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Interview with Dirk Mateer

Dirk Mateer has been teaching college economics for more than 15 years and he is currently a Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Undergraduate Studies Program in Economics at Penn State University where he regularly teaches large principles sections. His most recent project is a workbook entitled Economics in the Movies (Thomson/South-Western, 2005). He uses film clips, music videos, and songs to stimulate students to think about economics outside of traditional boundaries. After completing his B.S. from Pfeiffer College (1985) he taught high school math and science for two years. Following his Ph.D. from Florida State University (1991), Dirk taught at Goucher College and Grove City College before moving to Penn State.

Interview with Dirk Mateer

You have been a successful teacher of introductory economics for many years. Has your teaching style changed through the years?

When I first started teaching I followed the assigned textbook closely. I didn't feel like I had the authority to question the author or add to the dialog. I provided an easy to follow syllabus and complete coverage of the text. My students took comfort knowing that we were always on task and that I would walk them through the textbook.

My approach to teaching is very different today. I still organize my lectures around the structure of a textbook but the lectures include a blend of ideas, observations, anecdotes, and media to enliven the course and prompt students to think about how to use the tools of the discipline. What I say today adds value over and above the textbook. I couldn't say that when I first started.

Who has had the biggest influence on your teaching?

This is a tough question because many people have helped me along the way. However, two influences at Florida State stand out. The first, Jim Gwartney, provided a model large class lecturer. Jim taught me the importance of organization and providing an outline to your lecture. When I served as a teaching assistant in his large class he would place an outline of that day's lecture in the corner of the blackboard and then he would use it to stay on task. I modeled my early lectures the same way. The other influence, Randy Holcombe, taught a small graduate course on Public Finance while I was in graduate school. Randy came to the course excited every day. His passion encouraged me to work harder. If you take Randy's passion and Jim's organization, you have a powerful combination.

Sometimes unexpected things happen in the classroom. What are your two or three most memorable classroom experiences?

One time my students, at the end of a two-week intensive class, made me a crown that read "the king of graphs" and they wanted me to wear it for the last day. The students had taken a paper crown from Burger King and drawn supply and demand graphs all over it. It was a sign of affection so I wore the crown that day and I still have it in my office.

One Valentine's Day, a singing chicken visited my class and sang a love song to a girl in the front row. What an imaginative way to say publicly that you love someone!

What should we be doing in the introductory course at the college level? What should we be trying to get across to students?

At the introductory level we need to be emphasizing core concepts. Far too many instructors and textbooks try to do everything. If there is one critical element that I've learned it is that you can only do so much. I'd rather do a few things really well than many things not so well. I think that my students appreciate this approach. More specifically, I emphasize markets and the efficiency of the exchange process. Economic growth and marginal thinking are also central issues.

What are one or two of your favorite topics that you look forward to covering in your class? Why are they favorites?

I really enjoy the economics of crime. Testing the limits of the rational agent model in that setting is provocative. After all, how many times have students heard that jaywalking, speeding, and running stop signs or red lights can be rational? I then extend the discussion by examining serious crimes, deterrence, and other issues where economics has an interesting take.

I also enjoy examining risk. I spend time looking at the efficient market theory, lotteries and risk aversion. Students are interested in applying economic principles in this area and I enjoy it when we discuss something that motivates them.

What are some of your favorite activities or stories that you use to get concepts across to students?

To illustrate markets I run a large experiment where each student barters to acquire what they need. To illustrate diminishing marginal utility I sponsor a food-eating contest with cupcakes (this is modeled after Nathan's Famous Hot Dog contest). To illustrate the common goods problem I supply fishing rods with magnets and have a small number of students compete to catch "fish" in an "ocean" I set up at the front of the room. Volunteer students come to the front and they are given one minute to harvest as many "fish" (paper clips) as they can. The catch is that the fish are not worth as much during the first 30 seconds; however, this is when most of the fish are harvested. Often times, there are no fish left at the end of a minute. The experiment helps students grasp more clearly the problems that arise when goods are owned in common or when ownership rights are poorly defined and enforced.

To illustrate equity versus inequality I run a short experiment where everyone is given an equal opportunity to produce an item and then we construct an income distribution based on the productivity of the class. This nicely proves the point that inequality of income does not mean that the process was inequitable.

