“I have never let schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain
“Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.” John Maynard Keynes
Teaching is for me one of the most important and potentially most beneficial social activities in which I can see myself (or anyone else for that matter) involved in. In my opinion, a good teacher is someone who is able to ignite students’ passion for learning, to help them grow intellectually, to help them comprehend their world and change it. As a teacher I see myself as a guide and facilitator. I have the great responsibility and honor of guiding the minds of tomorrow. If I do it right, the pay-off is great for myself, my students and hopefully all of our society.
My current approach to teaching has been shaped by my good and bad experiences both as a student and a teacher in my current and previous institutions. As an undergraduate and graduate student I suffered endlessly in those classes where teachers took the easy road of reciting from the book and giving us a problem set, in which we were required to give back exactly the same material as the book yet again. What was the point of going to class, I asked myself many times in those years. Or worse, should I have even spent the time studying and reading on my own, if it was going to be presented in exactly the same way in class anyway? I felt like a tourist, who after paying for a sightseeing tour, was visiting the same sites he had seen the day before on his own.
Indeed, for me academic learning is very much like sightseeing…you discover new interesting places you had never been before. Of course you can do it on your own, but in the company of a good guide, the experience can be ever more fascinating, fun and educational. In my experience a good guide can show you the same places (even places you have visited before), but point out things you had not noticed before or give you information about the place you did not have and which might be difficult for you to acquire on your own. A good guide not only takes you to the places you know you must go, but also to places you had never heard of or thought of visiting. She not only tells you the name of the place and where to take the best picture (which is important obviously), but tells you more of the history of the place, its customs…perhaps its food…Answers to questions like Why is this place important? Who built it? When? Why? Is there anything that differentiates it from other places in this region or in the world? can easily be found in a tourist book. But perhaps a more intimate story of the place…perhaps the guide’s own recipe for the local delicacy…that’s what makes the tour unforgettable!
I see myself as the guide of a Sightseeing Tour in Economics. My students and I are embarked on a trip on a subject, and it is my duty to give them the best possible tour. With this in mind, I try to present them the required subjects of the course (what would be the point of a course on Mathematical Economics if you did not learn anything about it?!), but I try to give them more than there is in their required readings. For example, when I taught a course on Classical Political Economy, I would ask students to read certain passages in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in preparation for class, but in my presentation I would draw on other texts by historians of economic thought and would have them compare their own reading and interpretation with what these scholars were saying. This would also lead to discussions which allowed the class to be more interesting and stimulating for them. I also try, whenever I present examples, to use my own and not the ones in the readings. This allows students to have access to more than one set of examples on a subject, hopefully helping them to understand the issue better. For example, when I taught Mathematical Economics, I used to bring examples taken from other disciplines, which were not presented in the book we were using. This gave me the opportunity to present the mathematical concepts and problems independent from their economic use. This allowed students to get a better understanding of the different mathematical tools and also allowed them to think of the tool in different economic contexts than the ones they saw in a particular application in the book. I have also found that explaining the same subject using elements from popular culture, like movies or music, is a very good strategy for helping students understand and remember the message of some of the theories. For example, when presenting the point of view of New Classical Macroeconomists in the debate on rules versus discretion in economic policy, I would quote Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”, by singing part of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”. (I have students who still upon hearing this song say “Rational Expectations!”)
As in every group of tourists, there is a huge heterogeneity of individuals in every class. This means that their interests, experiences and knowledge are different also. For this reason I try to get to know them individually as much as possible. This helps me plan the course better and adapt it to fit their needs and interests. I try to have as many different types of assignments and subjects to suit everyone, and I’m also open to their own suggestions. For example, in the course on Classical Political Economy mentioned before, which was a class of 90 students, as part of their evaluation, I gave three exams and a three part written assignment to be done in groups of up to three people. For the assignment I compiled a list of 40-50 research questions and allowed students to come up with their own, if none of them fit their interests. I used to make students meet with me at least once every two weeks to discuss their progress. This was a great experience, both for me and for my students, some of which changed their area of study after taking my class and wrote their undergraduate thesis on the subject they worked on in their assignment.
Tailoring a course to the current students helps me get students active and overcomes their “indifference”. I actually doubt students are indifferent to what I want to teach them. If they seem indifferent it is I who is to blame. It is my inability to make them interested in the subject or for using the wrong pedagogical strategy. For example, the first time I taught a course on mathematics for economists, I followed the standard practice of presenting the theorems and some examples, etc. in a lecture format. This was a complete failure, even though I knew the students from a semester before, since they had taken Macroeconomics II with me, and we had had a great macroeconomics course and I had a good relationship with them. Noticing how this was not working I changed the whole structure to short presentations of the theorems and then splitting the class in smaller groups and having them solve exercises using the theory I had just presented. This allowed for more interaction among students and allowed them to quickly realize what they were understanding and where their problems lied. One of the issues I noticed when I taught that course was that sometimes they did not know or remember what they were supposed to. So for the following semesters I used to start with an in-class assignment in groups with review material from previous semesters. Then I used this experience to present a one or two lecture review on the subjects they were lagging behind before starting with the new material. Finally, I added a list of readings on the use of mathematics in economics and a science fiction novel on the life of a mathematician (Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession), which allowed them to see the subject from a broader perspective. All this made the course more amenable for my students and increased their understanding and interest in the subject.
Of course every new course and every new group of students imposes new challenges to the way I teach and how I see teaching. Learning to teach requires continuous innovation and adaptation on my part, to which I say, “Welcome aboard”.