Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What is a Professor's Constituency?

I have always had the impression that a professor's job is to help increase the net present discounted value of the expected future flow of each student's utility. [digression: Or possibly the net present value of the wealth of the university through donations, grants and funding?].

What that means, operationally, is open to question. Which students' utilities get what weights? What discount rate is important? And how much in loco parentis is possible?

Consequently, to implement such a job description, different people have come up with other, more intermediate goal and job descriptions, such as

  • student as customer
  • student's parent as customer
  • elected funding legislature as customer

I like the concept of student as customer, except that in a market explicitly based on asymmetric information, it makes sense for students to pay professors to make/encourage/induce the students do something they would not otherwise do. Students are an important constituency, but catering to their current wishes is probably not a very good idea since profs know the subject (and one might hope) more about how to teach it than the students do. In this sense, teaching evaluations by students should probably have no more than a 10% weight on overall assessments of professors.

Students' parents are an important constituency. We may not see this on a day-to-day basis, but it crops up now and then. Students go home and tell their parents what they have learned, and their parents become outraged: "What are they teaching you at that place?"

But the other time I see parents as a constituency is at graduation - they love it, and our university caters to this with a full two weeks of my working time devoted to graduation ceremonies.

Another important aspect of constituencies, from a professor's point of view, is who in the department is important? Should I work on research topics that seem important to senior members of the department? Should I drink the same beer they drink? And here's a new one, in this link which quotes a friend of The Emirates Economist.

"Students are my raw material. My customers are the teachers who get them later."

For new (untenured) assistant professors that is not bad advice. But for the most part, I prefer the Emirates Economist's perspective.
[F]or my friend's idea to have full impact, he needs to be informed about the courses his courses feed. And the instructor's in the upper level courses need to hold his students accountable for knowing the material in the pre-requisite.

The only reason this advice from his friend has any merit is that if those teaching lower level courses do not keep in mind (or don't find out or don't care about) what is being covered in upper level courses, then the students and/or their parents and/or the funding legislators will be upset. In other words, the advice may be good, but it certainly should not set the framework for our teaching objectives.

Paul Heyne made his name as a teacher, in fact, from not following this advice. And although I'm no Paul Heyne, one thing I know is that there are many aspects of the Economic Way of Thinking that I must teach my students because if I don't do it, they won't learn them in their upper-level courses. In other words, if I take the upper level courses as a parameter, then I could teach nothing but technique and math and really give my students a leg up for those courses. I don't think that would be doing them a great service, though, and it completely ignores those students who will not be taking any more courses in the subject.

Update: Phil Miller has some interesting additional thoughts on this topic at Market Power.

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