Monday, September 29, 2008

2 interesting links...

Alan Krueger of Princeton put together a nice presentation to introduce undergraduates to behavioral economics:

Trust me: students like little psychological tid-bits that reveal anomalies about themselves...much more than supply and demand curves

This link lists 50 of the most dependable web resources for university students. Professors have adamantly opposed Wikipedia, despite the fact that they all use it. I guess professors don't like a medium which doesn't rely on professors for information. I like Wikipedia, and agree with Tyler Cowen's quote below.

If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia.~Tyler Cowen

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Student's Guide to College

The U.S. News and World Report has started a blog giving advice to college students. I didn't find anything interesting, but you may.

Writing and Presentation Tips

John Cochrane from the University of Chicago wrote an interesting paper called Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students.

Much of it is excellent. Some of it doesn't feel right to me. My favorite part is at the end about giving seminars. Here are some excerpts.

You will not believe how fast the time will go by.
Since time is limited, it’s especially important to get to the point. We can’t skim to the
important stuff in a seminar!
You don’t need any literature review or motivation in a seminar. Just get to the point.
Gene Fama usually starts his seminars with “Look at table 1.” That’s a good model to
Don’t “preview” results. It wastes time; why say it twice rather than say it once, right?

Outsourcing Again

Following the previous post on teaching the principles of trade and its relationship with outsourcing, I ran across this superb, easy-to-read story that illustrates the principles well.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Suggested Lesson Plan: Outsourcing

In economics, it often seems we teach students everything about economics they need to know except the basic concepts every taxpayer should know. One area we systematically fail is facilitating a proper understanding of international trade, especially in the area of outsourcing.

Here is a suggested lesson plan for teaching the basic economics of outsourcing.

(1) First, show them this humorous video from The Onion (warning: much cursing, but it is funny).

(2) Then, illustrate that outsourcing cannot destroy jobs.

(2.a) Ask students, "When a firm pays India for outsourcing, it is probably paying them money they would otherwise be spending in the U.S., for the job to be done in the U.S., right?" They will agree.

(2.b) Then ask them, "With what currency do American firms pay with?" They will say the dollar.

(2.c) Then ask them, "What is the only thing an Indian can do with U.S. dollars?" Some may say spend them in the U.S., which is the correct answer. Others may argue that it is traded in a currency exchange market for Rupees. However, the only reason the currency market trades Rupees for dollars is that those dollars can be spent on goods and services in the U.S. The only thing you can ever really do with dollars is spend them on U.S. goods and services (some other countries use the dollar, but they are small countries).

(2.d) Follow this with another question, "Thus, for every $1,000 dollars paid to an Indian firm for outsourcing, how many of those dollars return to be spent in the U.S.?" The answer is all the $1,000 dollars.

(2.e) The final question is, "What is the difference between spending $1,000 in the U.S. or paying $1,000 to another country for a good or service?" The answer is nothing, the $1,000 is ultimately spent in America in both cases. Instead of giving the $1,000 to an American directly, it is given to Americans through the purchase of U.S. exports.

(3) Students love videos, so show them this video containing one of Boone Pickens' commercials explaining his energy plan. At one part in the commercial it says "Over 700 billion dollars are leaving this country to foreign nations every year." Ask the students whether this is true. If they learned the concept, they will reply it is not true, and that all of those dollars had to return to the U.S.. If we paid the money to Saudis, then the only good dollars do for Saudis is to spending it importing American goods and services.

(4) Then, illustrate that outsourcing is just like technological allows us to take on better jobs where we can produce goods and services more efficiently...and greater wealth for all! This amusing and effective video illustrates this perfectly.

Every dollar you spend is spent in America. Either directly to an American, or indirectly in the form of U.S. Exports. The same is true for outsourcing. You can pay an American for work directly, or pay for outsourcing which still pays for American work through higher U.S. exports.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Standing Out at Career Fairs

The Ag College at OK State recently had its career fair. I look forward to these fairs because several of my former students who are attending the fair as recruiters always stop by to chat with me. This year, two of these students sent me an email providing suggestions for students to stand out at the career fair. I have copied it below, removing their names.

