Steve Horwitz on “The Graduate Student Disease”

On Sunday the world lost a great teacher, economist, and all-around fantastic person in Steve Horwitz. If you don’t know about Steve, I recommend reading the tributes from Pete Boettke and Art Carden.

Pete and Art speak to Steve’s overall legacy and greatness. But I will tell you about a very specific piece of advice that Steve gave me about teaching undergrads.

Steve called it “the graduate student disease.” By this he meant the tendency of newly minted PhD economists to teach undergraduate courses as if they were mini versions of graduate courses. Steve insisted this was the wrong approach.

A little background. My first academic position was as a visiting assistant professor at St. Lawrence University. This was in the 2009. It was a rough year on the job market, with the fallout from the Great Recession hitting university budgets hard.

I felt very fortunate to have a job at all, but especially fortunate to have this job. Steve Horwitz was going on sabbatical, and they needed someone to teach intro econ, public econ, and American economic history. Wow! A perfect job for me, including the opportunity to work with great undergrad students.

I was very passionate about creating my syllabi, especially for the econ history course. I really loaded it up. Every week had a few chapters from the Atack and Passel textbook, plus 2-3 challenging journal articles. I thought it was great.

The course went pretty well, but I could tell the students were struggling to keep up. How could this be? I was teaching to students at a good liberal arts college. In grad school, we would read at least twice as many articles per week in a similar course, often much harder ones! What was wrong?

Since Horwitz was on sabbatical, he wasn’t always around to give me feedback every week. But when I was able to grab his ear, we would usually talk about teaching pedagogy. I mentioned the struggle to get students to read everything in my econ history course. I told him that I realize undergrad students are sometimes lazy, but this was an upper-level econ elective at a good liberal arts school!

That’s when he told me about the Graduate Student Disease. You can’t treat undergrads like they are mini versions of grad students. They just aren’t. You need to structure readings to match their interest and ability.

Doing this well is something I still struggle with. I continue teaching an undergrad American economic history course, now at Central Arkansas. I still like using journal articles — I feel like undergrads really need the experience of reading articles, and this isn’t something they will get in most of their courses. But I have significantly dialed back how much and how challenging readings I will give them. Moreover, I have changed my approach to thinking about that course, much of it due to Steve’s influence.

Instead of being a mini version of a graduate course, undergraduate courses serve a very different function. Intro courses should be about getting students excited about the material and helping them to see the world from a different perspective than they are used to — the “economic way of thinking” in an intro econ course. Upper level courses should be about applying those intro skills to particular questions as well as learning new sets of skills. For a flavor of how Horwitz approaches American economic history, you can look at this old syllabus or another one for a senior seminar on the Great Depression.

In short, always remember that most of the students you are teaching will not become professional economists. Instead they will be participants in marketplace, both as consumers and producers/workers. But above all they will be citizens of our liberal democracy. Teach them to better understand the world, rather than teach them to be professional economists. If they do choose to become economists, they will probably also be great teachers.

I don’t think I have fully lived up to Horwitz’s mentoring advice yet in my teaching pedagogy. But his influence is strong in my approach to teaching econ to undergrads, and his presence and advice will be greatly missed. And judging by all the remembrances of Steve that I have been reading over the past few days, it is clear I was not the only one who benefited from his mentoring. His advice about teaching and passion for undergraduate economics will clearly live on for generations to come.

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