Many of my favorite stories involve my missteps as a husband. I always seem to buy the wrong gift. I mention this when I discuss, Joel Waldfogel's AER article, "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas."

I also ask students if they would donate a kidney to save a life. Then I ask a series of leading questions (with increasing costs to the student) to help them discover the trade-offs and opportunity costs of their decisions. Most of us have two healthy kidneys so the decision to give up your extra kidney is an attractive payoff if you can help save someone else's life. However, would you donate BOTH of your kidneys to save the lives of two other people? Here is where the tradeoff becomes clear to the students.

Moreover, what if you knew that three of your relatives would die if they didn't get a kidney right away? Assuming that you are a perfect match for all three relatives, who would you give your extra kidney to? These questions are helpful in fleshing out the notion of trade-offs.

If there were just one or two things that you want your students to remember about economics five or ten years after taking your course, what would they be? How does that affect your teaching?

I want them to remember that voluntary exchange is fundamentally beneficial in a market setting. They should leave my class believing that market solutions are preferred, all other things equal. More broadly, economics provides a framework for making choices. I'd like them to be able to use simple economic applications (like opportunity cost, marginal thinking, supply and demand) to better their lives.

What do you think is the biggest misconception beginning students and others have about economics? Are there points that you figure students do not understand that you take extra care to explain carefully?

The biggest misconception is that economics is something that they have to get through and not especially relevant to their lives. It doesn't help that our discipline has been tagged the "dismal science." The other misconception is that economics teaches lessons in personal finance and about the stock market. I think this preconception stems from exposure to economics in high school.

I take extra time emphasizing shifts in demand (and supply) versus changes in quantity demanded (supplied). I also cover externalities in greater depth than most textbooks. Finally, I spend considerable time developing the profit maximizing rule and emphasizing that MR=MC is a rule that determines where production is stopped. This is important since many students believe that a firm should operate where it maximizes profit per unit.

Beginning with Adam Smith, economics has focused on how and why people prosper. How do you discuss this topic with your students?

The central premise of Smith is that self-interest serves the public good. During my first lecture I mention Smith and provide concrete examples of how society spontaneously orders itself. Two examples are changing lanes on the highway and waiting to check out at the store. In both cases, no one has to tell the participants to switch lanes - they do so voluntarily whenever it is to their benefit. These two examples make the Invisible Hand relevant today.

America is a prosperous nation. Do you think your students have any clue about why Americans have such high-income levels? Do they care about this topic?

Yes, one of my main points of emphasis is productivity. Students particularly enjoy a piece of Internet flotsam that converts the income of Bill Gates into values that ordinary people can relate to. For instance, an ordinary family of four might spend $100 to go to a major league baseball game. A relative comparison for Bill Gates is that he could buy a MLB team with the same ease that a typical consumer can afford to attend the game! Students care about income and salary discussions. I think this topic is often overlooked. As a result, I place the discussion of income and poverty earlier in my microeconomics class, before I discuss the theory of the firm, to make sure I complete it.

How have changes in technology influenced your teaching

Technology facilitates much of what I do. This is perhaps the biggest change in how I teach today versus ten years ago. I use PowerPoint slides to organize my lectures, rely on movie clips to introduce key points, play music before class to stimulate student thinking, utilize email to answer questions, maintain a blog, and use personal response devices to solicit student input during exam review sessions.

It is hard to imagine ever going back. The PowerPoint slides keep me on task. The movie clips engage the students by providing them with interesting scenarios to interpret, the music sets the tone for the day and provides a platform for introducing new topics, email provides students with access to me 24/7, the blog provides my insights on issues that don't necessarily come up in class, and the personal response devices allow me to correct misunderstandings before the exam. Technology has extended the learning environment significantly.

