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Saturday, February 27, 2010

When your audience doesn't want to be there

Since the presidential campaign began, there have been references to 'Professor Obama', often said sarcastically or in a way that suggests that this is not a compliment. I won't go on a tirade about those who seem to think it's a bad thing for politicians to be smart and well-informed about the actual substance of public policy issues. I just wanted to point out that there are many times when the way Obama talks to Congress reminds me of the way I talk to my students but it's more about style than substance. I don't mean this as an insult (nor do I mean to compare my rhetorical abilities to Obama's!); it's more just an observation about how we choose to deal with an audience that doesn't want to be there. As a teacher, I'm usually talking to people (students) who may or may not actually want to be sitting there listening to me, and who may or may not be remotely interested in what I have to say, but they are somewhat compelled to be there and listen to me anyway. Some teachers get annoyed by this; some ignore it; some try desperately to change it. My personal approach is just to recognize it and be upfront about it, and I see Obama doing the same thing with Congress. Sometimes he makes jokes about it; for example, during the State of the Union, at one point Obama said, "I'd like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can't wait." And I thought: that's exactly what I would say to my students! Other times, it's just being blunt; Obama does this all the time when he tells people that change will not be easy or that Democrats AND Republicans need to stop playing politics and make some compromises.

It's probably a sad commentary about Washington that the analogy that comes to my mind most often is that Congress acts like a bunch of my students who would rather make excuses than do the work they are supposed to do to earn the grade they want. But given that that is how they act, I wonder if Professor Obama will be able to manage them...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Facebook pages

I've decided to follow Derek's advice and set up a Facebook fan page for my Principles class. I figure it can't hurt to give students the option and I'm on Facebook a lot anyway so it's easy for me. While I was at it, I set up a Facebook page for this blog - I often come across news stories or other links that I think would be cool for teaching economics but I don't necessarily want to blog about and I figured a Facebook page would be a good way to post those. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out what the direct-link URL is (apparently, you need 25 fans before you can get a user-friendly URL but I can't even figure out what URL to use until then - if someone knows, please drop me a line!) but if you're on Facebook, you can search for Economics for Teachers in the box at the top of the screen and become a fan of the page that way. I'd love it if people want to post additional links or make comments there!

Thursday, February 25, 2010


In my last post, I mentioned that one of my writing students referred to the specification checks in the article we read as the authors 'making excuses'. Along similar lines, another student was in my office yesterday and mentioned that he didn't like the article we read very much because he thought it was really arrogant of the author to refer to his own earlier work. I tried to explain that this is actually quite common, that most economists write several papers on related subjects because good research can often raise as many new questions as it answers, which leads to new papers. In this particular case, the author (Dan Hammermesh) had done earlier work establishing an empirical link between beauty and wages, and then this paper was looking more closely at what might explain that connection. So citing the earlier work was part of establishing the relevance of this paper.

Again, it was just sort of fascinating to me how my students interpret things so differently because they are not familiar with the standard way that economists present their work. But it's also really good to be reminded of that different perspective. It's so easy for academics to forget the ways in which we think and work differently from everyone else, which can then reinforce negative stereotypes about academics among non-academics.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Teaching students what economists do

In my writing class, one of the assignments is for students to read an academic journal article and write a non-technical summary; the prompt has them as analysts at the Fed, writing a summary for a quarterly newsletter that will be read by economists and others trained in economics but simply too busy to read the original article. I assign them the articles (one is Donohue and Levitt's article on abortion and crime and the other is a Journal of Economic Perspectives article on the college gender gap and neither is super-technical) but before they write their summaries, we analyze a different article together as a class. For that exercise, I use Hamermesh and Parker's Economics of Education Review article on beauty and teaching evaluations. The article works well because a) it's a subject the students can personally relate to, b) the paper itself is not all that technical, and c) the structure follows a very standard structure for empirical economics papers and is well-written. In addition, Hal Varian wrote a column about it that the class also reads and that's a great lead into their assignment.

