Friday, May 26, 2006

Hear, Hear ...

Greg Mankiw on the academy:

We also discuss other things, such as teaching ability. But about 90 percent of the weight in hiring goes to research, only about 10 percent to teaching. Not once have I heard anyone ask, "How well equipped is this candidate to help college students sort out their lives?" If I ever posed such a question in a faculty meeting, my colleagues would think I was joking.


I am open to the idea that we should take a broader view in promotion and hiring than we do. I would increase the weight given to teaching relative to research. I would give some weight to life experiences outside of academia, such as working in policy jobs, writing op-eds, writing books for nonspecialists, and so on. But my perspective is a minority view in my department and, I believe, in research universities more generally.

I've long agreed with Greg's position. I also don't see why the Harvard economics department doesn't take advantage of the gains from specialization and hire a few teaching/mentoring specialists. Each year there are between 200-350 economics concentrators. Senior surveys indicate essentially none of them will graduate satisfied with the degree of faculty contact. Given the current faculty composition, this doesn't surprise me at all. People who do great research are best at mentoring people like themselves who want to and are capable of producing great research. This occurs because these are the students that the faculty actively pursue, but also because these are the students the faculty actually have the knowledge to help (i.e., many faculty have no experience outside the academy and as such can offer very little advice on any non-academic topics -- this lowers the expected productivity of faculty-student relationships and likely leads both parties to try and avoid them).

Ultimately, this means that very top students can obtain pretty good mentoring here, but the median studentis unlikely to develop much of a relationship with faculty. I doubt that marginal changes in the weight assigned to teaching in the hiring process will change that. So I don't see why the department just doesn't bring in a handful of the best teachers/mentors and set up institutions (e.g., weekly lunches and assigning them to large lectures) that make sure that these profs get to know most every economics concentrator. I think hiring such specialists would increase the productivity of the department in at least 5 ways:

1) it would improve the average quality of instruction in courses (particularly large lectures)
2) these specialists could serve as default mentors, letter of recommendation writers, and thesis advisors for students who struggle to get noticed (particularly in their first few years when they are stuck in large classes) -- given the number of letters of recommendation I've written as a lowly TF, I've long wondered how many students don't apply for internships, grants, etc. because they don't feel comfortable asking any faculty for a letter of recommendation.
3) their ability to serve as default advisors would also free up other faculty to do more research or provide better advising to their advisees by reducing the number "marginal" students they feel obligated to advise (and by teaching classes it may be very costly for them to teach).
4) also, I think these faculty could serve to improve the matching of faculty and student by facilitating introductions and matching students and faculty who are likely to form a productive pairing.
5) they allow the department to hire people with greater background diversity to better match the interests of the students and better match supply with demand.

I'm sure there are more reasons, but its been awhile since I thought about the particulars of my plan (I came up with it 3 or 4 years ago).

It's really a pity that we can't compare these senior survey results across universities (can we?). Although essentially none of the students are "satisfied" with their economics education (and I've seen the Harvard undergraduate economics program in action and know it could be better), I think that a lot of people at the age of undergraduates are likely to be "dissatisfied" with many things. Are there any fields that get reviews saying the vast majority (or even a simple majority) of students are satisfied? I'd be fascinated to know!
Yes. While I don't know about surveys across schools, within Harvard across concentrations, there is substantial variation is satisfaction. I also know that students at other Ivys (and similar highly selective schools) report higher statisfaction with their education than students at Harvard. (And in all cases, I think more than half report being satisfied.)

So I don't think you can explain this with a "dissatisfied youngster" hypothesis. You might be able to argue for either selection (e.g., ec concentrators or Harvard students are generally more dissatisfied) or being in a "bad" reputation information cascade (e.g., at some point dissatisfaction reached a critical mass and now new students don't evaluate their experience on its own merits they just accept opinions/"talking points" from others.
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