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Monday, January 26, 2009

More realism

More food for thought about what we can realistically expect to accomplish in the classroom, from The Teaching Professor:
...every student there experienced that same day in different ways and all those ways were different from what we experienced.

If you think about this too much, it can drive you crazy. So much of it is so out of our control. Teachers can control how well they prepare and that does help to ensure that things go well in class for more as opposed to fewer students. But teachers can’t control what students bring with them to any day in class—what’s happening in their personal lives, how well prepared they might be, what background experiences influence their reaction to this material, how ready they are to learn, whether they come to class with a headache or have an exam next period…

There’s not much point worrying about what’s beyond our ability to control.... We might want to start saying, “Class went well for me today” and stop saying, “The students really learned a lot from that activity.”
It's just not likely that we will reach every student, every day, in the same way; the best we can hope for is to maximize the number of students that we do reach. The big point here - one that I have a particularly hard time keeping in mind - is that much of each student's experience has absolutely nothing to do with what we as teachers are trying to do in the classroom. I know that for me, I spend so much time working on my classes and thinking about how to create an environment in which my students can learn, that by the time I walk into class, it's hard to remember that my students have probably spent very little time since the last class meeting thinking about economics and they likely have a million other things on their minds.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What is realistic?

I sometimes think I must have some secret ability to attract information I'm thinking about. For example, I've been thinking a lot about what is realistic to expect in terms of what I can accomplish with my students, and then someone on Twitter directed me to this article in the Chronicle. The author's main point is that students today come to college with a completely different attitude about information, authority and the institution of academia. The article overall is worth a read but the part I particularly wanted to share comes about two-thirds in:
"But we must be realistic about what good pedagogy can accomplish. It is not a panacea — it will not create a society of lovers of learning in which our social ills will finally be cured... Even the best teachers will not convert every student into a lifelong learner who embraces knowledge for its own sake. That is a commitment that must come from within; it is an intentional decision to swim against powerful cultural and economic currents.

We need to understand that college students with an intrinsic love of learning, an appreciation for complexity, and a drive for discovery almost always possess those traits before they report to our campuses. Though we can fan into flames the sparks that these future intelligentsia bring with them, except for the occasional late bloomer, we fail miserably at creating sustained intellectual fires among the vast majority of our practical, credential-driven students.

A better and more widely achievable educational goal should therefore be to inculcate a respect for learning and the pursuit of knowledge."
I very much would like to believe that I can 'convert every student into a lifelong learner who embraces knowledge for its own sake,' and I've been beating myself up because I'm clearly not accomplishing that. So there is something liberating about accepting that perhaps that is not realistic. I am not sure exactly what it means to 'inculcate a respect for learning' instead, but it somehow already feels more manageable.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday fun: Garfield minus Garfield

Next week, I'll be using this cartoon in a discussion of choices with my Principles class:

It's from a website called Garfield Minus Garfield which the creator describes as:
"... a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle. It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb."
In other words, he takes Garfield out of the strip and gets something almost as funny as the original...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Standardized grades

I had a troubling conversation with a junior colleague this afternoon. He will be teaching Intro Micro this spring for the first time and he came by to ask me how I usually assign grades; that is, whether I use the traditional cut-offs (95+=A, 90-95=A-, etc.), or if I curve, or use some other system. I said that I start with the traditional cut-offs and then curve up if my average is 'too low', which I deem anything below around 78%. If I do make any adjustments, it's generally to help students at the lower end of the distribution, rather than making sure there are a certain number of As, Bs, etc. But my department likes for us to keep our class averages in the C+ range (2.3-2.5-ish) so if my class average ends up "too high" then I won't curve at all.