So in class yesterday, we were discussing the Hamermesh and Parker article and one of the students commented that the authors "seemed to be making a bunch of excuses about why their results weren't actually right." At first I was confused, but then I realized that the student was referring to the section where the authors talk about all the specification checks they did. It was a strange moment for me because I had to step back and really try to figure out how these specification checks - which any trained economist would see as a sign of a good analysis - could be viewed as a negative thing. I tried to explain that these specification checks were not about making excuses but were the authors making sure that their results held up to scrutiny, that they were trying to pre-empt any objections readers might have. Moreover, as consumers of research, students should be wary of anyone who doesn't show that they've done these sorts of checks.

I think that the student ultimately understood what I was saying but his comment was a good reminder to me that I can't/shouldn't assume my students understand how economists actually work. That is, even though these are all upper-division students (some about to graduate as econ majors), they have largely been taught the content of economics, not the process. Even in the few cases where they are asked to write papers, those papers are more likely to be reports (i.e., finding and synthesizing information from other sources) than real research, where they must develop a hypothesis and test or defend it. Makes me think that I want to figure out how to do more of this in the class I will teach next year...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Diminishing marginal product

For the last couple semesters, I've dropped the discussion of production costs from my principles class - I've felt like I didn't have time and most students who aren't going to take additional economics classes really don't need to sit through the derivation of all the cost curves. So I just go through an intuitive explanation of why the supply curve is upward-sloping and leave it at that. But this semester, I decided to at least go through the derivation of the supply curve as the marginal cost curve because I think it will help students to make a stronger connection between supply and the firm's costs. Plus, decreasing marginal product/increasing marginal cost is one of the few concepts that I can teach with an in-class demonstration and I've missed doing that.

In my smaller classes, and in the old days of chalkboards, I would have students 'grow rice' on the board. I don't remember where I first saw that activity but students write the word 'RICE' on the board as many times as they can in, say, ten seconds. They have fixed capital (one piece of chalk and a set amount of space on the board) and then you start adding labor. Since they only have one piece of chalk, they have to break up the chalk to share and it gets pretty funny as they try to break it into smaller and smaller pieces. They also start getting in each other's way at the board. Students can get pretty creative about trying to maximize output (e.g., recruiting short and tall people who can reach different areas of the board without bumping each other) but diminishing marginal product always sets in at some point.

With the big classroom, there isn't a chalkboard so I had to figure out something else and I found a game using tennis balls where students 'produce' tennis balls by moving the balls from one bucket to another. It works pretty well and like with the rice activity, it can be quite amusing to see the students try not to run into each other*. There are different variations of how you set up the production process - I tell the students that each student can only carry one ball at a time and they must individually place the ball in the other bucket but an alternative is to let them form a line and pass the balls down (diminishing marginal product sets in partly because they invariably start dropping them). The important thing (which I learned the first time I ran it) is that you have to be very clear with them that they cannot change the technology as they add more workers; as long as that's clear, you should start getting diminishing MP pretty quickly.

One of the cool things about this activity is that is can be done with a class of any size. I've always found that it's just as memorable for students who simply observe as for those who personally participate.

* For anyone who might be wondering, I know that another common activity to show the same concept is to have students fold and/or staple paper in a production line to create widgets or paper airplanes or something like that, but I've always thought that the rice and tennis ball games are more appealing because the students are a lot more physically active and that seems to get the other students more involved (e.g., cheering them on as they run around). Or maybe I'm just slightly sadistic and like to see them running into each other...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Censoring myself

I am incredibly direct. Most of the time, I don't think I'm rude (anymore - I admit I've had to work hard to learn how to be more diplomatic); I simply have a hard time not saying what I'm thinking. And there are times when I forget that, as a teacher, this is not a good thing. I'm pretty sure I've never been publicly rude to a student but in class last night, I reacted without thinking to something a student said and the more I've thought about it, the more I feel stupid about it. I wasn't actually reacting to the student himself; he used a term that I haven't heard in a while, that he had obviously learned in another economics class, and I was thrown off because a) it took me a second to figure out what he was talking about and b) when I realized what he meant, it told me something about the way one of my colleagues must teach a particular course. I laughed, then realized that the student might think I was laughing at him, so I felt like I needed to explain why I was laughing, but I think that only made it worse. It was an awkward moment at the time, and I feel even more awkward about it now, but there's not much I can do about it about at this point except try to remember to think a little longer before I open my mouth...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I'm contemplating using Google Buzz as a way to broadcast announcements and stuff to my classes. At one point I was thinking about using Twitter for that but not very many students are actually on Twitter. I've also thought about setting up a Facebook page, at least for the 500-seater, but when I've surveyed students about that option, the response has been pretty lukewarm. I already tell students to use my gmail address (since my official school email account seems to get way too much spam), and I know that a lot of them have gmail accounts themselves. I use Facebook to connect with people I'm actually friends with, and Twitter for connecting with random bloggers and other online acquaintances (though I haven't been tweeting much lately at all), and I kind of like the idea of having a separate way to communicate with students. I just don't know if any of my students would actually want that. I guess I can give them the option and see how it works...

