Teaching:On the front line

November 14, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name : Geraint Johnes

Age : 45

Job : Professor of economics and director of the Graduate Management School, Lancaster University

Salary : Not divulged

Qualifications : BSc (Bath), MSc, PhD (Lancaster) Member of Institute for Learning and Teaching (HE)

Experience : 21 years' teaching and research experience at Lancaster, punctuated by spells at Lehigh University and Dartmouth College in the US, the University of Wales and the Australian National University. I have also worked as a consultant for organisations such as the World Bank and the British Council.

Hours spent teaching : About 30 per cent of the time - I'm an economist first, an educator second. I started teaching as a means to the end of doing more research. If I wasn't passionate about my subject, I wouldn't be passionate about communicating with other people about it.

Hours spent on red tape : About 40 per cent. But being in a leadership role isn't all about red tape. I'm privileged to be in a position where I can, to a small extent, influence what others do - I think for the better. That said, far too much of what we do involves red tape. Audits are necessary, but in the teaching arena, I haven't seen anything that persuades me that the benefits offset the costs in the way these things are done in the UK.

Hours spent on research : About 30 per cent of the type of pure bliss you get by following a football team - a mixture of frustration and ecstasy. My specialism is labour economics, with particular interest in the economics of education.

Teaching bugbear : PowerPoint. If used properly, it can be wonderful, but used badly it is positively harmful. It is often used as an accompaniment to a very didactic form of teaching; it tramlines you. This isn't what the learning experience should be like; it should be interactive. When you're lecturing, you should pick out some students with really expressive faces, realise when they're following you and adjust what you're doing accordingly. You should involve them. You can't do that if you've been tramlined.

How would you solve it? Education, education and education.

Worst teaching moment? My inaugural lecture was supposed to finish with a joke. I referred to Thomas Carlyle's assertion that economics was the "dismal science", planning to shock the audience by doing a striptease to reveal a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Dismal Scientist". I ripped off my gown and jacket, undid my tie and started unbuttoning my shirt bottom-up.

But the hood was attached to the top button and I ended up demonstrating that my university awards chairs to people who don't even know how to undress themselves.

Best? When I was leading a tutorial on the economic aspects of crime, I asked the students how many could say they had never broken the law. No one raised a hand. I asked why. One said: "Because the marginal benefits of breaking the law exceeded the marginal costs." It just shows how our students, by the time they reach graduation, have come to think like economists. The second example concerns a relatively weak student who told me that my final-year course in education economics had changed her life.

That wasn't really anything to do with me - it just so happened that it was during my course that she had a real lightbulb moment. Economics, stripped bare, really is nothing more than the study of choice, of how people make decisions in situations where there are constraints. The moment when you realise how that works, and that the toolkit of economics can be widely used just to help you understand things you see happening around you, that's a really precious moment.

Outside interests : Research, followed by football, birdwatching and astronomy.

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