What I learned from teaching

Before I start a new class this afternoon, I thought I should reflect on what I learned after teaching my first class, ECON 385: International Economic Policy.

1. Few people outside of economics know what economics is about. This one is pretty obvious, and I knew it before but I learned another, deeper lesson on it. It actually matters a great deal how one thinks about value, for example, but almost nobody has really considered this issue. Economic issues are in the headlines every day, but this is either politically-oriented, i.e. expressive and non-technical at best, or financial, and not necessarily related to theory. Economic theory just does not filter around very much. I mostly blame political partisans for muddying the waters, but economists themselves don’t promote it outside the office very much either. (The blogosphere is ever so slowly changing this.)

It should be noted that I don’t blame people for not knowing about economics, as on practically any other topic I’m in the same position. You can only specialize in a very small subset of human knowledge, and as a college undergraduate one has almost never had the time to do even that much.

2. Economics is considered very sexy by other sections of the academy. I can tell this by the fact that non-economics classes seemed to teach my students a great deal about economics. A lot of it was wrong or at least misleading as far as I could tell (see point #1), but they really wanted to cover my ground anyway.</notsosubtlebutgoodspiriteddig>

3. One good student makes up for a multitude of uninterested students. None of my students were downright bad students, but some of them were supremely uninterested. I know my field is not appealing to most people. That’s ok. Most other fields are not very appealing to me. Since 385 is a required course, many of the students were there just to pass and be done with it. I understand. I did that with plenty of courses as an undergraduate. But however much I know this intellectually, I still had a small, emotional hope that they would see the light. The students who really put in the effort to grok the material made me proud, though, as other students have in other situations I’ve been in at lower levels.

4. Public choice should be a much greater part of our economics curriculum. I know this may be a little homer of me, since public choice is one of my specialties, but it very rarely occurs to people that the mission du jour has to be implemented by people and that these people respond to incentives just like everybody else. The way I structured the course was (i) theory, leading to ideal positions, then (ii) why we don’t see ideal positions commonly implemented as defaults, then (iii) development, because it’s very important, very topical, and ripe for the extension of lessons from (i) and (ii) . Section (ii) is where public choice comes in. If we’re right about at least the broad outlines of ideal positions, why don’t they exist most of the time? Surely decision makers must have stumbled across them once or twice? The answer is because implementation matters, and it’s tricky.

5. Teaching the material made me understand it better. It’s said that if you can’t explain an idea to your grandmother, you don’t really know it. That’s an overstatement, but considering how to best transmit this material to students made me really use the creative side of my brain to come up with good examples, metaphors, and alternative angles. Things that were clear to me but not to students with questions made me reevaluate how I synthesized various concepts to produce lessons. I recall David Friedman saying that Jim Buchanan had him teach different courses each semester when they were at VPI together in order to catch him up from his physics background to his economics career. It sort of made sense then, but it makes a lot of sense now.

6. I don’t quite get the fuss about laptops in the classroom. Yes, I know that many of the students aren’t paying attention to me while I’m talking, but as long as they don’t disrupt others and learn the material in another way that’s not really a problem. It’s not like I was never guilty of the same. If anything it may lower the cost of going to class rather than skipping entirely. Students who have no interest in paying attention would have skipped in the past, and now they may pick up something from the lectures even if they’re on Facebook the other 95% of the time. Not everybody learns primarily from lectures.


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