Rebecca: In our ongoing coverage of wildlife in the classroom, we can’t help but ask: How does a marmot become a mascot for a finance class? In this episode, we’ll discuss how rich imagery can be used to help students make connections and deepen their understanding.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Alex Butler, a professor of finance at Rice University. Alex received the Jones School’s Award for Scholarship Excellence in 2011 and 2012. Alex teaches financial markets and corporate finance in the undergraduate MBA, MBA, and PhD programs. Sometime in the latter part of the last century, Alex and I spent three summers teaching introductory economics to highly gifted middle school and high school students at the Talent Identification Program at Duke University.
Alex: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me, John.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Alex: I am not drinking tea…. just water at this point.
Rebecca: Another one… epidemic.
John: My tea is ginger peach white tea.
Rebecca: I’ve Prince of Wales today.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you normally teach?
Alex: Sure. I have, over the years, taught almost every course that we have… either here or at other schools. Right now what I teach (and I’m glad to finally have settled into a group of classes that are my classes year in and year out) and those classes are the undergraduate business finance class and PhD courses – one in corporate finance, and one that’s a topics class on causal inference. I really enjoy teaching the undergrad business finance class in particular because I was an undergraduate student here at Rice many, many years ago, and so it’s fun to be back and be on the other side of the podium teaching the students. One of the things that I really like about teaching the undergraduates here is that they are able to appreciate my dorky sense of humor.
Rebecca: …which is indeed a very important thing.
Alex: Agreed. For years, I tried to suppress my dorky sense of humor in the classroom… ad tried to teach the course sort of straight up and dry, and it made everybody miserable… the students…. me… and so, eventually over time, as I grew more and more confident teaching, I started incorporating more and more jokes here and there… and then I allowed them to become more elaborate, and then before you know it, I’ve developed a full-blown dad sense of humor and full-on dork mode.
John: That’s actually why we invited you here. We read a little bit about that in a teaching award you just received. What do students expect the course to be about when they take an introductory finance course?
Alex: At Rice, the students have a good grapevine of information about what courses are about and so, at this point, the students come in with pretty solid expectations that line up with what the class actually is… and whereas some students are hoping that I’m going to teach them how to become millionaires in the stock market, what the course mostly is about is that’s very hard to become a millionaire investing in the stock market and how to make decisions in a corporate setting that will maximize firm value.
Rebecca: So you mentioned that some students come in with this misperception of becoming a millionaire. What are some of the strategies that you use to dispel that myth?
Alex: I should say this class is one that is a fairly standard course that’s taught in lots of different business schools all over the country, all over the world. One way that I do it differently is in the order of material that I cover… and so the very first week of class, I talk about market efficiency. That’s the notion that it’s very difficult to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. In other words, you can’t beat the stock market very easily, unless it just happens to be by luck… and so I come in the first week talking about the reasons why it’s very difficult to beat the stock market… and the reason why is because there are literally tens of thousands of people who have more money and more resources and who are faster and are doing this as a full-time job who are also trying to find the stocks that are mispriced… and so unless you are the investor who is faster, and smarter, and has more money to throw at the trading strategy that you think of, it’s very very difficult to beat the other 10,000 people… and so I spend the first week of class introducing this concept and then providing copious amounts of evidence… research that highlights how difficult it is for lay people to earn abnormal returns in the stock market. That sets the setting for the rest of the course, which is this notion of how competition affects prices and how that feeds through to other applications and the corporate domain as opposed to the financial markets domain.
Rebecca: What made you switch the order?
Alex: What I realized after teaching this class for a long time is that most of corporate finance, most of business finance, is about discounting cash flows back to the present at some appropriate discount rate, and I found I was having a hard time getting the students to understand the notion of what interest rate, what discount rate, should be used to make these cash flows that are spread through time to get a present value equivalent. I figured if I started with some aspect of that, where that rate comes from, where those prices come from. but that would make the rest of the course easier for them to understand as we go through. So, that’s why. Most people wait until after they’ve introduced things like: “oh, portfolio theory” and “capital asset pricing model” and other asset pricing concepts before they talk about market efficiency… and so I just sort of turned that around backwards… and I open the course with that. So, point number one is pedagogical, and point number two is that the lectures that I do on market efficiency are really fun, and so I really like starting the course off with something that’s really fun. So, we can talk about stories of insider trading, and we can talk about stories of surprise announcements and how that affects stock returns, and we can talk about “oh, so you think you’re going to beat the market, well let me explain to you how hard it is and the reasons why …” also were very fun. So, we can spend the first week talking about fun stuff. It’s a giant bait and switch.