I don't know if other departments do this (try to make sure class averages fall in a certain range), but the way it was explained to me was that we don't want students to think that certain professors are 'easier' than others. Personally, I've always had mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, I can understand and appreciate that this policy helps ward off grade inflation or professors "buying" good evaluations with easy classes and higher grades (if you want to debate whether that's a real concern, that's a whole other post). On the other hand, suppose you have someone who is a really good teacher so his students actually learn what he intends for them to learn and therefore, they do well in the class. This is supposedly why we look at more than just teaching evaluations in the RTP (retention, tenure and promotion) process but I've been in more than one meeting where someone's good evaluations have been questioned because the accompanying class GPA was 'too high'. As one colleague has put it: if someone has high evaluations and low grades, or if someone has low evaluations and high grades, then that tells you something, but how can you know what it means when someone has high evals and high grades or low evals and low grades?

But more troubling is that this is not a formal department policy, written down somewhere and given to new faculty; it's just an informal, unstated kind of thing that people are somehow supposed to know. And of course, my young colleague was not aware of it. As we continued talking, he asked if there is a similar expectation about upper-division classes and when I said yes, I could tell he was upset. Turns out that in the fall semester, he curved the grades in his intermediate theory course up to a B+! Now, I really wanted to ask what in the world made him think that B+ should be an "average" grade but I can't remember where he went to undergrad or graduate school and I know there are places where that would be perfectly normal. The bigger problem is that next year during his review, I know there are many in my department who will discount his evaluations for that course. I told him that I will help him figure out a way to address it in his narrative statement but it sucks that he now has to worry about this.

I'm curious if other departments have similar policies. If yours does, how is it communicated to new faculty?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Historic Day

I'm O.D.'ing on inaugural coverage but wanted to take a quick minute to highlight a couple quotes from Obama's speech. The talking heads keep saying that his speech didn't have any "Think not what your country can do for you" moments but there were a couple lines that I really hope people will keep repeating. One was "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Another was "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." These quotes will be the perfect introduction for the lecture where I start talking about market failure and the role of government in improving market outcomes.

What a day!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Realistic expectations

Thinking about my resolution to stop trying to be perfect, I was browsing in the self-help section at Borders (yes, I'm perfectly willing to admit it). Like many academics, I seem to believe that the answers to any question must be in a book somewhere; it is just a matter of finding it. So I was looking for some advice about how to create more balance in my life. I can't remember the title of the book but at some point, I read a description of burnout that really resonated with me - the author basically described burnout as occurring when people have unrealistically high expectations of success. When those expectations are not met, they work harder but that just leads to more frustration and then disillusionment, loss of motivation, boredom.

That pretty much describes me to a T right now. I've been killing myself over my classes for the last several months while feeling less and less enthusiastic about them. And since I'm usually a fairly positive person, I've been sort of bewildered and dismayed at how stressed out and cynical I've let myself become (hence, looking at self-help books in the first place).

When I read that description of burnout, it resonated with me because I'm slowly becoming aware how much I seem to set really unrealistic expectations. Specifically, I want to feel like I'm good at teaching but I seem to measure whether or not I'm any good by what my students think, particularly by their evaluations. And while this may seem like a "duh" statement to some, I'm only now realizing how bad a measure that is. Aside from the cynical view that many students don't recognize "what's good for them", there's the basic reality that you simply can't please all of the people, all of the time, and certainly not when there's 500 of them. When I had 50 students, I could at least give the struggling students some extra attention so they knew I was trying to help. But with 500? Do I really think that there is some magic approach that will reach all of them?

Of course, once this little revelation started sinking in, it led me to wonder: What is realistic to expect, in terms of what my students think of me and the course? And if I can't rely just on what my students think, how do I measure whether I'm any good at this teaching thing?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Do we allocate large lectures inefficiently in economics?

It seems to be generally accepted among the administration at my University that large lecture classes are the most cost-effective way to serve increasing numbers of students with stagnant budgets. I can't necessarily disagree (putting aside questions of why we keep letting in more students if we aren't getting the funds to deal with them). But I've been thinking a lot lately about whether we distribute those large lecture classes across the curriculum in the most efficient way. By 'efficient', I mean in the sense of maximizing total educational 'output', given constraints.