As many of you know, ________ and I worked the CASNR career fair yesterday recruiting for ADM. As I go back over resumes today I realize how overwhelmed recruiters are with students. It is very difficult to remember everyone you have spoken to, as you want to give each candidate thorough consideration. If I had one piece of advice to give students is for them to find a way to standout. They need to not only make a good first impression but a lasting impression as well. They don’t need to be afraid to ask tons of questions. For me the ones who asked the most questions were the easiest to remember because they genuinely seemed interested.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teaching Character: Part 2

Being likeable is not exactly the same as possessing a high degree of character, but there are some similarities. We typically do not like people of low moral character. People like others who are kind, and kindness is certainly a part of having character.

The Prometheus Institute wrote an interesting piece titled Five Tips to Increase Your Likeability. I like it. You may like it to, perhaps enough to share with your students!


Becoming a Great Teacher: Part 6

In Part 5 of this series, I discussed how the most important attribute students list of great teachers is that great teachers are dynamic presenters. Students say they like dynamic presenters because it...

(1) helps them understand the material,
(2) helps them maintain class focus, and
(3) helps them retain the material.

These three items are consequences of being a dynamic lecturer that students seek. These are what students are asking of the instructor, and being a dynamic lecturer is just one way to achieve it.

Not everyone is dynamic. Some classes make being "dynamic" harder than other classes. That doesn't mean everyone cannot be a great teacher though. Perhaps, instead of asking yourself how you can be a more dynamic presenter, maybe you should ask yourself how you can better help students achieve these three goals.

Even though being "dynamic" helps students understand and retain the material, you can also facilitate understanding and retaining material in a non-dynamic fashion. However boring your methods may be, if it helps them understand the material, it achieves the most important task they ask of the instructor. I believe in repitition. The more students practice answering questions about a particular topic, they more they will understand and retain. It is not dynamic, but it works.

A number of simple activities can help students maintain class focus without you becoming a David Letterman of the classroom. Often, when I see students getting sleepy, I ask everyone to stand up and spin around once. It is silly, I know, but it gets their blood moving and keeps them awake. One time I videotaped a student sleeping and posted it on In a later class when students were getting sleepy I showed it to them, giving the class a good laugh. It also made students more scared to sleep! Also, I refuse to lecture more than one hour - it is just too much to ask of any audience. In one class I devote the last 15 minutes of every class to a game that requires them to stand, move around, and participate in an active auction. My other class is held in a computer lab where students listen to only 15-20 minutes of lecture and spend the rest of the class completing worksheets.

Find your own way, whether it be dynamic or not. But remember your end-goal, according to students, should be to help them understand the material, retain the material, and maintain focus in class.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Becoming a Great Teacher: Part 5

Note: The Becoming a Great Teacher series starts here.

In an earlier post on this series, I indicated that interviews with students reveal that the most important trait of great teachers is being a dynamic lecturer.

It may seem obvious why students value this trait. We would all rather listen to a comedian than an economist. However obvious it may seem, we asked students why having a teacher who is a dynamic lecturer is important, and there are lessons from their answers. Specifically, we asked what specific consequences stemmed from having a dynamic lecturer for a teacher that the student values.

The most common consequences, in order of importance, are
(1) helps them understand the material,
(2) helps maintain class focus,
(3) helps them retain the material, and
(4) leads to a valuable education.

Students do not just want to be entertained. They want to understand the material. They want to pay attention, despite their frequent attempts in vain to stay awake. Readers who are faculty members, think about it: how frequently do other faculty members fall asleep in seminars? ALL THE TIME!! And yet we complain about our students' inability to pay attention?

One hour and fifteen minutes is a long time to lecture. It is a long time to listen - to anything. Putting extra work into your lectures to make them entertaining, active, and vibrant isn't just for show. It is to help students stay awake, help them focus, and help them learn.

Good luck!

Explaining Government Bailouts

The recent events surrounding government bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and A.I.G. are difficult to both understand and explain because the normal person knows so very little about what these firms actually do.

