He turns economic concepts into poetry

Thomas J. Nechyba is the 2017 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award winner.

Here’s an economics joke: One day, it goes, a student asks the professor if he believes the adage that economics is the “dismal science.” “Well, if you think our science is dismal,” the professor replies, “you should hear our poetry.”

But poetry, specifically, a Dr. Seuss-ian scheme outlining the basics of consumer theory, comes in handy for Thomas J. Nechyba. (A sample couplet, outlining the expected effects of a price change on a budget: If the good is inferior, just ask your mother, / Substitution points one way, income the other.) The lack of pretension in the classroom—during the semester, he’ll also sing a version of the “Barney” theme song to convey the fictive concept of an all-knowing social planner—forms a sort of ethos. A professor of economics and public policy and director of the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), Nechyba leans on this silliness to give “students a sense of, ‘Okay, there’s a human being behind this professor.’ ”

It also reflects his genuine excitement for teaching core economic concepts. “When I first started teaching [microeconomics] at Stanford, I was a first-year assistant professor, and they threw me into this large course. I later found out it was the most-hated course on campus,” says Nechyba. “I just didn’t know it was supposed to be hated, so I didn’t approach it with this attitude.”

Nechyba, who won the 2017 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award based on nominations from his students, has used his positive vibes to make economics more palatable at Duke—and elsewhere. In 2010, he published his textbook on which his course is based; now, he hears from “students all around the world who seem to feel comfortable enough to e-mail me a question about some part of the book.”

It’s the rare textbook written in the first-person, which stems from Nechyba’s teaching style. In both the book and his class, Nechyba makes points through pop-culture references and caricatures of himself and students. Professors tend “to start in the abstract and go to the concrete. Going in the other direction works for a lot of students and allows them to anchor concepts in the examples,” he says.

For instance, the first chapter of his textbook explores the economic assumption of self-rationality using Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And in one lecture, he begins a discussion of externalities by gesturing to the students in closest proximity: “If I choose to skip a shower for a week, the people in the front row will be affected.” Later, he turns the standard Tragedy of the Commons problem into a competition for candy: Using duct tape to cordon off a single area at the front of the lecture hall, he sprinkles candy on the ground. In the initial stage, nine students can claim the candy in the circle for themselves, but if they wait, the candy (a stand-in for trees and other natural resources) will double the output students can claim at first.

No one waits. “Turns out, we don’t have to have a stage two, because these are not very good people,” Nechyba jokes. Then, he gives each student their own plot of land with one piece of candy each. With the problem now “solved,” the behavior is different: Everyone patiently waits to harvest his or her candy. “Look how nice they’ve become,” he says to the other students looking on.

The energy he brings to class has selfless and selfish origins, he says. He’s taught this course for twenty-five years. While he tweaks things slightly each year to keep himself engaged, he knows that these students are learning it for the very first time, and he is obligated to pique their interest.

But he also commits to the lectures, the additional review sessions he schedules each semester, the ultimate night-before-exam scrambles “where you see more lightbulbs go off than any other time,” because for him they’re essential.

“Teaching is core to my identity. I mean, I am a teacher,” Nechyba says. He mentions the balance of teaching with research and administrative work where, in those other areas, the process can be a slog. “On any given day, the moments of feeling exhilarated about what you’re doing are rare. To me, teaching is much more immediate gratification. If you give a great lecture and you feel like, ‘Boy, I just nailed it today,’ then you feel good for the rest of the day, and all that other stuff is much easier.”

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