The norm is to use large lectures for introductory classes, which are presumably taught via lecture anyway, and reserve the 'small' classes for upper-division classes, which are presumably conducted with more discussion and interaction (e.g., seminars)*. In fields like history, I can imagine that is an accurate description of the way courses are taught. But in economics, I don't think it is. Most upper-division econ classes are just as likely to be lecture-oriented as intro classes (with the exception, of course, of the classes taught by some particularly forward-thinking professors :-)). In that case, one could argue that the marginal cost (in terms of reduced learning) of large upper-division classes is no greater than the cost of large intro classes.

In fact, I would argue that the cost is potentially much lower for upper-division classes. Large classes require students to be much more responsible for their own education than small classes, in part because of the sheer physical size of the room. In a huge lecture hall, there is a much higher potential for distractions during class, whether in the form of classmates who are talking (because they don't think the professor can hear them), or their own multi-tasking (which is more tempting because the professor is unlikely to know whether someone is playing solitaire on a laptop or taking notes). It can also be more intimidating to approach a professor that likely doesn't know who you are. Add in the fact that these intro courses have a large number of students who are satisfying requirements, rather than being truly interested in the subject matter, and I really believe that many 18-year-olds are simply not emotionally and mentally equipped to take that kind of responsibility (no matter how much we would like them to be!), or at least, not as well-equipped as they will be a couple years later. And so the relative drop in their learning is likely to be larger than if we used the large lectures for upper-division courses serving older students who have self-selected into the subject matter.

Of course, this assumes that the upper-division courses are being taught primarily as lectures in the first place, and that a department serves enough upper-division students to fill large classes. But my guess is that in most institutions that have large classes to begin with, these conditions do hold, at least up to a point. Given the difference in FTEs in lower- versus upper-division classes, we obviously couldn't switch ALL the large sections to upper-division (I certainly don't think we could fill a 500-seat section of intermediate micro) but why don't we think harder about the wisdom of making ALL the large sections lower-division?

*Institutional note: in my department, 'large' is any class of 120 and up, and our upper-division courses are around 60. One could certainly argue that 60 is too large to be considered 'small' but that's a whole different issue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Visualizing the profession

[Via Marginal Revolution] Paul Kedrosky has Wordled the session titles and paper titles from the ASSA meetings:
I'm thinking that this would be a great starting point for my "What is economics?" discussion in Principles.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Warm fuzzies for Friday

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." - Anne Frank

This post is going to have nothing to do with either teaching or economics because I broke the rule I created for myself last fall and I read my course evaluations without having something else already planned to immediately take my mind off of them (because while there were many very nice comments, I will naturally obsess over the many negative ones). So instead, I just want to share a story that re-affirms my belief that there are truly a lot of good people in this world.

I just got back from a three-day trip to Reno with my extended family. Wednesday was a particularly good day as I got a huge bonus on the goldfish slot machine game (for anyone who hasn't been in a casino in a while, slot machines these days are a whole different animal than the old pull-the-arm-and-watch-the-reels-spin machines. Today's machines all have cool graphics and fun interactive 'bonus' games - very entertaining, even if you aren't winning much money). But at dinner, my sister realized that she was missing her ring. For Christmas, my mother had had identical rings made for herself, my sister and me, all set with diamonds from a ring inherited from my grandmother, who passed away in June. The rings themselves are beautiful - three diamonds in a white gold setting - but for us, the sentimental value really surpasses the monetary value. So when we realized my sister's ring was gone, we were all pretty upset. She thought she had left it in the bathroom at Circus Circus so we went and asked at the Lost and Found there but no luck. I'm usually an optimist and tend to believe in the good in people but everyone else was sure the ring was gone, thinking it unlikely that someone who happened to find a diamond ring would turn it in.

On Thursday, we played a bit at Circus Circus in the morning and were about to leave to head to the airport. We were walking past the security station and I asked my sister if she wanted to just check one last time to see if the ring had turned up. Well, it had! A floor attendant had turned it in the night before! It's hard to describe the relief and joy we all felt but this was seriously better than any jackpot anyone in the family had won the whole trip!

