CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939;
You heard it through the grapevine: Econ 1 brims with surprises
To Stanford undergraduates, John Taylor normally looks and sounds ever so much like a former member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and a man with Alan Greenspan's ear. On the stage of Kresge Auditorium, he stands high above the students. His broad shoulders, fitted precisely into a tailored dark suit, are held high and straight. His thick, gray hair behaves as if it never met a wisp of wind, and his clear, rich voice booms explanations, in proper English sentences, for the red, blue and green line graphs projected on two screens behind him. But a few years from now, what these students will remember is the morning when their stately professor morphed into a California raisin and danced to Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine."
"What I hope they remember is the lesson of the demand curve moving to the right, and in the case or raisins, as a result of government intervention," Taylor recently told a gathering of Stanford teachers. "What I am trying to do with these surprises is to make economics less abstract, more intuitive, more interesting and relevant for large lecture classes. I think of entertainment and education as closely related."
Taylor may be conservative in his economic philosophy but the Mary and Robert Raymond Professor of Economics is willing to "court disaster" in order to persuade his students that economics is interesting and informative. In a class of 650, he says, it is easy to appear unapproachable. Part of the message of his raisin performance is unspoken: "If I can do this in front of 650 people, you can ask a question."
Economics 1 has been transformed this fall thanks to Taylor and Stanford's new emphasis on improving the classroom experiences of freshmen and sophomores. Taylor's raisin impersonation patterned after a commercial that helped raise the consumer demand for raisins and reduce the government subsidy to grape growers has been an annual treat for some time. But the course is undergoing a substantial overhaul with a three-year grant from Ramón Saldívar's office of Undergraduate Studies. In a university where the word "center" usually refers to research or extracurricular activities, Taylor proposed and received approval for a new "Economics 1 Center" devoted to improving the teaching of the beginning economics course, which is taken by 60 percent of Stanford undergraduates.
Tied into the center's efforts to improve the basic course are three new seminars next quarter for freshmen who have completed the basic course. When President Gerhard Casper announced plans to encourage more tenured faculty to offer small, intensive seminars to underclassmen, some faculty said they feared it would not work because beginning students would not have the necessary background. One goal of the new Econ 1 course is to provide freshmen with the analytical tools they will need to investigate antitrust policy with Professor Frank Wolak, social security policy with Professor and Dean John Shoven and welfare reform with Professor Tom MaCurdy.
Undergraduates like to meet and learn from many people, especially famous ones, so Taylor invited Nobel economist Milton Friedman to one class this fall and former senator and basketball star Bill Bradley, a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Studies, to another. "It's not so easy to bring in relevant speakers because a lot of logistics is involved," Taylor says. "Collette Anderson, our administrative assistant at the new center, makes more of this possible."
Anderson also deals with students' schedule conflicts, classroom availability and other logistical problems that afflict high-volume courses. In the past, Taylor said, department secretaries handled such details but they have their hands full assisting the large number of majors in the Economics Department.
The center will also have a coordinator, recent doctoral graduate Marcelo Clerici-Arias, beginning next quarter and has 20 teaching assistants who are assigned to Econ 1 all year. The larger number of TAs reduced the small group sessions from about 30 students to 15. Mark Tendall, a TA with three years' experience, says the size change has increased student involvement. "They are more confident raising ideas at our weekly meeting."
For the first time this fall, the TAs were given formal training in teaching as well as videotape critiques of their teaching. A new web page [http://www.stanford.edu/class/econ1/] provides assignments, announcements, answer keys and breaking economic news stories related to classwork. Recently, the webmaster added a video clip, and there are plans to offer more, including an economic experiment with bid-ask auctions that students can try in their dorms. (The web version would allow students to repeat at their own pace the fast-moving trial auction conducted in their weekly small group sessions.)
"The web has really cut down on the paper we use," said Scott Kush, a teaching assistant who also acts as webmaster. "And when we have a really good review section, we can tape it and put it online as a supplement to the review sections students attend." As a teaching tool, he said, the web fits well with the philosophy of educational psychologist Howard Gardner about people having different forms of intelligence and therefore different ways of learning.
In Taylor's words, economics is both a "fuzzy and techie" subject, fraught with "little hurdles" abstract ideas or simplified models of the real world that many students have trouble grasping, particularly in macroeconomics. He tries to teach the concepts that he wished all politicians understood when he was trying to advise them in Washington, he says. "Economics didn't come instantly to me," he says, which is perhaps one reason he tries to teach each concept in a variety of ways. One way involves inviting his wife, Allyn, to class to illustrate the concept of "comparative advantage" in international trade policy. He introduces her as a lawyer with a master's degree in economics. She is a better economist than he is, he says, but a better lawyer than she is an economist. As a result, it is to their comparative advantage for her to do the lawyering and for him to do the economics.
While the web and video technology hold great possibilities, Taylor says one of his most successful lecturing techniques is an old-tech idea that he stole from another teacher. "I use two overhead projectors, not one." In a recent class where he was introducing economic growth concepts, Taylor displayed a "techie" graph on the left projector and a more word-oriented, analogy-driven explanation of it on the right, moving from one to the other in his oral presentation. The two projectors, he says, "allow me to be more efficient with the time I have."
When the Center on Teaching and Learning asked him to lecture recently on his teaching techniques, several teachers wanted to know what Taylor did when one of his new ideas backfired or when technology failed him. He had told them, for example, about how he surprises students in the middle of one dry lecture by having Adam Smith, talking from the heavens, interrupt him. For this trick, he and Smith rely on an earthly public address system.
"Sometimes there is a disaster," he said. "It always helps to be prepared. I review my timing in advance every time. Adam Smith usually speaks over the PA system, but if it doesn't work, I have my ghetto blaster." Even if a new idea falls totally flat, he said, "there is still the element of surprise, and students, especially beginning students, love the attempts."
The new center will not make every Econ 1 lecture like Taylor's. Clerici-Arias will teach the winter quarter course and Michael Boskin, another former member of the Council of Economic Advisers, will teach the spring version. They will have access to the materials and personnel who worked with Taylor this fall but will try experiments of their own. While Taylor sees entertainment as a tool for getting students more involved in his subject, he says that other teachers have different methods for accomplishing the same goal. This struck him recently when he was in the Rocky Mountains trying to learn a new method of skiing from two different instructors, both of whom were helpful. "You can use technical words to talk about how to teach something, but each teacher then has to use his own words with the students."
The second addition of Taylor's Economics textbook was published this fall by Houghton Mifflin along with a videotape of him lecturing on key concepts. The tape will supplement the book in Econ 1 courses all over the country. It has colorful graphics developed by an animator who produced improvements on Taylor's hand-drawn charts. It has video clips of economic activities around the world to replace some of his oral descriptions. A viewer of the tape can see Taylor's facial expressions more clearly than can those who watch him from the second row of Kresge. One wonders, looking at it, if Taylor, the 1992 Hoagland Prize winner for teaching, will retire soon from the live stage.
"The videotape does make you wonder about the future value of large lecture classes," he concedes. But after 10 years in Econ 1, he isn't ready to bolt for the movies. "You can still surprise them on stage," he says, by overlaying three esoterically labeled economic graphs on the projector to form the words "Beat Cal" just before the bell rings, or by planting his daughter Jennifer, visiting from Princeton, in the audience and then letting the students vote on whether to erect a "free trade barrier" and kick her out.
"Perhaps we'll have fewer live lectures in the future," he says, a tinge of sadness in his voice, "but I think it's inherently more exciting to be there."
By Kathleen O'Toole