by Kate Pennington, Agricultural and Resource Economics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020
Economists have an outsized impact on the policies that shape our society, but they don’t tend to be very representative of the people who comprise it. At Berkeley, women make up a smaller share of the faculty in economics compared to any other department (Abhishek Nagaraj’s analysis of the 2017 Faculty Salary Equity Study). Only 118 of the 1,753 students majoring in Environmental Economics and Policy or Economics are from an underrepresented minority group (UCB Office of Planning and Analysis 2018). That’s just 6.7 percent.
Part of the challenge is that economics is a little bit art and a little bit science — students need to master econometrics and calculus, but they also need to make, and defend, subjective decisions about how to translate qualitative questions into mathematical models. The high quantitative bar gatekeeps, and the qualitative debate exposes women and underrepresented groups to implicit bias.
I see teaching as a crucial opportunity to improve diversity by inviting more undergraduates into economics. Rethinking Econ 101 can change who pursues economics at a higher level. As a teacher, I have two main goals: broadening students’ understanding of what economics is and building self-trust and confidence in working through ideas out loud.
Many students see an economics major as the gateway to careers in business. I want to show them that economics can also be a tool for social justice, public policy, or history. Instead of using textbook examples, I build my notes on fresh research on current events and local issues that the students may be personally experiencing. Last year, we discussed race as a predictor of winning an Oscar, how broken windows policing affects US crime rates, and the impact of cleaning up pollution on asthma. The general perception might be that economics is a scalpel, but it’s really a Swiss army knife.
These are real-world questions that can’t be answered in a lab experiment. Economists have to persuade their audience that they’ve used valid methods to discover a true relationship. But this emphasis on debate can make economics a particularly difficult field for women and underrepresented groups.
I design my sections to address systematic differences in the participation and self-confidence of female and underrepresented minority students. My goal is to have every student be unashamed to “get it wrong” out loud by the end of the semester, and I share this as a specific course objective on day one. I explain that being a good researcher means being comfortable with articulating confusion and working through ideas aloud with others. Then I describe three ways in which we’ll work toward that goal in section.
First, I invite students to speak even when their hand is not raised. I encourage them to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m confused by,” emphasizing that being able to explain your confusion is a strength that improves the quality of research. I try to model this behavior when answering questions. Second, we begin each section by reviewing the previous week’s key concepts in pairs. Each student explains one concept aloud to their partner, providing a low-stakes warm-up for thinking publicly, and then I select a group to start off the full-class recap. Third, I always apply the econometrics to real research questions. No matter what statistical technique we are exploring, I ask the students to think through the research design starting from the basic empirical question. Walking through these steps — never skipping them — builds the habit of interrogating research designs, instead of taking for granted that they are set up correctly. Everyone learns to critique and be critiqued, in support of better science.
At mid-semester, I ran an anonymous survey to see how students felt about these methods. Every respondent reported “I feel welcome in section” and “I feel comfortable saying ‘I don’t know.’” In one student’s words, “I think it was interesting that cold–calling in class actually increased participation and comfort with not knowing the answer for me.” Students also overwhelmingly said section made them more excited about research, and two women asked to work with me as RAs. By mid-semester, there were no more long silences between my questions and their answers — students no longer kept quiet out of fear of “getting it wrong.” I’m optimistic that over time and at scale, pedagogical change can help improve diversity in economics — and in the input to the policies that shape our lives.