I lure them in with fun stuff and then beat them to death for the next fourteen weeks with discounted cash flow analysis.
Rebecca: It also sounds like it’s a good way to motivate students. Not only is it fun, but it gets students motivated and interested and they buy into the class, which I wouldn’t discount that. I think that’s an important task.
Alex: Oh, absolutely.
John: …discounting in a different sense, but…
Rebecca: Yeah, sorry… I’m a designer
John: …but it also starts a class by dispelling that myth that they’re going to learn tools that will allow them to become really wealthy in financial investments and so forth. So, you’re setting it up by getting rid of that myth and they’re ready to start actually learning without having that at the background.
Rebecca: I really like the idea of just meeting students where they’re at. If this is where some students are coming with, and maybe they’re super motivated in some ways but not in others, that you just tackle both of those in one week.
Alex: That’s right.
You recently won a 2018 George R. Brown Award for superior teaching, and the Georgia R. Brown Awards are based on an interesting selection process. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Alex: Yeah, so what the university does is they solicit feedback from recent alumni, people who graduated, I think, it’s two and five years ago. Now, they have graduated and they’re looking back what teachers would they want to see when these awards… and so, it’s really a neat honor, because once the students are two, three, four. five years out, they’re not responding to the short-term incentives that some professors used to gain teaching evaluations and things like that, they’re looking back and they’re actually remembering what the course was, what the professor was like, and whether it was meaningful to them. It’s really been just a phenomenal honor, and one that I honestly thought that I would never win. So, it’s been really special to have gotten that award.
John: It’s a really interesting idea to have an award given in that way, because it focuses on that long-term learning, that you’ve taught them something that’s going to benefit them later rather than, as you said, something that people do short term. I know some faculty, when we’re doing course evaluations, will give out cookies or other things just to boost their short-term course evaluations. But, that’s not going to pay off very much two to five years after graduation.
Alex: That’s correct. I went through the cookies and brownies phase myself years ago and decided that that just wasn’t who I wanted to be, so…. Now, we’re on to just just the pedagogy at this point.
Rebecca: I think there’s a couple of interesting things that I see about those awards, too, and one is that is more meaningful probably to win it because you can feel the impact but two it meshes really well with what we know about evidence-based practices in that students generally don’t like them while they’re happening, but they have longer-term effects… and that students tend to learn that material and transfer that material later on.
Alex: That’s absolutely correct, and I’m a big subscriber to that basic view that students often don’t like things that make them uncomfortable, and learning new and difficult things is uncomfortable. I think one could make students happier in the short run by giving them lots of little assignments where they feel like they’re making progress every day but they’re not actually being challenged, they’re not actually being pushed, and so instead holding them to very high standards for demonstrating their mastery of material while that is very uncomfortable for some of them, it is that that makes them better students and better scholars of that topic.
John: It reminds me of Bjork and Bjork, in their writings on “desirable difficulties.” that the most learning occurs when students are faced with feasible challenges… that if things are too easy, they get bored, and they may be happy with the course if they don’t have to struggle much… but they learn the most when they’re struggling but they see it’s possible.
We’ve heard that this award, though, based on some of the write-ups we’ve seen at your institution, may somehow be tied to marmots, wolves, and The Princess Bride. What do they all have to do with finance?