So this is my proof that there are plenty of good people in this world. Happy Friday!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trying not to re-invent the wheel

One of my teaching mantras is: "teaching is an iterative process". I repeat this to myself whenever things go badly in a class (or entire course), reminding myself that at least I can fix it (or try to fix it) the next time around. While this helps to keep me from feeling too terrible when things go wrong, it would obviously be nice to avoid things going badly in the first place. This is one of the many reasons why it's so nice to have a community to turn to when trying out new things - it's way less stressful to learn from other people's mistakes than your own.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because my big project for this winter break is getting things put together for a writing-intensive class for econ majors that I'll be teaching in the spring semester. As with the Economics for Teachers course that I taught in the fall, this is an entirely new course for my department and, since I can't seem to do anything the easy way, it isn't quite like any other course I've been able to find at other schools. But unlike the Econ for Teachers course, which (as far as I can tell) is entirely unique, there are at least a few articles and course syllabi out there to give me some guidance for the writing course.

By far the most helpful thing I've done to prepare for the course is have a long conversation with David Lindauer. Lindauer teaches a course on Economic Journalism at Wellesley. Here's the course description:
Students will combine their knowledge of economics, including macro, micro and econometrics, with their skills at exposition, in order to address current economic issues in a journalistic format. Students will conduct independent research to produce weekly articles. Assignments may include coverage of economic addresses, book reviews, recent journal articles, and interviews with academic economists. Class sessions will be organized as workshops devote to critiquing the economic content of student work.
(Lindauer also wrote an article about the course that's in the Summer 1986 volume of the Journal of Economic Education, though the course has changed some since then).

Although the assignments for my course will be slightly different, I plan to structure things in a way that is quite similar to Lindauer's class and talking with him was invaluable, simply for the insights he has from having taught this sort of class several times. For example, one of the first assignments will be for students to read the most recent BLS employment report and then write a 300-word summary (with accompanying chart or graph) on one of the variables. This is almost identical to one of David's assignments and he mentioned that students always focus in on different aspects of the report - for example, some students focus on the labor market participation numbers while others note the differences across races or gender. This insight helped me decide how to lead into the assignment with my own students, and gives me a better idea what to expect in the class discussion. In general, talking with David made me feel much more prepared and less like I was starting from scratch. Here's to not re-inventing the wheel!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Who doesn't love positive feedback?

In a Freakonomics post this morning, Ian Ayres notes the high quality of the comments on that blog, but also some dismay at the harsh tone of some. In the comments to that post, Roy Huggins provides an important insight: "It seems that people in agreement are often silent when they need to be noisy." (note: one of the posts Ayres refers to is one in which he discusses gay marriage so it's not hard to imagine that some of the reaction was loud and negative).

On this blog, I don't usually discuss topics that are particularly controversial and I haven't had any comments that I would describe as negative flames. But I have noticed that when reading other blogs, I am far more likely to comment on a post if I want to disagree, or add something that I think is missing, than if I just want to say, "I totally agree." Somehow, it feels like agreement doesn't add as much to the conversation as disagreement. And yet, personally, I love getting comments that let me know someone out there thinks I'm on the right track.

As Steve points out in response to my last post, "one of the greatest benefits of participating in the blogosphere whether writing posts, reading them or leaving comments is the sense of community which develops among participants." Whether you agree with me, disagree or are completely confused by something I've written, I hope that readers here will always feel welcome to comment and respond!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Teaching community

Teaching can be an oddly solitary endeavor. Although we are constantly interacting with our students, most of us are alone in doing all of the real work of teaching. Some may team-teach occasionally, but the majority of the time, teaching a class is not a collaborative effort. And in certain environments (i.e., institutions where research is valued a lot more than teaching), those of us who care about teaching may not even have many colleagues to talk with about teaching in general, let alone specific classes.

That's one reason I was so excited about attending the pre-ASSA conference workshop last Friday. Aside from the topic of the meeting itself (which I will write about in an upcoming post), it was great simply to be able to put faces with names that I've seen on the tch-econ listserv emails, Journal of Economic Education articles and assorted teaching-econ-related books and papers. I wasn't able to attend the rest of the conference but I do hope to get at least a few of the folks who presented on teaching to do some guest posts here over the next few months.