Bryan Alexander, Economist

Last semester I co-taught an Honors First Year seminar with my colleague Bob Rycroft.  Our FSEMs are designed to give FY students the kind of intimate academic experience that is more commonly associated with upper level seminars.  The FSEMS are specifically supposed to introduce our students to college-level writing, research and oral communication.  Honors FSEMs are supposed to provide a more rigorous experience.

I could probably write a book on what I learned from the FSEM, but suffice it to say that teaching FY students is different from teaching upper class students.  When you haven’t taught a class full of FYs in a while it’s easy to forget that.

In this post I want to discuss just one episode that occurred in the course.  The subject of 15513506426_ef0ab5d13f_mthe seminar was Economic Inequality.  As you may know, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was one of the most publicized books of 2014.  But at 600+ pages, it wasn’t going to work to assign this to FY students to read, especially since Piketty’s work was only one part of the course.  Instead, we assigned one of the many good summaries available.  Anyway, I had a crazy idea that I was able to persuade my co-teacher to let us try.

The idea involved bringing my good friend Bryan Alexander into the seminar via Google Hangout.  We told the class that 4587900301_c9c17d2917_qBryan was a colleague of Thomas Piketty, and that Bryan would present Piketty’s argument to us.  For those who don’t know, Bryan is not an economist, though economics is an interest of his and he did read Piketty’s book.  Rather, Bryan holds a Ph.D. in English, and is currently self-employed as a futurist and consultant.  I wrote a script for Bryan summarizing Piketty’s argument.  After presenting the argument, Bob and I would each give our perspective on Piketty’s argument, and then we would open the floor to questions.  I told Bryan that if he were asked any questions he couldn’t handle, he should refer them to me.  On the day in question, we set up the Google Hangout with Bryan and his performance exceeded our expectations.  The students took notes and asked appropriate questions.

At the beginning of the next class period, I asked the students, “What did you think of Dr. Alexander?”  They replied effusively saying how much they enjoyed and appreciated the presentation.  As one student put it, “It was really great to hear from an expert!”  I responded by asking what about Bob & I, and she said, “well you know, a real expert!”  We thanked the students for their feedback and went on with the scheduled lesson.  The following class period was Friday.  I waited until the last five minutes of class, and then announced, “Remember Dr. Alexander?  Everything he said was a fraud.”  The students were stunned.  I continued, “The information he presented was accurate.  I know because I wrote his script.”  The students showed confusion, denial and in some cases, anger.  Then as the clock ticked down, I announced “For the weekend, I’d like you to think about why we did this. … See you Monday!”

On Monday, we began class by repeating the question:  Why did we go through this charade with you students?   Several students immediately proposed the answer—That we wanted them to think critically about the information they received in our class, even when they received it from the instructors.  The lesson was learned.

For the rest of the semester, at various times students asked, “How do we know you’re telling us the truth?”  “You don’t,” we replied.

Images courtesy of:

  • Tony Roberts via flickr
  • David Porter via flickr
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