Monday, February 15, 2010

My students can't read

At least, that's what it feels like sometimes. First there are all the students in my writing class that can't seem to read the assignment instructions I give them so they get all confused and make life more difficult for themselves (seriously - I cannot figure out what is so hard to understand about "Go to this website (with URL) and click on the link at the bottom of the page; download the data you find there and make a graph" but two students went and got data from random other places). Then today, I gave my first exam in my principles class and I don't know if it's test anxiety or laziness or what, but over and over again, students would come up and ask me about some question and because they were asking something that was obvious in the question itself, I just literally read the question out loud to them, at which point they would say, "OH! I get it now!" and I would think to myself, "You do?!?" One of my TAs suggested that they were probably just fishing to see if I would give them additional information and when it was clear I wasn't going to, they would give up. I can believe that but I also think that a lot of them literally don't read, or at least, they don't read very carefully. This has happened in past semesters too but it seemed a lot worse today. I just don't get it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My worst fear

As a student, I was not a big fan of collaborative or group work when I was in college. I rarely saw the benefit and usually ended up feeling like I had to do a lot more work, since I would want to make sure that what my group did was as good as if I had just done it myself. Free-riders were annoying (since I was usually the only trying to keep my group organized and on-track) but just as bad, if not worse, were people who simply didn't do very good work. Then I'd have to figure out a way to make whatever we turned in better but without hurting their feelings (I was, um, not very diplomatic when I was younger).

As a teacher, I still don't love group work and I only use it when I think there are large benefits that cannot be achieved any other way. For example, I have several assignments in my writing class where students work in pairs or teams of four, but I believe that this is necessary because they need to see that in the 'real world', writing is not usually the solitary endeavor that they experience in most classes. But although I see the benefit, I still have a lot of empathy for the stronger students. So when I do require group work, I think long and hard about how to structure assessment in a way that I think will be fair to the stronger students while providing the right incentives to everyone. One of my biggest fears is that some student will turn in a first draft that is so appallingly bad that their partner has to basically re-write the whole thing from scratch. In my view, this is worse than if a student just doesn't turn in anything at all; at least in that case, I feel perfectly justified just re-assigning the partner. But if a first draft is truly terrible, I feel bad for the partner but have no idea what to do about it.

I have not had to actually deal with this situation, until this week. The assignment for my writing students this week was quite challenging - I asked them to write the text of a two-minute oral presentation, proposing a topic to be the subject of a longer policy brief. I didn't actually realize how challenging this would be when I created it. I was focused on the part where they would have to find some data and write about it but by structuring the prompt as proposing a topic for a longer policy brief, I opened the door to a lot of confusion about how to talk about policy, explaining why a topic is interesting and relevant, without advocating for a particular policy and getting all normative. I'll discuss that more in a future post but my point here is that although I realized it would be challenging, I think a lot of my students did an admirable job. There was, however, one paper that was just all wrong. The student not only seemed to completely misunderstand the assignment but the writing itself was really, really bad. Even after submitting a second draft, the paper is still really not good. At this point, the co-author is supposed to take over and revise the paper, and will be presenting it in class. The co-author is quite a good writer so I'm not actually worried about the final product but it seems unfair that the good student is put in a position of having to do so much more work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

John and Milton were taking Econ 102...

