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Man, you get a lot of random requests to speak to your class. I hardly ever get such requests, and the very few I get are closely related to the class (the equivalent of your student economics society). And I don't think that's just because I only teach smaller classes. As far as I know, even the profs who teach our huge first year biology courses don't get these sorts of requests. Guess I'll find out in a couple of years, when I'm likely to be assigned to 1st year biology. ;-)

I'm surprised you ever said yes to such requests. I'd (politely) decline any request unrelated to the class, and most related to the class, for the reason you articulate.

In passing, you note that not teaching students economics would be an abuse of your authority. I agree. But not everyone does. The late Steven J Gould was infamous for teaching 1st year geology students at Harvard lots of the material from his famous, eclectic essays for Natural History magazine. So 1st year geology students got to hear Gould lecture on things like why there'd never be another .400 hitter in baseball. I've heard (warning: nth hand rumor that may be totally false) that the students loved it--and that other profs hated it, because they had to spend their time teaching students all the basic geology that Gould wasn't teaching.

Jeremy: it's interesting to hear about other places. I wonder if it's one of those conventional equilibria cases. Everybody else does it, so everybody does it. But it will be mostly the biggest classes.

There is *something* to be said for inspiring the students, and letting them teach themselves. The Lord Cardigan(?) Theory of Teaching? Led his men in the Charge of the Light Brigade, but didn't actually do any fighting when he got there. Said it was the officer's job to lead his men into battle, but their job to do the actual fighting. But even that theory can be carried too far (like that recent very bad case at a nearby university, that nobody should mention for fear of bringing on the person in question).


How does your blogging interact with your teaching, if at all?

Do you bring it up occasionally in lectures? Do you avoid doing so? Do your students ask you questions on it – in class, out of class, at the pub? Do they avoid doing so? Is there some kind of Chinese wall between blogging as a personal choice endeavor and teaching as a public commitment endeavor? Or do you speak to your class partly using your blog as an assistant?

And how has your blogging experience affected your teaching method, if at all?

JKH: I think (hope) my blogging has made me a better teacher. Because I get more practice explaining clearly and simply, and i get immediate feedback if I fail to explain simply and clearly. Because it keeps me much more engaged with economics, and with lots of different views on lots of different economics questions.

Sometimes I tell my upper year students to read a particular blog post, or tell them about a blogosphere argument. Some of them ask me a few questions about it, but not very often. A few ex-students comment here, but I ask current students not to, because there's one culture in the blog, between me and commenters, and another culture in the class, between me and students, and I'm not sure I can handle both at the same time.

Do you distinguish between teaching economics and promoting economics? I buy your argument about speakers, but "I say "yes" to the students' economics society, because I think joining the economics society is a good way for students to learn more economics". This suggests you are not only "teaching economics" but also promoting economics.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that "Maybe I should let someone make a short presentation to sell subscriptions to The Economist, on the grounds that it would help teach the students economics?" was tongue in cheek.

This doubt I have is not unique to you, or economists. Back when I learned and occasionally taught chemistry there were boundaries between "teaching chemistry" and "encouraging students to take up a career in the pharmaceutical or chemicals industries" and "promoting the pharmaceutical and chemicals industries" that many people didn't even acknowledge, but which left me unhappy.

Nick, have you ever read Max Weber's "Science as a Vocation"? Weber says, I think, something very similar to the argument you make here.

Those of our youth are in error who ... [say], 'Yes, but we happen to come to lectures in order to experience something more than mere analyses and statements of fact.' The error is that they seek in the professor something different from what stands before them. They crave a leader and not a teacher. But we are placed upon the platform solely as teachers....
The American's conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father's money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all. To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct. ... the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling...
Fellow students! You come to our lectures and demand from us the qualities of leadership, and you fail to realize in advance that of a hundred professors at least ninety-nine do not and must not claim to be football masters in the vital problems of life, or even to be 'leaders' in matters of conduct. ... But irrespective of whether they are or are not, the platform situation simply offers no possibility of proving themselves to be leaders. The professor who feels called upon to act as a counselor of youth and enjoys their trust may prove himself a man in personal human relations with them. And if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggles of world views and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes. But after all, it is somewhat too convenient to demonstrate one's courage in taking a stand where the audience and possible opponents are condemned to silence.

I tend to agree that it's an abuse to use the teacher's authority in the classroom to compel students to listen, and implicitly assent, to something other than what they are there to learn. Altho I also agree with Tom Slee, that, perhaps in economics especially, this is not always an easy line to draw.

tomslee: I see a distinction between:

1. Teaching chemistry
2. Promoting chemistry as a great way to view the world "Hey, the world really is all chemicals, so we chemists understand the world, and everyone should understand some chemistry, and you should learn more chemistry".
3. Trying to get students to get jobs as chemists.

