Hughes Prize Observations
(Published in the Newsletter of the Cliometric Society, October 1999, Vol. 14, No. 3)
Winning the Hughes Prize was quite unexpected. Not suspecting that anything was afoot, I skipped the banquet to spend time visiting family members who live in Maryland. My apologies. My thanks go to my students and to two economic historians who were my teachers in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, both of whom are very well known for their teaching abilities—Claudia Goldin and Bob Margo.
First a brief sketch of my career as a teacher. In graduate school, I never really taught a class. I was Claudia Goldin’s teaching assistant in one class and ran weekly review sections, but I delivered exactly one lecture. Therefore, I didn’t really know what to expect and was quite ill-prepared when I began my duties as an instructor (and later assistant professor) in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I was so nervous that I even forgot which axis was which on the supply-and-demand diagram! Fortunately, after about a week, I decided that I liked teaching. After three years of teaching at UWM, I moved to Wake Forest University’s Department of Economics. During the on-campus interview, I surprised the department by asking to sit in on a lecture to see what Wake Forest students were like in action. I found them to be bright and eager and have been lucky to serve them over the past nine years. (Still, my most challenging and interesting students have been my children.)
Because I am nearer the beginning of my teaching career than the end, my comments on teaching are probably not all that insightful. Nevertheless, here are some "observations."
Learning and teaching go hand in hand. If you know and understand things, you will feel compelled to spread that knowledge to others. As an added bonus, you will learn things much better when you teach someone else what you’ve learned.
- The teacher’s first duty is to motivate students. A teacher’s enthusiasm is infectious—enthusiastic teachers have motivated students. This means that you can have fun in the classroom. (Apparently, one (all?) of my students commented to the Hughes Prize Committee that I have a "quirky" sense of humor. I’m glad they noticed and they’ve let me know that humor can be an important part of teaching.) Needless to say, teaching isn’t built on fun and games. The enthusiastic teacher needs to see the innate, God-given potential in all students, be well organized and knowledgeable, and teach a subject which is relevant and important. I try to bring all of these things to my teaching. I'm lucky that my students have been eager to learn and that economics and economic history are such powerful tools for understanding how the world works and how we can make it work even better. Still, enthusiasm comes first. I hope that my students (from those in my economics classes, to those that I coach on the Quiz Bowl team, to my Sunday school students, to my own children whom my wife, Gina, and I home school) can see in me the true joy of learning and understanding—I can see it in them.
- A mind is capable of great things only if it is exercised. Learning cannot really take place if the student is spoon-fed, and the world is immensely complicated so oversimplification is unacceptable. Unfortunately, some students shy away from tough, rigorous classes. Fortunately, most won’t. Most students are very capable and when they are prodded, respond by putting in the effort and hours needed for mastery. (A few years ago, a poll in the student newspaper voted me one of the two most difficult professors on campus. Fortunately, students have continued to fill my classes.)
- Teachers are not omniscient and should humbly, candidly admit this to their students from the start.
- Let them know that you are a student too, that everyone in the profession is a student. On the first day of my American Economic History class, I give students a quiz, based on the questions asked in my JEH article, "Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians?" I then reveal the "answers" and point out that there is often disagreement among this group of knowledgeable, careful, well-intentioned scholars. This helps frame the entire semester as a search for understanding—a group effort that involves the students, the professor, and the authors of books and articles that we invite into our classroom. (I also emphasize that these economic historians are not faceless scribes, but are real people whom I’ve been lucky enough to get to know. This seems to make students more eager to learn—at least they have told me this.)
- There must be a purpose to an education. You cannot only educate the mind. The soul must not be ignored. I try to bring this vital point to my teaching. As my students and I examine the technical results embodied in a table of regression coefficients or the intricacies of a new model, we must also carefully, rigorously examine moral issues—from slavery to immigration policy to banking insurance. Our ultimate purpose is to use our knowledge to act justly and this is the ultimate lesson that I try to teach to all my students.
Finally, I’d like to thank the most influential teacher in my life—my father, Gene Whaples. Under his picture in his high school yearbook is a quote. Most of his friends’ quotes are witty or silly or cryptic, but his quote reads "Education makes the man." He has lived by this motto, teaching children as a 4-H Agent, earning a Ph.D., becoming a college professor and eventually president of the Adult Education Association of the US, and (most importantly, from my point of view) imbuing in his four children the importance of education. Following his example, I became a teacher. I hope that my kids—Thomas, Nina, Becky, Rose, and Charlie—will be the teachers of the next generation. (Check out this link to the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. It includes a great photo of my dad.)