Alex: Several years ago, I was reading some books I thought would be…. some I thought it’d be helpful for my teaching, some that I just thought would be helpful for me, and one of the books was a book called Brain Rules by John Medina, and it’s basically a book that tries to take cognitive science, brain science, down to a level that lay people can understand and gives several rules of thumb of how the brain works and why the brain works the way it does… and as I’m reading this, reading it mostly for my own consumption so that I can be a better researcher and more thoughtful person, smarter, that sort of thing, I realized “Gosh, a lot of the rules here applied very directly to teaching, at least in the lecture format that I use in most of my courses…” and so one of the things that really stood out to me is how people learn better, remember better, I guess I should say, when they see images images that relate to whatever the topic at hand is. So, text maybe a PowerPoint slide with text, and you remember X percent but if you see an image, you remember much more of that material later on… and so this gave me just a license to, all of a sudden, start having fun on a completely new dimension. Reading this book and sort of embracing the notion that I could maybe help students remember the material better simply by infusing my lecture slides with some relevant images, was just eye opening for me… because now I could take my completely dry, boring slides with words and numbers and equations and now I can have fun with them…. and have this entire new dimension, a degree of freedom, to play around with what the slides are gonna look like and how the students are going to experience them. So, that’s sort of the extensive margin. The first part is: “Hey, I need images…” so the intrinsic margin is “what kind of images do I need?” “what will work best?” and Brain Rules comes to the rescue there again… and it says people respond to images that are faces, that are things that are scary, things that they can eat, things that might want to eat them, and things that they might want to mate with. Well, that last one’s kind of out for most of my lecture slides… [LAUGHTER] I can’t really incorporate that very directly. But it got me thinking “okay, what’s scary?” So, I started looking around for images of things that are scary to people… and I found this great image of this really, just terrifying, snarling wolf. I’m like “Ah, I’m gonna use that to get people’s attention…” But, as I started thinking about it, I wanted to lead into the wolf a little bit… and so the main prey of wolves in North America are marmots… yellow-bellied marmots… and so I found this great image of a little cute yellow-bellied marmot sitting on a rock somewhere in the mountain somewhere… and now when I come in to teach what could be the absolute driest lecture of the entire course which is time value of money and understanding how to discount cash flows (it’s the tool that everything else builds on, so it’s incredibly important to get it right, but it’s also potentially incredibly technical and boring)… and so I start that lecture not with an equation not with numbers but with a giant image of a marmot filling the entire computer’s projection screen…. and I just leave it up there… and the class is all looking at it… and I look back at them… and I pick someone at random. I cold call… and I say: “So, Charlotte, what do you think?”
“What do you mean what do I think?”
“What is it?”
… and we go through a series of guesses, and the guesses range from just ludicrous things: “it’s a gopher.”
“No, no, clearly it’s not a gopher. Gophers are a lowland creature. This is obviously in the mountains.”
“It’s an otter.”
“No, no, no. Otters prefer marine habitats, and this is clearly not there.”
… and go through this for a while until usually somebody recognizes it as a marmot. I say “Yes, very good. Alright..”
…and so then on to the next slide and the next slide is this picture of George Soros with no caption, no explanation, but again filling the entire screen, here’s this giant picture of George Soros… and so I go back to the first person: “Charlotte what do you think about this one? You didn’t get the marmot, how about this one?” …and so invariably somebody will eventually guess it’s a hedge fund manager.
I say: “Yes, very good. That’s George Soros, a famous hedge fund manager.” then the next slide is the wolf, the snarling wolf, and so at this point the captions on the slides read “This is a yellow-bellied marmot,” “This is a hedge fund manager” … and then it’s obvious what the wolf is. People get that right away. So, Charlotte gets to redeem herself at that point.
“This is a wolf, one of the main predators of the yellow-bellied marmot,” and then the next slide is another picture of a marmot but this one looking somewhat quizzical and the caption here is: “Why do wolves eat marmots, but not hedge fund managers?” …and the answer that I propose is because hedge fund managers understand the time value of money, but marmots do not. Now, that obviously doesn’t actually follow, but the correlation is there… that part is true… and so I just sort of lean into that and the ridiculousness behind that statement and from there on the marmot becomes our time value of money mascot… and so every time throughout the course I introduced a new application of time value of money then I bring in another image of a marmot to sort of tie all that together. iIt’s hard to see that the tie that binds everything together is time value of money and so the marmot, the mascot, is the visual cue, that “oh, this isn’t special, this isn’t different, this is just another application of the same technique we’ve been doing over and over again.