I do 1, obviously. I also do 2. I expect I can understand someone doing 1 and not doing 2, because either they think all chemistry/economics is cr*p, or they just don't care, or they have a more narrow view of their job. Are universities supposed to teach a love of learning too? Does that love of learning extend down to particular disciplines? I don't really think much about 3. I do take a big vicarious pride when an ex-student becomes a successful economist "look at how well I taught him!". More than if they become a successful something else. They are going to decide for themselves anyway.

I wasn't being tongue in cheek about The Economist. I reckon if they read The Economist (or similar) as well they will probably learn more economics than if they just listen to me and read the text. Maybe it's a complement? Simply the idea that there's more to economics than is on the course outline. The Economist is one of those things. Many others too, of course.

JW: I hadn't read that Weber piece (or don't remember reading it).

I generally agree with it. Sometimes I wonder if we should act as "leaders of youth". But it can't generally work. My first ever class was a lot older than I was, and humoured my youthful enthusiasms, taking it all with a big pinch of salt. And there's an awful lot of profs who might be great at what they do, but otherwise you wouldn't want them to lead anyone anywhere. "His men would follow him anywhere; but only out of idle curiosity to see what he would do next".

Nick, what about this category: information about stuff that is related to students' education and learning, but is unrelated to economics? I'm thinking: student success centres, writing tutorial services, all those bureaucratic things. Sure, it's not economics, but is our job to teach economics, or is our job to provide students with an opportunity to learn a set of useful skills, e.g. the ability to write up an economic analysis?

Frances: yes, good point. I reckon that's close enough to teaching and learning economics to count as OK, at least in principle. I was convinced by Deirdre McClosky that part of being a good economist is being able to write economics well.

My freshman McGill chem prof had a great way of threading this needle. He had a hall full of ~500 people and he would sometimes have a slide up was we walked into the hall. He would put up everything from the NCAA March Madness bracket to a plug for a campus museum. It took almost no class time (usually exactly zero) and was appreciated by many.

But once you allow in one bureaucrat...

Coase certainly stressed the importance of using the market economy to allocate scare resources. But he also stressed that when private contracts are nonnegotiable in the market economy, some planner should step in to mimic the outcomes that would have occurred if private contracts were negotiable.

It would be great if you could leave it up to you students to decide how to allocate that 160 minutes per week, but the students may disagree; some may be interested in behavioral topics, others may want you to describe what the Fed's latest actions mean, and surely a few of them aren't interested at all in economics and couldn't care less how the time is spent. So even under Coase's framework, you, as a central planner, have the legitimate authority to dictate how the 160 minutes are spent. It's all about cost-benefit analysis. If you didn't dictate how the 160 minutes are spent each week, then the cost could be a chaotic classroom in which nobody agrees about the teaching agenda, making the entire classroom less wise about economics at the end of the semester. The benefit might be some personal gratification that allows you to celebrate the fact that you "let the market determine how best to allocate the 160 minutes each week," but that would hardly be sometime to celebrate if all of your students hadn't learned much about economics. So the cost-benefit tradeoff may be better when you act as a central planner.

The broader point is, there are many instances in the private economy when the cost-benefit calculus makes better sense if some planner steps in to dictate nonnegotiable contracts -- like, for example, when a locality steps in to regulate natural gas drilling near a town. Cost-benefit analyses are inherently difficult to make, and, as you mentioned, some form of central planning exists at the firm and household level. But some central planning at the government level, if done in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs and that heeds to Coase's framework, is not only acceptable but encouraged -- which is a point that has been muddled over the past several decades.

I recall a grand total of one guest speaker when I was an undergraduate - he was on campus to give a lecture, and presented preliminary material from a forthcoming paper. Jean Tirole.


After much trail and error, here's my best answer: "Students are paying about $2 per minute to learn economics in this class. With 400 students, it will therefore cost you $800 per minute (in advance) to speak to my class."

Mike Sproul,

Excellent! Very fair AND it will teach the person an important fact.

Ugh! This post is upsetting. Students are diffused across campuses and cities. They're busy, running from one place to the next. Classrooms are an ideal opportunity to have their attention for a few moments before class. I personally do class visits to promote general assemblies, as the students are all members of a union, through which they have full voting rights and the ability to shape the direction of the organization. The classroom announcement can open the possibility for students to think about democracy, rights, participation in society and so on. These things are worth sacrificing classroom time for. Outside of classroom visits, there are not many solid opportunities to speak directly to students (tabling, handing out flyers, events, etc.).

m_brett: Yep, I understand that, and sympathise. But when you say "These things are worth sacrificing classroom time for." That's something I hear from everyone who wants to speak from my class, and I'm sure they all believe it too. And if I used *my personal* judgement on what I thought it was really really important to be worth sacrificing classroom time for, you might not like the answers I would come up with. "Unless these students discover God, they are all going to burn in hell for eternity! So I'm going to let the preacher in". Or maybe I don't like the sort of politics you are promoting, so in my judgement your speaking to the class would have a negative value.

