Academics tiptoe line between teaching duties and research

By Daniel Gilbert

Students in the College who had enrolled in Professor Steven Levitt’s section of Economics 200 were dismayed to find that the Alvin H. Baum Professor in Economics would not be teaching the course after all. Levitt—who was slated to teach the introductory course as late as this summer—illustrates how academics fill their schedules, balancing research and other prestigious pursuits with undergraduate teaching.

Levitt, who specializes in economic aspects of crime, received the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal in 2003, which is awarded every two years to the nation’s most promising economist under 40 years of age. He has recently been named director of the University’s Initiative on Price Theory at the Graduate School of Business.

According to Levitt, the decision to drop the economics course was made when he discovered that a two-week trip to China he had initially planned to take in the winter had been moved to the fall. Instead of teaching Economics 200 in the fall, Levitt will now teach his specialty course, the Economics of Crime, during winter quarter. The popular course is open to third and fourth-year economics concentrators, and may be the only undergraduate course that Levitt will teach this year. He noted that he usually splits his teaching “about 50-50” between undergraduate and graduate courses, and that he tries to teach at least one undergraduate course per year.

“I think faculty recognize that the undergraduate program is incredibly important to the vitality and viability of the University,” Levitt said. “But it is also true that in terms of tenure, many of the decisions are based on research, generally more so than teaching.” Levitt disagreed, however, with the notion that there is a fundamental tradeoff between being a stimulating and effective teacher and keeping pace with research.

“My own view is that it is a lot more fun to teach a course well than it is to teach a course badly, and it’s just about as easy to teach well,” said Levitt, who won one of the University’s Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1998.

Susan Art, dean of students in the College, said that faculty generally teach four courses each year – two graduate and two undergraduate. One of the undergraduate courses must be a core course. These are guidelines, however, and not hard-and-fast rules. “Faculty who take on extra responsibility for the University may have their teaching loads somewhat reduced,” said Art in an e-mail interview. “While it is understandable that students are disappointed by Steven Levitt canceling his class this fall, I know that he has taught many undergraduates in the past and will do so again in the future.”

The issue has nevertheless provoked a response of disillusionment among students, particularly among those who feel that the most distinguished professors are beyond their reach. In many cases, students arrange their entire schedule around a single course so as to have a class with a particular professor.

“I think that the people who signed up to be in Levitt’s class fall broadly into two categories: Those who are taking it purely to be in his class, and those who need it to become econ majors,” said Kamil Alavi, a second-year economics concentrator in the College who was originally enrolled in Levitt’s course. “I think they should have sent a notice to all those registered in the course, informing us of Levitt’s decision, so we could decide what to do,” added Alavi, who did not find out about the change until he logged into cMore to register a few days before autumn quarter.

Grace Tsiang, a senior lecturer in the College and director of the undergraduate economics program, did not view Levitt’s decision as a major inconvenience. “I don’t think it’s a huge disaster for the students that one professor has made other arrangements in the complex mix of research and teaching that is asked of faculty at the University of Chicago,” she said.

Tsiang also spoke to the concern that entering students are not able to take courses from the most prestigious professors. “Students who have studied economics at Chicago have left with a very good education,” she said. “I know I would have been a happier undergraduate if more of my classes were taught with more personal attention in the small formats like those we are working to preserve in the face of increasing enrollments.”