Sunday, 31 March 2013

Mission statements and logos

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

There was a big hullaballoo today as the Vice Chancellor, Professor Victor Crispin, unveiled the new university mission statement and logo. Staff, and the unions in particular, are outraged by the amount of money that has been spent in getting a marketing company to design the new logo, especially at a time when cutbacks are being made in staff numbers and some departments are threatened with closure. What's more the cost of the logo has doubled from the original estimate we were given to nearly £400,000. And the worst thing is the logo itself which looks like some kind of teenage doodle. It is just the four points of the compass with the letters USE in bold at the bottom, underneath the south pointing arrow. We have both marketing and design expertise in the university itself who could have done a better job.

In launching the new logo, Victor Crispin said that he was delighted with the result and that it provided the university with a wonderful new integrated visual identity. The new logo must be included on all university stationery and documents, and there would be a gradual roll out across the campus to update all building labels and other signposts. So that will add a lot more to the cost. Crispin warned staff that there would be strict guidance on how the new logo could be used - for example there must be no attempt to change the size or colour of the image on documents - and that the marketing department had produced a special "brand book" on the use of the logo which was available on the university intranet.

Turning to the mission statement Crispin said that it was crucial that staff kept it in mind at all times to guide them in their work. Here it is:

"The University of the South of England (USE) is committed to excellence in its teaching, research and knowledge exchange activities. It will strive to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse body of students, to provide a service to the local community, and to follow its Green Agenda. "

In a way I don't have a problem with any of this, although we can't be excellent at everything, especially when resources are not provided to underpin our activities. And I am still not really sure what is meant by "knowledge exchange". Last year it was called "knowledge transfer" but I understand that this was thought to suggest a one way movement of knowledge rather than a two way process between the university and industry.

The problem was the VC went on to say that he wanted staff to remember that their teaching, research and knowledge exchange activities should be very much focused on USE, that is applied and practical rather than theoretical and esoteric. You can't just research on what interests or stimulates you - it must have practical application and match one of the Research Councils' recommended areas of research. The trouble with this approach to research is that you can't always tell in advance what is going to be of real practical value. Some of the most useful scientific breakthroughs have come from "pure" research. Who would have known in advance that work on DNA would lead to applications in crime fighting or health screening, for example? Or that the creation of a hypertext markup language and protocol would spawn electronic commerce and social networking in the way that it has?

I suppose what it means is that if I want to pursue a research topic that has not been "approved" I shall just have to do it in my own time. Well, there is nothing much new there I suppose as our "workload model" never really provided much time for research once all the teaching and admin work had been put in.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Student questions

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

I had another very interesting chat with Gus Johns in the cafeteria this morning. I mentioned to him that there was one particular student in my macroeconomics lectures who keeps wanting to ask questions. I wondered if he is attention seeking. His constant questions seemed to irritate some of the other students and also mean that I was running out of time in the lecture to cover a topic as I had planned. Gus said that it was really important that students should be able to ask questions, but that as the lecturer you have to manage it carefully. You mustn't have too many interruptions or get thrown too far off topic. He says that he tells students that they can ask questions during the lecture if it is a matter of clarifying what has been said, but that other questions should be left until the end of the lecture, where he usually sets aside a few minutes to deal with questions that may have arisen during the lecture. He also runs his economics cafe so students can come and ask him questions then. The German exchange students are particularly organised with questions and usually come as a small group with half a dozen questions carefully prepared.

Gus say that he invites questions by email too - some students are too shy to ask in front of the rest of the group, and he then posts the questions and answers up on his web site in a FAQ section. Often all he has to do to answer a question is to point the student to one of the existing FAQs. He has now also set up a wiki for each module where question and answers can be posted. What is good about it is that students themselves can suggest answers to questions posed by other this shared space.

Another thing that he does, although this is not directly related to the point about student questions, is to ask each student every week to send a “One Minute Email” to him, identifying a) the most important thing that they have learned during the week (either from the lecture, from the seminar or from general reading) and b) one point that they are still not clear about. He doesn’t get a full response of course, usually only about 50% at the start of the module falling off over the weeks to probably only about 10% at the end. But it means that he can monitor closely students’ understanding of the material and, if necessary, add some further clarification of points that a number of students might be having problems with at the beginning of the next lecture. What is striking, he says, is that he sometimes finds students who believe that they have understood something but show in their email that they haven’t.