Thus, it might be best to explain it using the historical example of Chrysler, which was bailed out in 1979. Everyone knows what Chrysler does: they make cars. Yet the justificiation and impacts of the bailout are similar regardless of whether the firms produce a tangible car or intangible investment instruments. The Chrysler story is interesting, as told by David Leonhart in the NY Times, which can be found here.

Congress bailed out Chrysler, which means the subsidized loans were paid for by taxpayers. AIG is being subsidized by the Federal Reserve, and I think (and I am going to ask around to see if I am right) [note: it turns out that the Fed will not print money to pay for this...the government will borrow the money...I guess the Fed doesn't want to cause greater inflation rates] that since the Federal Reserve has the ability to "print money", taxpayers will still pay for the bailout, but through higher inflation rates, not taxes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching Character: Part 1

On August 15 I blogged about teaching character. Specifically, how I thought it was important but I didn't know how to teach it.

There is, however, one thing I do in class that does get at character. The first day of class I stress to them that their performance on their first job will have a tremendous impact on their entire future. Establishing a good reputation immediately is of paramount importance. To do this, they need to make it a habit of making sure they perform every task well, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

We do not help students in college by accepting poor work, which I and others do all the time. If they come to class, come to exams, and just put forth some work, we generally pass them, regardless of the quality. That is generally not true in the workplace.

So in my senior level class I tell them they need to become accustomed to doing every task perfectly or near perfectly. It must become a habit. To help instill this, I simply do not accept any quiz or homework that is anything short of perfect or near perfect. Otherwise, they must repeat the assigment, plus additional work.

I don't know if this helps, but I believe in what I am doing. Consider what a former student told me about his job selling medical equipment to doctors.

I could loose a doctor in a day just because of one mistake and it might not even be my fault but if I loose a doc I don’t get paid and that is not fun (I know for a fact).

You never know...

You never know what career you may find yourself in, I often tell my students. Chances are, though, you will have to work with people. There is a significant chance agribusiness students will find an occupation in sales as well, which I why I so highly tout our Marketing and Sales class taught by Kim Anderson. Far more than a course on salesmanship, Dr. Anderson teaches how to establish fruitful relationships with people in general.

To illustrate the wide variety of sales jobs potentially awaiting agribusiness students, consider what one of my former agribusiness students who graduated two years ago is currently doing - see below. This student makes between $75 - $175k!

I do orthopaedic surgical sales for Depuy (Johnson and Johnson). I sell total joint reconstruction to surgeons. So if you know anyone that has had a total knee or a total hip put in them, well I sell those. I also sell anything that goes with bones, like a nail (if someone has a bad leg break I sell the nail or rod that goes in the bone). I sell bone plates, bone cement. But the biggest thing that I sell is the total joint reconstruction. I stand in the OR room with the surgeons while the case is going on so that if the doc has any questions I am there to help them out.

Pay Peanuts and Get Monkeys

It is even true in the academia. This paper describes research using data from New Zealand where academic salaries are the same across disciplines. Each discipline, however, can command a different salary in the private sector. Not surprisingly, the authors found that disciplines with higher opportunity costs attracted less talent. The authors state...

disciplines in which the fixed compensation is high relative to opportunity cost are best able to recruit high-quality researchers and/or motivate their researchers to be productive. Paying (relative) peanuts attracts mainly monkeys.

At universities, keeping costs low is simple. Keeping costs low while maintaining high quality faculty is more difficult. I think the moral of this research is that if your faculty salaries are not determined by market forces (both across and within disciplines), and are instead set by tradition or arbitrary rules, you may end up with monkeys teaching your students!

Note: I just thought this was interesting. It is not written in response to any actual event.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Robert Ellis on Writing

Robert Ellis is the author of Founding Brothers, which has sold over two million copies. In a recent EconTalk podcast (Sept 8), Russell Roberts comments on the renewed interest in America's founding by the general public, attributing part of the reason to Ellis' excellent writing ability. Here was Ellis' response:

If you divide up the time it takes for me to do research and the time it takes for me to write, it takes me twice as long to write than to research, because I labor over it. Sometimes people try to be complimentary and say, "it must be wonderful to sit down and let it all flow out in that lyrical prose that you are sometimes capable of," and I say, "see that paragraph, it took two days!"

