formula: ‘I prefer not to’? – is just around the corner.

In the following chapter, Luc Peters stresses that using film in the classroom is not just another way of presenting organizational life. By using film, he argues, we break with the traditional ways of teaching. Management teaching is far too formulaic: such and such situation leads to this interpretation, and thus to this action. We pretend that organizations are comprehensible and that they are governed by rules, routines and predictable processes. Some films confirm the clichés and unfold predictably; they are ‘entertainment movies.’ ‘Art movies’ do something very different. They create shocks to thought; they trouble what we are used to perceiving by triggering estranging affects, which lead to questioning how we act. Such films are not about simplifying the world, but are about showing it in all its complexity, diversity and incomprehensibility. Organizations can be depicted as unfair, unpredictable and not mouldable. Using films such as Fargo, Ikiru, The Limits of Control, and Ober, Luc Peters presents an organizational world at odds with the textbook narratives and models, and which looks much more familiar to our experience. The films are unsettling. They are not illustrations of management concepts; they are not case studies with correct answers. ‘Art films’ provide shocks to our routine sense-making. And presented in the classroom, they affect both instructors and viewers. This is how disturbing organizational contexts can be studied. And this is how students can start to think and share, instead of just repeating over and again the same clichés. And this is why showing ‘art films’ in the classroom is much needed.

Screening films is not only a way to teach and discuss knowledge about management and organizations; the making of film can also be a way to create that knowledge. Petru Salovaara and Martin Wood, in the last chapter of this section, argue that filmmaking can contribute to knowledge-making and be a valuable avenue of research. Research is usually constituted by written texts. Some images or videos are sometimes accepted as a valuable supplement to the text. But can a film, by itself, contribute to knowledge production and communication; can it stand not as a supplement but on its own? The authors draw on their own experience with two stand-alone films Leadership in Spaces and Places and Lines of Flight to answer with a frank ‘Yes.’ They don’t advocate for any superiority or inferiority of films in regards to text-based research in terms of closeness to reality. Written text as well as film, frame, edit, add, quote, etc. – so why should the one be treated differently from the other? But it is not that simple. The authors stress three preconditions for films to offer an accepted research contribution. The first precondition is to be aware of what style of research is best suited for being communicated through film; i.e. that of sensed knowledge, feelings and sensations, which challenge purely cognitive definitions, yet without rejecting them, and which imply passion, hope, morals, imagination, aspirations and creativity both on the individual and organization level. Secondly, seven criteria have to be fulfilled for a film to be able to provide a research contribution; the film needs to: (1) Be independent and innovative, (2) Provide reasons to be believed, (3) Be paraphrase-able, (4) Add to inter-textual coherence, (5) Be problematize-able, (6) Intend to contribute to knowledge, and (7) Cultivate sensibility. The third precondition refers to a ‘terrifying thing’ in regards to film as knowledge contribution; it entails a redefinition of literacy. Reviewers, editors, other researchers and students, have to learn to read, interpret and criticize film. Film cannot just be presented at a conference or in a classroom without the viewers being educated to filmic language and conventions.

The third part of this book pursues further the theme of filmatic meaning. Themes of hermeneutics and interpretation have already emerged in the first two sections. The contributors have asserted that film is more directed to affect than to cognition, and that the role of the film director and/or the instructor is paradoxical. Leadership, authenticity and identity have emerged as especially relevant themes. In the first two sections of the book we have kept close to film as a means of teaching management and organizational behavior; and the potential of film to challenge student thinking has been stressed. The underlying argument has been epistemological: the way film knows reality is different from normal academic text, and the way students and instructors can examine reality differs when film is used in the classroom. In the third section, there are three chapters that explore the epistemological theme in more depth.

Can one better understand organizations thanks to the mediation of film? It might be less easy that we suppose it to be. In Understanding Media, McLuhan explains that cinema presents “the Reel World.” Many threads are here being tied together. Yvon Pesqueux especially focuses on two intertwined complications. The first one follows from the fact that cinema (the media) provides a representation and an illusion of a circumstance (the medium), for example an organization. Film tries to enjoin the spectator to ‘enter’ the projected world. The medium is given by the media in such a way that we can say that the medium is the media. To understand the organization, one would need to stand outside of the organization and outside of the media. But organization is commonly only known through the media’s languages, constructions, and complex web of threads. And here comes the second rub: the viewer has to construct her/his gaze of the film, while the film itself is a gaze on the world. Furthermore, both gazes are indirect, complex and productive. They are founded on metaphors, aphorisms, images, figurations, etc., that respond to each other. Pesqueux draws on the example of Takeshi Kitano’s film Dolls. He points at some of the aphorisms and metaphors that run through the film, and makes clear the parallels with our knowledge of organizations. A movie like Dolls makes us see that one cannot really achieve understanding by trying to sort out all the threads. One cannot understand organization by unwinding the threads. Organizational actors are not dolls on a thread. All the threads are complexly entwined. Only complex figures of speech are really able to introduce us to the reel world, a real world that is, and is not.

If understanding is one of the central concerns when watching film, another one is what can one learn from film. What a student might gain might not be an image of organization, or a message, or a recipe, or a moral lesson. Jean-Luc Moriceau proposes that interpretation may need to be creative; does the student conform to the film or does she/he conform the film to her-(him-)self? One of the frequent discussions in the business school classroom is to what extent one has to conform and adapt to the organization, which is sometimes phrased as having ‘to give in’ or even ‘to give up.’ The need for adaptation by the individual is often taken for granted. Based on Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation, Moriceau explores the complexity and multilayered-ness of adaptation. While adapting a novel to create a movie requires a complex creative leap; adapting to the organizational norms of where one works can be typified as deadening ingenuineness. Following the postmodern invitation to explore difference and repetition, imitation and simulacra, deconstruction and reconstruction, this chapter explores adaption as creative subversion. By watching a movie, the student may not encounter a business ‘reality,’ but the unreality of her/his fantasy needs and projected desires. Film can present us with possibilities of thinking, acting and relating. Usual business school courses present models, rules and rationales to be understood and replicated, whereas the movie can be an invitation to creative adaptation. Knowledge gained from a movie does not have to be followed, but rather to be adapted, which always contains possibilities of subversion.

Hugo Letiche, in his chapter, explores two Japanese films Nobody Knows and Tokyo Sonata. He identifies with the Benshi, who traditionally explained the action of silent films to their Japanese audiences. He investigates how much ‘explanation’ a film from a very different culture demands. He supposes that a lot of elucidation indeed is needed. On the one hand, film can make direct appreciation of Otherness possible; but on the other hand, an enormous amount of cognitive support is needed to achieve understanding. Affect or direct filmatic experience can confront (student) audiences with foreign or alien realities; but a lot of conceptual work has to be done to make the confrontation into a productive form of learning. Letiche rejects the either/or of film/text, affect/concept. He tries, through an exemplary text of analysis and appreciation, to show how the interaction between traditional social studies scholarship and film can be productive. He calls for a cross-fertilization of text analysis and film awareness. The chapter questions the position and the possibilities of the instructor, especially when dealing with affective and intimate dimensions of foreign movies. Letiche explores differences in authorial and the instructor’s positioning.

The book concludes with a summarizing reflection of the uses of film in the business school classroom and an Addendum: Twenty-Nine Films & Suggestions for Their Use, explicating which films the authors have themselves made use of in their teaching and (globally speaking) how they did so.


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