Another thing that he does in some seminars is to ask students to come to the session with one question of their own on the topic being covered (they should know the answer to the question themselves). He then gets each student to address their question to another student in the group (chosen at random by Gus). If the student can answer the question he gets a point. If not, the questioner gets a point. When a question can’t be answered by the student to whom it was addressed other students can jump in with an answer, getting a point if they give the correct answer and losing a point if the answer is wrong or inadequate. Anyone who comes to the class without a question loses a point straightaway. At the end of the seminar the student with the most points wins a prize, usually a free cup of coffee or a small bag of Maltesers (he says he owes the Maltesers idea to Bethany from the Systems Management department). The idea behind this is to get students to think for themselves what questions they should be able to answer on a particular topic. A little friendly competition between students can be healthy too, he says. He says it has worked best with final year and postgraduate students.

Gus said that, even after all his years of teaching, he is still occasionally surprised by a student asking him a question that he hadn’t thought of before, so he is still learning. For example he says that a student in his microeconomics class asked him about the difficulty in choosing the best mobile phone or satellite TV package. Why is it so difficult to compare prices? Standard consumer theory says that consumers will choose pattern of product quantities that will equate marginal utilities with prices, subject to the budget constraint. But firms seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for you to know what the price of a particular item is. This led to an interesting discussion about bundling, price obfuscation and switching costs.

A student once asked “Why do restaurants not charge more for their meals at busy times like Saturday nights?” Gus said that it was a good question, but if you looked carefully you might discover that they do find ways of extracting more revenue on Saturday nights and on special occasions like Mothers’ Day. You often find that they offer specials which are limited to these particular times and that the prices of the specials may be a bit higher than the standard menu items. The restaurant owners want to differentiate their prices but do not want to make it too obvious.

Gus said that he was also asked recently what he thought about the idea of a minimum price per unit of alcohol as part of a policy to reduce alcohol consumption. Don’t addicts, said the student, have lower price elasticities of demand, so reductions in consumption would come mainly from rational non-addict consumers?

Gus said he was really pleased with these questions as they showed that the students were trying to relate theory to important policy questions.

Gus’s final point was that students should be reassured that there were no simple or stupid questions. Some questions were annoying though, like “Would you repeat what you just said please?” to which the answer would be “No, I am not dictating notes to you. Listen carefully and make a note of the point in your own words”. The other thing that annoys him is the question “Do I really have to know this for the exam?” He said he always replies “You decide!”.

Friday, 29 March 2013

How to get published

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

Anyone working at a UK university will be fully aware of the need to publish, in a top ranking journal if possible, and the pressures of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) One of the problems facing an academic trying to get a paper published is which journal to send it to. There is pressure for you to aim as high as possible to get your paper into a top ranked journal. But here you face two problems: 1 the large number of submissions means that there could be a long delay in getting the paper refereed and the cut off point for the REF is November 2013. If the paper is not already being looked at it almost certainly won't now get accepted in time to count. 2 In any case the acceptance rate for these top journals tends to be lower than for some journals that focus on a narrow field, say just energy economics or cultural economics. So if you have a paper that fits a particular sub-field it may be better to send it to a journal specialising in that field even if it doesn't have the same rating. Better to get the paper published in a lower ranked journal than not at all.

These were the kinds of points being made at coffee time yesterday in the cafeteria. It can be very frustrating waiting for a response from an editor or a referee once you have sent off your paper (or more likely these days having submitted online). And then, when you do get the referees' reports you may think from what they have written that they haven't read your paper properly or that some of the points that they make are wrong or inconsistent with each other. If you want to get the paper published and the report provides a list of points to be addressed then there is nothing for it but just to try to address them, even if you think they are inappropriate.

The other day one of my friends on Facebook posted a link to a really nice set of tips for authors by Professor Rene M Stulz, Advisory Editor to the Journal of Financial Economics and former Editor of the Journal of Finance. I have reproduced some of the points that he makes as they are important but also in a way quite amusing::

"Avoid insults and slights. It may well be that Professor X is an idiot, but unless the editor agrees with you, Professor X could be the referee of your manuscript."

"I just received a referee's report. The referee is an idiot. What should I do? Answer: If the referee has indeed misunderstood your work, you have to ask yourself why he or she did so. Was the paper poorly written? Were your thoughts unclear? If the referee thought your contribution to be small, is it because you failed to describe it properly? "

"I resubmitted my paper and received a report from a different referee. What is going on? Answer: The original referee may be incapacitated (for instance, he died or became a Dean). "

And do put yourself in the referee's position.Make sure that the paper is written clearly with no unnecessary techno-babble and is free of typographical errors. Don't submit a first draft and get a colleague to check your paper before you send it off.