We live in a world where people disagree on what's right and wrong, and important and not important. And so we develop rules to "resolve" these differences. And societies which don't develop these rules, or which have bad rules, are societies most people flee from. But sometimes that means we have to put up with people making decisions we think are wrong. Because if I don't play by the rules I have sketched out here, I'm certainly not going to play by *your* rules. I'm going to play by *my* rules. And you would probably like that even less.

"Outside of classroom visits, there are not many solid opportunities to speak directly to students (tabling, handing out flyers, events, etc.)."

If the students wanted to listen, they would read those flyers and talk to you at tables and go to those events. Are you sure you don't just want a captive audience, where they can't escape and are forced to listen? If so, why not say so directly, and say that all universities should have mandatory attendance for all students in a special compulsory class in direct democracy?

I say let them speak, regardless of political or religious creed, even if it chews into a few opening minutes of class time. For me, class visits really are the corner-stone of trying to foster a democratic student union. We rely on class visits to insure that quorum is met at our general assemblies. Perhaps the culture here is simply different, but class visits are generally regarded part of an active and engaged campus. They create a nice link between the academic life and the real world, and I think that connection is worth maintaining and fostering. We just differ in opinion on this matter.

The rules that you speak of are your own, and they can be changed.

Lastly, people do listen and read flyers, but these tend to be people who have time and are already engaged in social issues. Nobody is being forced to listen in a classroom, as I'm sure you know when watching your students tune out...or fall asleep! It's simply an ideal opportunity to speak to people in a quiet environment outside the rush of daily life. It also gives a sense that students are part of a broader community, rather than isolated units.

m_brett: good to see you on here arguing a different perspective (for once, just once, I was getting bored by nobody really disagreeing with me!).

And your proposed rule is certainly fair in the sense of all those who wish to speak get to do so (if everyone follows it). But I think it's unworkable.

If I let one preacher in and every other preacher hears about it, they are all going to want their 2 minutes. And then the atheists too. (The Psych profs would use up loads of time to run their experiments, if I let them). The whole class time will go. And maybe the students don't want it? And even if they did, would their economics (or whatever) grades really mean as much any more?

Another way of looking at it: Carleton Student's Association has elections rules. "You can't put posters here". "You can't spend more than $X on your campaign". Etc. Sort of an Arms Limitation Treaty to stop everyone spending too much on electioneering, plus not giving the richest and those with most free time an unfair advantage. Maybe you could think of restrictions on class talks the same sort of way?

How about a fair restriction along these lines: no more than 5 minutes allocated to class visits per class. If nobody visits the class, which is more often than not the case, than nobody visits. The minutes aren't banked or anything. But if people do visit the class, they have no more than five minutes to present and engage with the class. That seems fair to me. Sure, the time adds up, but I think it's a worthwhile Canadian initiative.

Last time my student association visited my class, they blocked the door and wouldn't let me in.

m_brett: that's a reasonable suggestion. If I couldn't follow my proposed rule, yours would make sense to me as an alternative. But it doesn't really solve my problem. Not just should it be 5 minutes or 2 or 10. Or is it really my decision to decide if it's 5 or 2 or 10, when it's the students' time too? Can I say "no" to anyone, say someone who wants to speak about something not really at all related to university life? What about commercials? And (probably my biggest worry) what happens if one class there's a massive excess demand to speak? Do I just give them all 5 seconds each? Or try to say no to some? (This would get tricky on student elections. I tried to be rigourous and say "1 minute each", and enforce it, to be fair. But then there were different elections, and sometimes slates, so is that 1 minute per person or per slate, or...and it was back to me using my judgement over questions where I had no legitimate authority.

On the other hand, your basic point, put most generally, would be (I think): "there's more to university than just economics/math/english/psych/textbook/prof/whatever." Yep.

Stephen: Oh God. These things do go in (very long, almost Kondratief) cycles. I remember an old guy at Carleton saying once, when i was upset about some student daftness: "This too shall pass". My generation were a bad lot. Look back, not in anger, but in sheer embarrassment. Thank God the students I have had have been (nearly always) better than we were.

They blocked "your" door because they voted on blocking your (i.e. their) door. Did Laval economics students even go on strike?

I'd love a Stephen Gordon blog post on the strike ; )

Actually, none of my students were there. They all wanted to attend class, and since they are all foreign students who don't want trouble, they backed away at the sight of the picket. A great victory for student democracy.

We organised everything else by internet for the next couple of weeks and I set a take-home exam.