John: That notion of using visual cues goes back to the Greeks who use it to remember long stories before there was much printed word, and one of the arguments is that it’s because visual imagery developed much earlier than the use of language and the things you described in terms of things that might eat you may be tied back to our evolutionary adaptation, and so we’re tying into things that evolve fairly early in the evolution of human beings.
Rebecca: …and it also is just that emotional response.
John: Right, when you trigger an emotional response and fear is a major one…
Rebecca: Yeah. mm-hmm
John: Do the wolf’s chase the Princess Bride? I don’t remember that…
Alex: Well no…. So, the Princess Bride lecture is where I talk about decision rules using discounted cash flow techniques…. and so this sort of standard playbook for any finance professor anywhere as you talk about net present value and internal rate of return and payback period and maybe a few other rules as well, you just sort of go through the… whatever they have in the book in the order in the book, and you talk about each one in turn. But, it’s a lot more fun if you can personify those.. and so that’s what I use the characters from Princess Bride to do… and so the main character, which is net present value, is personified as Wesley / (there’s a spoiler alert here – so you haven’t seen the movie Wesley is the Dread Pirate Roberts). I always show my kids my lecture slides and when I showed them that one my older daughter was mortified that I would ruin the Princess Bride movie for students by revealing that Wesley and the Dread Pirate Roberts are one and the same… and so from there, I personify the different rules based on the different characters in Princess Bride… and so internal rate of return which is sort of flashy and useful but has some flaws as Inigo Montoya; the payback period which is sort of a blunt instrument is Fezzak the Giant, and so forth… modified internal rate of return is the Cliffs of Insanity.
Rebecca: So, the important thing to ask then is do you have the spoiler alert at the beginning of your lecture.
AEX: I do now.
John: How old was your daughter at the time when she reacted to that?
Alex: About ten years old.
John: Okay. So, by the time students are in college, they’ve probably either seen it or they may be less likely to, so it probably doesn’t do quite as much damage.
Alex: I hope so, and in fact I even now encourage them to watch the movie before that lecture without really telling them why. So some of them do. Some of them ask around and figure out why, but that makes it more fun.
Rebecca: That was gonna be my follow-up… is that homework?
Alex: It’s the best homework they’ll ever have.
John: So, how have students responded to this? Do they remember this later?
Alex: Yes and no. for the Princess Bride lecture I believe that the students sort of uniformly enjoy that…. but I don’t have a good sense of how much that actually impacts the depth of their learning. For the marmots, it’s a completely mixed bag… some of the students really love it, and I really do lean hard on the fact that this is the mascot… this is the thing that ties it all together… and this is the visual cue so you will now recognize that when we do bond pricing “oh, here’s a marmot, that means it’s just time value of money…” “oh, when we do net present value, here’s a marmot showing up alongside our Princess Bride character it’s just time value of money” and so forth. Many of the students really enjoy that and grab on to it and some students, they’re not having any of it. They want boring… they want dry… and I’m afraid they’ve come to the wrong place. Been there and done that. I don’t do that anymore.
John: But that use of imagery is really common. People who work on developing memory… the memory palace type things where you tie specific concepts and bundles of concepts with chunks of item to key images, helps people remember things long term. I can see how it would be really effective.
Rebecca: I also could see that one of the things that students often struggle with when information is new to them is making those connections. So providing that visual cue like “here’s time to make a connection…” it’s actually really helpful, because those are the kinds of things that might seem really abstract and very separate if you’re not making an explicit. So, I like that you don’t even have to say explicitly like “this is the thing” you have by putting the image up there, and you’re prompting the students to predict what that connection is or challenging them to think of it on their own before you reveal what that connection is.
Alex: That’s right, and so what started off as just a fun way to get attention: “Hey, class is starting let’s all key in… Here’s a scary wolf.” So, now we’re all paying attention to the scary wolf because that’s how our brains are hard-wired. It’s now grown into this entire thing where throughout the entire class is a continuing callback.
Rebecca: It sounds to me like you must have some pressure every semester to have to have something new that you introduce into some sort of lecture so that there’s some anticipation.