Right. Now all I have to do is finish that paper I have been working on for six months. It will be too late for the REF but I still need to finish it and get it published!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Hidden taxes

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

Yesterday's blog which discussed the problems of the Greek economy reminded me that I was talking to the students in my macroeconomics lecture last week about the role of fiscal policy in a recession. I mentioned the view of the Korean born Cambridge economist Ha-Joonn Chang (the author of the excellent book "23 things they don't tell you about capitalism"). A recent Guardian piece just after the budget quoted him as saying "Anyone who is reasonable, which actually excludes most people in the current government, would agree that it makes sense to run more debt in the short-run to recover faster. You cannot get out of this kind of massive debt crisis without growing." (Guardian, 23rd March 2013).

It is as if Keynes had never debunked the old Treasury View that public spending will always crowd out private spending - or to turn it the other way around that a reduction in public spending will somehow automatically stimulate private spending.Lots of ordinary people, and politicians,just don't seem to get it that when you cut back the income of households they will cut back their spending leading to a downward multiplier effect. And in a liquidity trap monetary policy doesn't work. As we have seen the banks are just holding on to the extra money they have been allowed to have because they don't have the confidence to lend to businesses in the face of what looks like it will be a triple dip recession. As Paul Krugman has said - there is no confidence fairy. What is it about austerity economics that people find so compelling? I suppose it is a kind of masochistic need to punish ourselves.

And if you look more carefully at what the Chancellor is doing the picture isn't quite what it seems to be. Despite the increase in the personal tax allowance and the cut in the top rate of tax, the overall tax take for the economy is going up, as it has to in order to finance the growing debt. This is mainly due to an increase in indirect taxation, and what economists call fiscal drag. As the threshold at which people enter the top rate of tax is going to be allowed to rise by only 1% anyone right up on the threshold who has an increase in income above 1% will get sucked into the higher tax band. This is an example of what some commentators call a "stealth tax". The politics of being Chancellor of the Exchequer revolves around keeping these things out of the public gaze.

I asked my students how much tax they were paying. Why, nothing, they said. We don't have incomes high enough to have to pay any tax. "Oh" I said "so you don't buy beer, petrol or energy - or football shirts" I added as my gaze settled on a student in the front row wearing a brand new Arsenal shirt. I pointed out that as well as VAT there was an insurance premium tax (assuming that students who drive are actually properly insured!) and lots of other special indirect taxes and duties. I asked them what proportion of the total tax take they thought came from indirect taxes of this type. Most thought around 20%. But according to an estimate prepared by Grant Thornton reported in a piece in the Sunday Times by James Charles, it stands at around 42% (Sunday Times, Money section, 24th March 2013). And the Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that in order to service the increasing debt payments the government will need to raise taxes by the equivalent of 2p on the basic income tax rate. Of course it won't raise the money this way. Instead it will be done via a mix of fiscal drag and various increases in indirect taxes. With the economy only predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility to grow by only 0.6% this year and 1,8% in 2014 additional tax revenue won't come out of households' increased incomes so it will have to come from these less obvious sources.

At the end of the lecture I asked the students to keep a diary of their spending over the next week and to see if they could calculate how much indirect taxes they were contributing to the exchequer. It will be interesting to get the results.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An email from Petros

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

I had an email from Petros this morning. He is one of the other two Greeks in the department and he is spending his Easter vacation in Greece. He is spending time down at his wife's family home in the rural Peloponnese and he says it is glorious there at the moment with all the spring flowers coming out to brighten up the countryside. Unlike the big cities they seem to be withstanding the terrible economic crisis quite well. Most people have their own patch of land where they can grow vegetables and perhaps keep a few chickens. They are not exactly self-sufficient but being able to supplement what you buy with what you can grow really helps.

All the talk in the kafenion is about economics and politics. Things are very bad. Unemployment in Greece has now reached around 27% - that is worse than it ever got in the Great Depression in the USA. GDP is down by over 6% on last year, when it had also fallen by over 7%. Effectively GDP levels are back where they were in 2001. Petros says that the local news has been reporting unemployment amongst teenagers at around 50% for males and 80% for females. And now we have the crisis in Cyprus too.We really are lucky to have our jobs at USE.

Of course we Greeks should have seen this coming. Some people blame the Germans - some think that they should be more generous after what they did to us in the war. But the truth is that this crisis has been building for years and people have been paying themselves too much and avoiding paying the taxes that need to be there to support all the public spending. Even the vet in my home village will keep his transactions with local Greeks off the books. I remember when my mother had to take our dog in when he hurt his foot. The vet said he only needed to record payments by the northern Europeans who had settled in the area and who brought their pets in for him to treat in order to provide an acceptable business profile for the authorities. And there was the time when we had the census and the local mayor heard that there was a special EU road building grant for communities with a population of over 20,000. He offered free food and accommodation for the week of the census to students from the University of Patras if they would come down and register in our village. They got the grant and built part of the road up towards the mountain villages.But it was never finished as, somehow, the money ran out before it could be completed. Bribes and kickbacks I expect.