Stephen: that's quite bad. Universities (understood broadly, to mean everyone at universities), unfortunately, don't always have a good track record of sensible behaviour that respects others. You get self-reinforcing bubbles that look so daft from outside, and will look daft to the participants when they look back on it years later. It's just the nature of things, in an enclosed community.

They blocked "your" door because they voted on blocking your (i.e. their) door.

This is the most egregiously self-serving bit about the Quebec "student democracy" movement. I and my students had every right to enter that class, and those thugs had no right to block us.

I wonder if the next time 2 guys shake down someone in an alley, the defense will be "We had a vote about what to do with his wallet. It was perfectly democratic, and he lost."

It's an interesting debate - the tensions between collective will and individual rights. Your position is clear. The votes are worth nothing, regardless of how many people turn out to vote. That was initially the position of the chair of the geography department at Concordia, who called the pickets an infringement upon human rights. He then changed his position after attending a department general assembly, saying he respected the will of his students.

There is a history of respecting student votes at some Quebec institutions. Many of the universities stop operations following a student vote.

We're veering from the subject of this post - apologies, Nick.

m_brett: I've seen waaaaay worse veering off-topic! ;-)

The votes *are* worth nothing, because the assembly didn't have the authority to make those decisions.

That's not necessarily true. The argument that students have been making is that association bylaws comply with the Quebec Companies Act, which governs the legal framework of non-profit organizations. So assembly votes may be legal if they comply with the Quebec Companies Act.

The legalization of the conflict is itself an important topic - this whole distinction between a "strike" and a "boycott." If we refuse to call this a strike, then we should also look for a new name for "hunger strikes."

Student associations can decide the things they have the right to decide: how to spend dues, etc. They do *not* have the right to decide if someone is allowed to go to class or not. And they most emphatically do *not* have the right to physically enforce that decision.

And do you think hunger strikers have the right to prevent other people from eating?

What governs the student association or student union rights to collect dues? If it is their "right" to collect dues, then why would their rights not extend to, for example, voting to temporarily cease class activities? Can faculty unions not temporarily cease their activities? And does that not deny education to the entire student-body? If faculty and staff can cease university activities through strike activity, why are those rights not extended to student unions? When our interests are not being met, what tools do we have at our disposal? When our status or interests are put at risk, we turn to our unions, like you do as faculty.

Lots of professors respect these votes to the best of their abilities. See, for example, the latest letter signed by hundreds of professors:


And here for more details:


I don't respect those votes, because they have no legal validity. Others may say what they will. Those profs against the tuition increase are uniformly ignorant of the empirical literature on the subject.

The analogy to faculty unions is wrong, because they *are* unions subject to the laws governing unions. Student unions aren't.

Okay, than how did faculty unions establish themselves? Certainly, faculty unions did not always exist. They fought for their right to exist, and those rights are always contested and subject to change. In fact, many law students against the strike argue that student strikes should be granted legal status, because injunctions can be enforced if student unions are recognized as legal entities.

You do understand that professors are employees, yes? Students are not?

As employees within a union, you are entitled to certain rights (contracts, job security - sometimes - etc.). As students within a union, we are entitled to certain rights. The extent of these rights are not uniform across countries, provinces or even departments. Take UQAM, for example. An article in the Montreal Gazette reads as follows: "Jenny Desrochers, a communications official at UQAM, said the university - which closed four buildings in March - has to respect the democratic decisions made by student associations. So if a strike vote is taken by the majority, even students not supporting the strike may not have access to classes. And while teachers are obliged to show up for classes, they are not encouraged to engage in confrontations between striking and non-striking students" (Seidman, March 14, 2012).

Jenny Desrochers was making sh*t up. You do *not* have the power to force someone to not go to class.

The official spokesperson of the university was making things up?

Okay, they don't have the *moral authority* (or legal authority, but that doesn't appear to matter much in Quebec student politics) to force someone to not go to class. They clearly had the power, once the universities decided that they would cave in the face of the threat of a physical confrontation.

Ugh! This post is upsetting. Students are diffused across campuses and cities. They're busy, running from one place to the next. Classrooms are an ideal opportunity to have their attention for a few moments before class.

I have the same problem. I have a great new book I am trying to get other people to read, but it is so hard to get people's attention. They are all busy, running around, doing things totally unrelated to listening to me promote my book.

But they seem to congregate in their offices, so if I could just have a few minutes of their office time, it would make my marketing efforts much easier.

After all, life is about a lot more than just work, right?

Fortunately, there's an enduring - if gradually eroding - difference between a business and boss relative to a university and professor.

Why not hold a talk at, or near, these offices to promote your book?

«Those profs against the tuition increase are uniformly ignorant of the empirical literature on the subject.»

This is a strong statement, to say the least.

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