Kenneth Elzinga on Teaching Economics
By David Henderson
The best talk I attended at the annual meetings of the Association for Private Enterprise Education (APEE) was a luncheon speech given by Kenneth Elzinga of the University of Virginia. I have known Ken since the early 2000s when we both were on the faculty of the George Mason University Law School’s “economics for federal judges” program. I saw then that he was someone who highly valued, and highly invested in, the craft of teaching economics.
Ken’ talk was on teaching economics and was very well prepared. I don’t remember where exactly but there were a couple of points in the talk where I wanted to break into applause. Ken has shared his extensive notes from that lecture with me. Here are a few highlights.
From early in the talk:
I am going to talk about teaching economic by lecture today and I am fully aware that in some circles this marks me as pedagogically outdated. In the School of Education at my university, to lecture to students is to be a so-called “sage on the stage” and this is a pejorative description, as though there is something wrong with being a sage. Our Teaching Resource Center recently offered program called “The Tyranny of the Lecture” by Eric Mazur. I thought I might become depressed if I attended.
As best I understand this criticism of teaching by the lecture method, it has to do with the fact that it is hierarchical; teaching by lecture is based on the assumption that the teacher knows more about the material than the students do. Frankly, I have never doubted that this applies in the teaching of economics.
This next one is correct, in my view, but I have had trouble adopting it. I have, however, adopted it on the margin. I make some notes now on my computer versus none before having heard Ken’s talk:
I did not catch on until well into my teaching career that the best time to evaluate a lecture and decide what needs replacing often is right after the lecture is delivered, and not a year or two later, when one next teaches that topic area. It isn’t enjoyable to revise a lecture right on the heels of giving it. But unless the lecture turned out to be brilliant, there is never a better time to identify that lecture’s weak spots than just after giving it.
Followed quickly by a little humor from his good friend, the late William Breit, who was the best story teller I have heard in economics:
How does one know if a lecture was brilliant, requiring no future revision whatsoever? William Breit once proposed to me a tangible benchmark. A brilliant lecture, one you can file away unrevised, is one where students respond by carrying you out of the lecture hall on their shoulders and parade you around the campus. Most of us probably only have this happen one or two times per year.
This next one I adopted 20 years ago and am so glad I did:
If anyone wonders about the quality of his or her lecturing clarity, there is a reliable, albeit sobering test, that can be self-administered. Record three or four of your own lectures and then listen to them. Awkward speech patterns, such as slurred words and interspersed uhhhs between sentences, will be so embarrassingly revealed that a cure usually follows this examination.
The modern version of this, I’ve noticed, is not the “uhhh” between sentences but the “is, is, is, is” in the middle of a sentence. I want to strangle the person who does that, or at least leave the room.
More later. When I do the later excerpts, I’ll also add one of my own thoughts. Ken didn’t say it but I think it was implicit in his talk.