Alex: I’ll be the first one to say that I shamelessly recycle all of my jokes…
… and so I’m always sort of terrified when I have a student who started the class last year but had to drop at the 6 week mark or the 8 week mark because whatever was going on their life, and then they’re back the next year. Like “oh man, you’re gonna get the exact same jokes with the exact same timing, the exact same patter.” It mostly seems to work fine, and I do continually try to incorporate new things. One of the nice things about teaching finance, although some of it is very static… the basic concept of time value of money is going to be there for basically forever and I won’t need to change the actual examples in those slides really ever… but a lot of the other material changes very rapidly. So, the notion of what does market efficiency mean? who can beat the market and win? what is the evidence? But for topics like market efficiency, for topics like financial markets, for topics like investment banking, those areas transform rapidly… and so I’m continually changing those lectures year after year because one of the big topics that I cover in my course that is not really traditional for an undergrad business finance class is how firms raise external capital. The reason why is because it’s one of my main research interests, and so I have lots of ideas of what I want the students to know, and lots of research that I can tie into the lectures that I give. For the past five or ten years financial markets, the regulation of financial markets, firms’ ability to raise external capital, has changed tremendously as regulation has changed and so I’m continually revamping that portion of the course basically every time that I’m breaking it out.
Rebecca: One thing that I can’t help but think is that you and John have some similar backgrounds in terms of content, so the time value of money that you keep referencing probably makes sense to you but I feel like our listeners might not know exactly what that is so maybe we should just take a minute and give a quick cap of that so people know.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you have $100 and you invest it earning an interest rate of 5% per year, in a year how much money will you have?
Rebecca: One hundred and five?
Alex: One hundred and five dollars.
Rebecca: It’s not a trick question, right?
Alex: No, No, it’s not…
… and so, as you invest money it earns some rate of return and so then money in the future you have more, because it earns some positive rate of return, and conversely, would you rather have $100 today or $100 in a year? Well, the answer is $100 today, because you could invest that for that year and have the hundred dollars plus some additional return. So, you’d have a hundred and five dollars one year from now instead of the: “oh, I’m going to give you a hundred dollars a year from now” and that’s all the time value of money is.. and then it’s application of that over multiple cash flows and multiple periods where people start to lose track that it’s just math.
John: That’s the fun part.
Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.
John: I also ask my students have they ever burned their mouth on a slice of pizza, and why don’t they just wait? ..and it’s one way of introducing the notion that we prefer things now to later. It’s a fairly important concept in economics and finance and it’s at the basis of finance.
Alex: Oh, absolutely… and I like the way of framing it as how patient you are. Are you willing to wait or are you impatient? …and so the way that I sometimes describe that in class is if you have a low discount rate that means that the future is worth about the same as the present and so you are patient. If you have a very high discount rate well then the future and the present are very different, so high discount rates → impatient, low discount rates → patient.
Rebecca: You realize that the irony of this whole thing is that I have these conversations with my husband all the time because he’s in finance, right? Yeah….
John: Ok, well, does that help explain it?
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had it explained to me many times.
I figured our listeners would need it.
Alex: Well, since we’re talking about the things that our students do, I’ll just share one example that I use in class that I continue to use even though it completely does not work with undergraduate students. It’s when I’m trying to introduce the concept of sunk costs… and so a sunk cost is some amount that you have paid… a cash flow that has happened in the past perhaps… and so once that is paid, you can’t get it back …and so it’s like the notion of “should he throw good money after bad” is another way of phrasing it… and so, what I used to say is, “Well, you go to a movie, you pay your fee to go in, and you decide it’s a terrible movie, should you keep watching to get your money’s worth or should you leave? and then a student pointed out to me one year that well, actually, if you go and you complain you can get your money back from the management.
Okay, different example. This is the one that never works on the undergrads. You go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you have a choice of do you buy one plate for this amount or do you pay a little more to get the all-you-can-eat buffet and you decide to go for the all-you-can-eat. You pay the $10 for the all-you-can-eat instead of the $7 for the single plate… and you go and you fill up your plate and you eat… but you decide you’re full after just your first plate… but you’ve already paid that all-you-can-eat price. Should you go back for more? …and the intellectual scholarly answer is “Well, no, because the marginal benefit of eating more food is negative at this point because you’re full. Even though the marginal cost is zero.” But, for the students, the undergraduates, the marginal benefit of eating more food is always positive.