Many of our students have the ability to write but not the willingness to put forth the effort it takes. Perhaps they do not understand the fact that good writing demands diligence? Showing them this quote may help communicate this. See a previous post with a similar quote from John Steinbeck.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Acclaim From Former Student

Below is a nice note sent from a former student to Joe Schatzer, who teaches quantitative methods in our department. Besides being nice gesture, it provides further evidence on the importance of teaching Excel.

Hey Dr. Schatzer!
Thanks for the Birthday wishes! I have been meaning to email you recently to thank you for doing such a wonderful job in teaching Quantitative Methods. I think that is the one class that stands out above all the rest as being the most helpful in my current job. I am building macros and creating pivot tables at least once a week (if not daily). That course has been extremely helpful. My little brother is currently enrolled in your Quant course (Troy Williams), and I keep telling him how valuable it will be for him. Well, thanks again for preparing me for the "real world." It is so nice to be using my degree!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Becoming a Great Teacher: Part 4

(Readers new to this series should start at the beginning)

The most important quality of a great teacher is to give dynamic lectures. One way to give dynamic lectures is to show short, entertaining tv or movie clips. Kim Anderson, who teaches sales in our department, is king in this area. I believe almost every lecture of Kim's contains a video of some sort. The funnier the video, the better. Of course, it should relate to the lecture objectives.

While not claiming to be one of these great teachers, every now and then I do give a damn good lecture. Here is one I plan to give today.

In my regression class I like to make sure students understand that regressions measure correlation, not causation. This is achieved by the following.

  • First, I show them a clip from The Simpsons, episode Much Apu About Nothing (Seventh Season). In this clip Homer commits the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation, and ends up purchasing a rock that keeps tigers away. While I cannot post the video due to copyright concerns, an interesting article containing the relevant dialogue can be found here.
  • After discussing the fact that the rock didn't really keep away tigers, I remind them of the regression we used for explaining why some people hit softballs further than others: Predicted Hitting Distance = 144.109 – 66.777(female) + 3.570(years experience) (see my previous post on collecting these data).
  • The data indicates that obtaining one more year of experience playing on a baseball or softball team will increase one's hitting distance by about 3.57 feet. But will it? The data say that class members with more experience playing on a team hit further, but what really caused them to hit further?
  • It certainly is the case that the more you play on a team the further you should be able to hit, but it is not the case that increasing experience by one year will increase the average hitting distance by 3.57 feet.
  • The reason is that people self-select into ball teams. At this point I identify a guy in the class who is obviously strong and contains more experience than me (I, for those who do not know, am very skinny at only 155 lbs). I ask: who looks like they can hit further? Everyone says the other guy. I then ask: who is more likely to want to play ball and show off their athleticism? Everyone says the other guy. Thus, I illustrate that the correlation between experience and hitting distance may not be totally causation. In part, both experience and distance are caused by natural athleticism.
  • Here comes another fun part. I ask the students to use the data here (look under Data Available for Download in the left menu) to estimate the relationship between being religious and being happy. Indeed, the data suggest that the more religious one is, the more happy one tends to be. But does religion cause happiness, or do happy people tend to be more religious, perhaps because they have more to be thankful for?
  • To illustrate this latter point, I ask if any student is not religious. At least a few are certain to raise their hand. I then inform them about this church called the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It sounds silly, but it is arguably as real as any other church. I then ask the person, and the class, if they expect to be made happier by converting to this Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. A good laugh and discussion usually follows. Students love finding out about this church, especially the fact that its heaven has a beer volcano.
  • Also, at the Church's website is the prophet Bobby Henderson's claim that global warming is caused by a reduction of pirates. To prove this, he graphs the number of pirates against CO2 emisssions - sure enough, the number of pirates is negatively correlated with C02 emissions. This last example really drives home the point of not confusing correlation causation!