My friend and colleague, Gordon Kingsley, said that while he was president of William Jewell College he continued to teach regularly, "until I had to give up that folly." He meant, I think, that the time demands of his job made it impossible to meet his own high standards, and his students were being short-changed.
Despite Gordon's warning, I've decided to launch my own "folly" and signed on to teach next fall. When presidents do venture into the classroom these days it generally is a freshmen seminar or special topics -- often leadership -- and the class is team-taught. Makes perfect sense, given our busy and erratic schedules. However, I'll be flying solo on a full-bodied, upper-college required class -- intermediate microeconomics. This will be my first teaching assignment since I was academic vice president at the University of Evansville in 2004, when I taught principles of macroeconomics, a course that I had done so many times that I didn't need much prep time. Since becoming president the following year, I have done just the occasional guest lecture.
I have missed the experience. For 15 years I was a full-time faculty member and taught just about every economics class in the catalogue, plus some finance and business strategy, in class ranging in size from two to 330, undergraduate, master's and doctoral, at small independent colleges and large public universities. I flatter myself that I did pretty well, as measured by student evaluations and, more meaningfully, from students who keep in touch 20 years later. Still, I worry that this may indeed turn out to be my own folly. A lot has changed in the decade since my last class. This class will require more preparation than my last class. Can I scrape off the rust and make this is a positive experience for our students? Or am I just exercising my ego?
One attraction is the opportunity to teach the price theory class, long my favorite. (When I was at West Virginia University, there was a long queue of faculty for that class.) Also it is a chance to focus on our core purpose -- teaching and student learning. The best thing about teaching at Evansville was how the classroom became my refuge. For three hours a week, I could be immersed in economics with no fear of interruption. There also is symbolic value. By teaching, I send a message that I value the work of our faculty and that I care about more than fund-raising. This will also save TLU a few dollars, no small consideration these days.
I expect to be learning more than the students. Already, I've learned that ordering a textbook is a lot different, and there is a huge array of ancillary, web-based supplements. Then there is the matter of classroom etiquette. Ten years ago, bored students would stare out the window, read the student newspaper or just fall asleep. Now smart phones also give them the option of tuning into Netflix or immediately texting to all their friends. I also have to keep in mind that, as the Face of the University, any misspeak could make me a YouTube celebrity. Stuff I never worried about before.
The main purpose, however, is unchanged from my first class in introductory microeconomics as a 23-year-old graduate student at Washington University: To give students tools that will make them better decision makers in their personal and professional life and that allow them to better comprehend the workings of the marketplace. If at the end of the semester, I also take away a better understanding of our students and appreciation of our faculty, and remember why I got into this business in the first place, that will be a bonus.
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