They view it as a sport. Dinner’s not over until they kick me out.
Rebecca: I think that’s really important to consider your audience and what works. So, I think that’s a really good demonstration of knowing your audience and why something might not work for a particular audience.
Alex: Yes, nonetheless, I still use that example… but I tell them ahead of time “I know this is not going to make sense to you. You’re going to push back on me. Nonetheless, I want to talk it through with you so that we can think about who has marginal benefits and marginal costs of what amount.”
John: Just last semester I used exactly the same thing of asking them how many of them would leave a movie theater if it was clear that they weren’t enjoying the movie and this time I had some people argue “I do that all the time.” So, yeah…
Rebecca: Movie theaters? Don’t you just have Netflix?
John: Okay, that’s actually a relevant point. In terms of the Princess Bride, we’re moving into a generation where many of your students might not have seen that. Do you have any other movie references that you might substitute in the future?
Alex: You know, I haven’t found the right one yet and, honestly, even if I found a good substitute, I’d really want to keep the Princess Bride, just to give them the incentive to watch that movie.
It is such a classic and such a gem. I really would like for them to all see that movie.
Rebecca: It’s an investment you’ve made.
Alex: That’s right.
Rebecca: How have faculty responded to the methods that you’ve been using?
Alex: Faculty are not surprised that I do the things that I do.
John: They’ve known you for a while.
Alex: They’ve known me for a while and I really lean into the corny pun bad jokes big time in class…. and I really I’m quite shameless about it.
John: That’s not new… I seem to remember that back at Duke when you were still in college.
Alex: …and it’s just a question of do I try to suppress that innate desire or not?
…and I’m at the stage in my career where “nope, not anymore.” You’re just gonna let it all out. My colleagues are not really surprised, but interestingly, one of my colleagues has adapted her lectures quite a bit to embracing this notion of adding images into the slide decks… and that’s my wife. She teaches business law and regulation of business. She was an attorney by training and I described her as a born-again economist because when she started teaching regulation of business she had to teach herself basically all of public choice economics. So, she got a couple of high-level textbooks and worked through them all but she and I regularly discuss teaching techniques and so she now has gone down the rabbit hole of finding that perfect image to highlight the point that you want to make… to have that really stretched metaphor that you can then call back throughout your course. So, it’s been a lot of fun to have her as a sounding board to go back and forth with.
Rebecca: I appreciate that you’ve brought design into the process.
John: Excellent. It’s something we all should probably do more of and think about more and certainly much more effective than those PowerPoint bulleted lists that are so common.
Alex: Yeah, a little bit of both actually goes a long way.
Rebecca: You’ve won some awards for your research. How do you maintain a balance between teaching and research?
Alex: It’s difficult. There are some ways in which research can feed directly into the teaching… and so my research that touches on market efficiency, some of that can come into the classroom. My research that touches on how firms raise external capital, some of that can come into the classroom. Now when I teach my PhD courses, those are heavily flavored by my research interests and preferences, but when I teach the undergraduate core finance class there’s not a whole lot that can flow back from that teaching into the research. So, that’s one of the downsides of teaching that class as opposed to perhaps a class that is more specialized or an elective or something that’s a little bit further downstream from the core class.
Rebecca: But at the same time, if it’s something that you teach routinely then the prep isn’t as difficult.
Alex: Absolutely. That’s true. It is hard to overstate how useful it is to teach a class a second time, or a third, or a fourth, or twentieth. Nonetheless, every single year, even though it’s the same class and mostly the same topics, I go through every slide, every lecture from the beginning every year.
Rebecca: But, I remember teaching a bigger selection of classes and one of the things that I’ve liked about my position at Oswego is that that suite of classes has gotten smaller… and then there’s a little less I’ll keep on top of to make sure that you have all that fresh information and what-have-you for classes.