However, the number one way that technology has impacted my classroom is it allows for the introduction of film clips. In Economics in the Movies, I authored a supplement for the principles of economics market. This workbook is unique because it borrows from feature films in a way that enhances core content. Concepts are visualized by utilizing short film scenes. Others have utilized films to teach economics, most notably, Leet and Howser (2003), who developed a semester-long course that uses full-length films. But, in traditional 50- and 75-minute classes, full-length films are not a viable option nor can the instructor easily require students to see a film outside of class. Here you will find the best of Leet and Howser packaged into short film clips that are one to four minutes in length. Not surprisingly, there are similarities between what Leet and Howser recommend and the scenes chosen here. It's a Wonderful Life and Erin Brockovich are two films used by Leet and Howser that also find their way into this workbook. What distinguishes this effort from their work is that this book takes many films that appear to be unrelated to economics and utilizes short scenes to concisely capture key concepts. By drawing scenes from an eclectic mix of films this workbook shows how economic theory applies in areas that are not traditionally viewed as ripe for economic analysis.

For instance, in Along Came Polly Ben Stiller plays an obsessively clean risk adjuster and Jennifer Aniston is a free-spirited slob. The contrast between the two characters provides a clever example for discussing efficient behavior, marginal cost and benefits, and opportunity cost of attempting to achieve perfection.

Quality teaching often goes un-rewarded at many colleges and universities. What advice would you give to a young assistant professor just beginning his or her professional career?

One of the hallmarks of our discipline is specialization. If you apply this principle among faculty members you find that many institutions hire faculty for a specific reason, either as researchers or teachers but rarely both. Community colleges and many small colleges place a high value on quality teaching. In addition, a number of large research universities specifically employ lecturers to help with undergraduate instruction. Elsewhere, the research model dominates.

My advice is that being a good teacher is personally rewarding but it also expands the set of places where you can work. Find what you are good at, specialize in it, and you will be successful, whether that is teaching or research.

Does one have to be a good scholar in order to be a good teacher? What is the relationship between good teaching and active involvement in research?

Scholarly research is not a necessary ingredient to be a good teacher. However, you do need to be professionally active. Attending conferences and keeping up with the latest innovations are ways to become a better teacher. The literature on economic education is incredibly rich with ideas. I have found that better teachers are willing to try new approaches and take chances so I would be surprised if a good teacher hadn't come across a personal innovation or approach along the way that would make for good scholarship.

Suppose one wanted to become a great teacher. What advice would you give them?

First, dedicate yourself to the task, do not expect perfection, and celebrate the successes. Second, look for alternative examples and approaches that you can use to complement your textbook. A great teacher adds material beyond the scope of the text.

What do you consider to be your greatest teaching success? Your greatest failure?

My greatest success is playing Survivor. When the reality show first appeared on television it had an obvious link to the Robinson-Crusoe model we discuss in economics.

It also provides a clever way of encouraging contestants to compete for prizes. So I decided to run a Survivor contest in my microeconomics class. At the time, my class was about 50 students and it met on MWF so we had 45 meetings. I decided to vote someone out of the game each time we met through a random quiz question. If you got the quiz question right you were granted immunity and would move on. If not, you could be voted out. The game took on a life of its own and became widely discussed on campus. It got to the point where students took it very seriously because I was offering an automatic A to the winner. Anytime you can get students motivated and engaged I consider that a success. I find it ironic that a game modeled after a reality TV show helped transform my class.

My biggest failure, without question, is my inability to recall student names. This is a forgivable sin with classes of over 300 students but I still don't like it. A close second is my inflexibility with rules. Often students will come to me seeking some form of accommodation. Perhaps they want to miss an exam to go on a family vacation or attend a special event. I've adopted a policy of horizontal equity, which I feel strongly about, but this means that I apply all rules equally and without individual exceptions. That doesn't leave me room to help out individual students the way I could if I taught smaller classes. I feel this loss and I know that some of my students do as well.

If you could choose only one course to teach, what would it be and how would you structure it?

I am teaching a course for the first time in current issues that is also a writing-intensive class. The department lets the instructor highlight current issues using whatever approach they prefer and my course is set up as an experimental laboratory. We run experimental treatments and analyze the data in a series of reports, blogs, and presentations. This is as close to true collaborative learning as I have come. I am no longer the instructor (someone there to dispense knowledge), I am a participant in the discovery process. I feel honored to be able to teach this class.

What do you want your teaching epitaph to say?

"He loved economics and he wanted others to share in that joy."