One of my tasks for this week is to write the first midterm for my principles class. Writing exams is one of the few things that I find actually gets harder the longer I've taught the class, since I have to come up with new questions each time. One thing that helps is that I now have my students write questions at the end of each semester and that always yields at least a few that I can use the following semester. And I often start with old questions and just change the market and re-arrange the answers (bikes instead of cars, demand up instead of down, etc.). That can be challenging in and of itself because I try to think of real markets (not widgets!) that students will have some familiarity with but that haven't already been mentioned a hundred times, either by me, in class, or in their textbook or on Aplia - e.g., if anyone has ideas for realistic goods other than tobacco and gasoline to use for questions about inelastic demand or taxes, please let me know!

But in addition to coming up with realistic, original applications, I find myself spending some time (admittedly more than I should) trying to be clever with the names of the people in the questions. So, for example, I have Jack and Jill in the market for buckets, or Jim and Pam working in an office, or LaDainian shopping for footballs (if you have favorite examples, please share in the comments!). This totally amuses me (yes, I'm easily amused), but I'm always curious if my students even get the references. Or if they do, whether they think they're funny or I'm just weird...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fun resources

It's Monday so to start your week off with some laughter...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Add/drop makes me grumpy

Last week, ProfHacker asked 'how do you handle add/drop?' and I meant to leave a comment but then got busy. When I went back to look at how others responded, I had to laugh at Courtney's comment, which starts out, "Add/drop makes me extremely grumpy." I agree completely. In my 500-seater, I've been giving out add codes to anyone who asks because the class was severely under-enrolled (I started the semester with only 297 registered) and my department as a whole is under-target for our FTEs. I warn students that they can't make up any assignments they've missed (though I drop a few clicker scores at the end of the semester so as long as they don't miss anymore, it won't really matter) but although I think what I cover in the first few weeks is the most important stuff we do all semester (since it's really hammering home the core principles), the reality is that if students miss these first few weeks, it's probably not that big a deal.

However, add/drop has been a major pain for my upper-division writing class. Students work on several assignments collaboratively over the semester and for various reasons, I assign them to their teams. I spent a lot of time over the weekend figuring out what the teams would be for each assignment for the rest of the semester (I get kind of obsessive about matching students up and not having them work with the same partner more than once), only to find out Monday morning that one of the students had dropped the class over the weekend. Not only does this mess up some of the assignments I had already made, it also means that the class now has an odd number of students (and all my team assignments were either pairs or groups of four). Even if I contacted the next person on the crash list, it's really too late to let someone add the class, so now I have to figure out how to make threesomes for some of the assignments. I probably should have thought to check my roster before spending all that time on the group assignments but I don't actually even know when the student dropped (other than it was sometime between Friday afternoon and Monday morning) so other than waiting until after the drop deadline entirely, the problem could still have come up. Definitely makes me grumpy..

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is it odd to ask students to revise someone else's writing?

Today was one of those days where my students seemed confused but I wasn't quite sure why. This time, it wasn't confusion about content (which by now, I can usually figure out); it was confusion about an assignment. In my writing class, the students had to write short data summary reports, the first drafts of which were due today. I paired them up with a classmate ('co-author') and in class, they were to read their teammate's paper, following some guidelines designed to help them assess the writing (e.g., 'can you generate a one-sentence summary of the report?', 'circle any terms that a non-economist might need defined', etc.) and discuss how to improve each report. Then for Wednesday, they must each independently revise both papers, that is, their own and that of their partner (each student wrote on a slightly different topic, though all were related to employment in some way). In class on Wednesday, they will then compare the two versions of each paper, ultimately deciding which version they want to submit for the team.

I am honestly not sure what it was that was so confusing to the students. I think they were OK with the idea of revising their own paper, but it was the request to revise their teammate's paper that was hard for them to grasp. Some thought that they were supposed to collaborate to produce one version of each paper for the team, which I can understand, but even once I explained that they should each write their own version, and they would be comparing and discussing the two versions on Wednesday, they seemed confused. Is it simply that they have never been asked to do something like this before?

This is the first time I'm trying this and maybe it just won't work. One of the reasons I am having them revise someone else's paper is that I think, in general, it is easier to recognize problems with a piece of writing than to fix those problems. While recognizing the problems is a good first step (and students generally find it easier to recognize good or bad writing when it is someone else's), I believe that it is the process of struggling to fix those problems that will really help these students improve their own writing. I could be wrong about that, and maybe the benefit of this exercise won't be worth the confusion. Wednesday should be interesting...