Brad DeLong’s Learnings from the Pandemic Years

Office hours on Zoom, for one, which strikes me as a pretty good idea too.

I think I’m going to keep my office hours remote and on zoom—make them mandatory for students I think I need to see. Calling people into the office if they aren’t showing up for office hours—that seems a little heavy-handed to me. Phone calls with people you do not already know—that is not terribly effective. But zoom! It is much better than a phone call, and does not (or does not any longer) seem too heavy-handed.

But his other idea is something I would love to do, but have always failed at:

The other innovation I want to adopt is for courses in which each week is a book. Having the group “discuss” the book for an hour, and then call up the author on zoom—that seems to me to be a very good innovation. It is Barry Eichengreen’s. It is a wonderful thing. It should become the rule rather than the exception in the future.

I have tried this in multiple ways over the years in my classes, but nothing has really worked. My utopian classroom would be one in which every single student walks in having read the prescribed book, and we run out of time while discussing different aspects of the book.

What usually ends up happening is an involved discussion with the three students or so who have read the book, while the rest of the class listens in politely for as long as they can bear to. I should be clear – I do not mandate attendance in my classes, and I don’t blame the students for not having read the book – but I sure wish they had!

From the Sokratic point of view, the purpose of the entire educational establishment can only be to create opportunities for the Dialectic to manifest itself—and question and answered dialogue between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and figment of the student’s imagination. Good educational systems maximize those opportunities. Bad educational systems do not.

Education is about conversations, and conversations cannot happen at scale. My best learnings have happened over relaxed conversations with professors in their offices, over cups of coffee, and on some especially delightful occasions, over mugs of beer – but not in a classroom.

But how to have those in-depth conversations with as many students as possible, as often as possible, without making the experience too expensive for all concerned is the trillion dollar question in higher education, and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to solving it.

But to circle back to the original excerpt, office hours on Zoom might be a good place to start.

Also, if you teach economics, and are looking for a wonderful syllabi to discuss in depth with your students, you couldn’t do much better than How to Change the World, taught by Chris Blattman.

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