Alex: Absolutely, and I’ve done the same thing. I’ve taught a variety of courses over the years and it’s been nice… as you describe it that suite of classes narrows, so that you have the same core group of classes that you’re teaching over and over again and you can start to specialize. You can really invest the time to get over the fixed costs of finding all those right images for the slides… to going through and taking time to invest in the design aspects of the lectures. That if you had four different courses every term, it would be incredibly difficult to find the time to do that effectively.
John: While you’re working with PhD students, you must do quite a bit of mentoring of them. How do you see the role of a faculty member as a mentor for graduate and undergraduate students?
Alex: Faculty vary widely on their views of how much mentoring PhD students should have… and so you have one model where it’s sink or swim… the PhD students are some of the smartest people in the world… they’re good students… they’ll figure stuff out… just point them in the right direction and let them go, and they’ll get there. That’s not the view that I subscribe to. Because I think we frequently overestimate just how much the doctoral students know, particularly about how the profession works. There’s no book for that. They can’t just go down to the library and find a textbook on how to be a good assistant professor or… there are books on how to write a dissertation but that only gets you so far, because it really needs to be very field specific. So, I tend to go very much the other way, which is a lot of sort of high-touch mentoring. I write co-authored papers with many PhD students, one of whom is now your colleague there at Oswego in the Finance Department in the School of Business, and it’s enjoyable for me. It is a good learning experience for the students and I think it helps them to learn how the profession works much more efficiently, because when it comes time to write a paper and they might put together some tables and say I want to structure the introduction this way. Oh, no, no, no, no, we can’t do that… because if you do that then it’ll make people be concerned about this issue here. So, instead, we need to twist it around this way and start with this… start with the big picture, not what your paper does but what your paper’s about. That sort of thing. That’s hard to learn on your own.
PhD students are PhD students because they are extraordinarily good students and they’re really good at learning. Though, that’s not the job for academics. The job is not the learning, the job is creating knowledge… and the transition from being a consumer to a producer of knowledge is scary, and it is the road that has very few signs or roadmaps to help them get down. It’s a transition of going from a consumer to a producer of knowledge… is very profound for a lot of people.
Rebecca: What’s interesting about what you’re hearing is you know my field the terminal degrees in an MFA a Master of Fine Arts, and the undergraduate degrees are really professional degrees. But, it’s the creators of cultural content ,and so that struggle happens at the undergraduate level too, of going from being that consumer of culture to a producer of culture. It’s really not that much different… just what they’re creating is a bit different.
Alex: That’s right.
John: I remember when I was working on my PhD, one time, where up until that point I had been meeting with my advisor every month to talk about my research, and at first I was just asking him questions… and then he was asking me questions and I realized suddenly that I knew more about the topic than he did… and that’s I think that sort of transition that’s sometimes difficult… because when you’re working on your research you’re mostly going out and finding all these earlier studies and so forth but you get to some point where suddenly you become the expert in the field and that’s a tough transition to make. It’s scary, as you said.
Alex: It is. It’s quite the watershed moment when you realize… when you are presenting your research to a room of 30 presumably learned scholars that maybe collectively they know more about the topic than you, but you know more than any individual person in that room… and becoming that expert and then owning it, so that you can write confidently is, I agree, a very tough transition
Rebecca: I like the emphasis on the owning it part. I think that’s key.
Alex: Yeah, imposter syndrome is real.
Rebecca: So, we usually wrap up by asking “what are you gonna do next?”
Alex: Well, that’s a good question. I really wanna keep doing what I’m doing, making my class better year on year, teaching PhD students and training them year on year and working on research, hopefully research that people will actually find interesting and useful.
I have a sabbatical coming up.
Rebecca: When’s your sabbatical? What’s the countdown?
Alex: Well, the sabbatical is a year from now and in between then, one of my colleagues with whom I co-teach a doctoral seminar, he’s on his sabbatical. So that PhD course, that normally I teach half of, I’m now teaching the entirety of next fall. So, I think the first thing I’m gonna do is prep the rest of that class.
Rebecca: Deadlines make a difference.
Alex: Yes, indeed.
John: That procrastination thing… and that time preference…
Well, thank you!
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.