Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On Rigor and Relevance and Intermediate Microeconomics

I was at a Fourth of July party last night with a bunch of economist and and friends. The most vocal of the group was a Law School prof whose specialty is Anti Trust but who also does a lot with Sports Law and other areas where Economics touches on the Law. We got around to discussing the hiring of new faculty.

The Econ Department "Strategy" as characterized at the party is now to go after good researchers who are comparatively weak teachers. The idea is something like this. Illinois' typical ranking in Econ is about 25 and that might go down to 20 but might go as high as 35 or even higher. It is definitely not a top 10 or top 15 place and the likelihood that it will get there is nil. Research counts in those rankings and that is just about all that does. (There is then the question of how one measures the research output, but that is not my concern here.) How can Illinois attract a researcher who might go to Penn, or Northwestern, or U VA (where the cheating scandal discussed in the Chronicle is now open to the world)? The answer, in general, is that it can't. If one of our job candidates gets an offer from one of these places, almost certainly the candidate will go there.

Most of these other places have some requirement that their faculty be "decent" instructors in the classroom. If a job candidate seems absolutely abysmal as a teacher (this is judged by the job talk and office interviews not by seeing how the person would do in the classroom teaching undergraduate subjects) but has some promise as a researcher then perhaps we can attract that person here at Illinois.

The related idea and of course we discussed this at some length last night is the role of theory in instruction. One of the reasons some people are not good teachers is that they know their subject at a theoretical level and can talk about it with other professionals in the field. But they can't talk about it in layman's terms and they can't tie it to real world issues very well. In their teaching, even at an undergraduate level, such people tend to teach the course as theory for theory's sake and as a consequence most of the students dislike the course intensely.

Our Law School prof was arguing that this is a nutty strategy (the Law School is also rated in the mid 20s) because there is a social obligation to the students to teach them well. He was saying that any Dean should have intervened with the Econ department to get it to hire candidates with a more balanced portfolio of research and teaching. One full prof in the Econ department, the only one in the room whose appoint is still 100% in the Econ department, argued on the contrary that this was the only way to compete. Budgets are just not as good as at the private universities (to which we've lost some promising researchers as of late) and it is increasingly difficult to maintain a department with a decent research reputation at a public university like Illinois, unless one does something like what Econ is doing in recruiting.

I for my part, and readers of the blog know I've been promoting good and interesting pedagogy elsewhere in this blog, made that point that the department has absolutely no incentive to improve its teaching. It is swelling with students in the principles classes and elsewhere, because of a variety of gen ed and business major requirements. It has never been given adequate resources to deal with that mass of students. Why worry about junior faculty who can teach when we have lectures with 500 students per or more? So we take what I would call a bang-bang approach. There are people who don't do research, in the main, who teach those big lectures. And then there are others who research but can't teach --- not a happy picture on either front but perhaps a necessity under the circumstances.

A different colleague, now an emeritus faculty member, but one who still teaches on occasion and who still does some research, argued that we could teach much more relevant courses, things that are closer to how we as researchers actually do our work, but we seem stuck teaching courses they way they were done "classically." Here he cited that even modern statistics books will invariably have T Tables and F distributions in the appendix, but nobody does this stuff anymore. And he lamented on the intermediate micro side all the time devoted to indifference curves, although that methodology doesn't get employed that much.

We then agreed that to transform a course from the old way to the new way probably would take a year or two of thoughtful course development (the textbooks don't help here as they support the old way) but having done that teaching would not require more effort thereafter. The problem, of course, is that the costs of that year or two of development would be borne by the faculty member and hence the incentives are incredibly weak to make this type of change.

We do have some senior colleagues in the department (who were not at the party) who are known to teach in a style that engages the students, but who are regarded as not instilling anything about Economics as a discipline. They are known, for better or worse, as telling a lot of jokes in class. Nobody at the party wanted that. Everyone wanted something that was meaningful at the time that the students take the course and yet would have sustained intellectual value beyond the course.

The good of all of this is that within Econ all the issues that I am struggling with at the campus level are manifest. The bad, unfortunately, is that a path to a better world is not obviously evident. Indeed, the constraints seem too many to anticipate any real progress.


Anonymous said...

I don't know... I believe I took a class with the unnamed engaging/joking professor when I was an undergrad and his class and many of the things I learned have stuck with me all these years (and it has been a while!). I went into that course with a very negative attitude towards econ, but I felt I really learned something in there.

Lanny Arvan said...

That's interesting. I wonder how typical you are of the students taking that class. We do very little, if any, longitudinal tracking of students so don't have a data driven view of the long term benefits of such a course nor of the benefits from taking the course with a particular instructor.