Petros said that he was planning a trip over to my village later in the week so he could go to the fabulous Five Brothers taverna that I was always on about. The fresh fish, grilled meat and oven dishes are to die for, not to mention my favourite spanakopita (spinach pie). I remember Gus telling me after he and his wife Heather had been there on holiday that the gin and tonics served at the Five Brothers are legendary. Heather even refers to the strength of any G&T that she drinks in terms of how many brothers it has. Normal British pub strength is two brothers, what Gus serves her at home is three brothers, but at the Five Brothers you get the full five brothers!

And the view across the bay as the sun goes down behind the mountains on the other peninsula. How I miss that. Yes, I thought, I must go back home this summer. I should see my parents as I know they miss me. And I wonder if my old girlfriend Maria is still single!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Stay on or get on

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

I popped into the cafeteria for a quick coffee this morning where I found Gus Johns already there. I got my coffee and sat down next to him. "How are you doing?" he said. "Not bad" I replied. After some general chit-chat he asked me how long I had been at USE now. "Nearly five years".

"Mmm. And what are your long term plans? Are you ambitious or are you content just to do what you enjoy doing? Do you want to stay on or get on?" He told me that when he had first arrived at USE he imagined that he would stay for a couple of years maximum and then move on somewhere else. But once you had been around here for a while it gets harder to move on. Of course family commitments come into the picture too. “But as a single man you have no ties.”

“Are you trying to push me out?” I asked. “Not at all” he replied “But if you remember when you first arrived here I was designated as your mentor, and I suppose I still have that role. I am just trying to get you to work out what your ambitions are."

Then he smiled and said that he had just recalled various lunchtime conversations from the 1970s. He asked me if he had ever told me the “Death Club” story. When I said “no” he explained that in the late 1970s he, together with some other economists and some people from the politics and sociology departments who used to lunch together, had observed that there were some other staff around who seemed to have been at the place forever, with upwards of thirty years’ service on average. One of the group from politics proposed what he called the Death Club. The idea was that each of us should put a pound a week into a pool and the last person to leave would collect the pot. He smiled again. “That would have been me” he said. “All the others are either dead, retired, or at a different university. In fact the chap who had the idea was ambitious and he moved on. He is now a Vice Chancellor up north.

“Of course what you could do if you don’t want to move around all over the place is to look to take a few terms out somewhere else on a sabbatical. We could keep your post open and you could go and work with someone in your field at a university in the States or Australia. That way you get some variety and new stimuli but you keep a strong foothold here.”

It’s a hard one to figure out. I like it here at USE. I really enjoy teaching the students which is still valued here as well as the research. There is pressure to publish but it is not as cut-throat here as at some other places. Most colleagues are friendly and are cooperative rather than competitive. And I like it here in the south. We are by the coast (not that I often go down to the sea) and within easy reach of London. But Gus is right. I do have to work out what I want to do for the rest of my career. Now why didn’t Mike Rowe ask me that in my annual appraisal?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Easter vacation

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

It is the first day of the Easter vacation and it is very quiet here at the University of the South of England. Apart from a few postgraduates there are no students around. I seem to be the only one of the Greeks in the department who hasn't gone back to Greece for Easter. Professors Rowe and Steel are both away at conferences and there is no sign of Richard, Jack, Sian or any of the others. The Dean is off on a trip to China and even Molly May, the departmental administrator, has taken a few days leave. It is time for me to catch up on some research.

When I arrive at my office I discover that the university's computer system is down. When I phone the Help line they say that we had been told it would be shut down for a few days essential maintenance but I don't remember seeing the email. It is just as well that all the software and files that I need are available to me on my laptop.I make myself a cup of coffee and try to get started. I just don't seem to be able to get going though. I think maybe I am the kind of person who needs a deadline hanging over me to get me working. It doesn't seem to be a problem for me when I am working with someone else on a joint project; after all I can't let down a fellow author. But this is a project I want to do on my own. I have had it in mind for months now but there has never been enough time to get on with it.

Kylie the cleaner pops her head round my office door. "Oh, hello Kostas. I didn't think you would be here today, especially with the computers out of action. I thought I would give your office a bit of a clean as I don't usually get a chance to do much more than empty your waste bin and run a duster over your desk. The floor could really do with a hoover".

Maybe I should go to the Library. I don't often go there these days now that all the journals and databases are all online. I remember how I used to really enjoy working in the library when I was doing my MSc. "OK, Kylie" I say, "I'll go over and work in the Library and you can have a bit of a tidy up in here. But don't go rearranging any of my piles of paper will you or I won't know where to find stuff." I swig down a bit of my coffee, collect all my stuff together and head out of the door.

I go to the end of the corridor and call the lift. When the door opens I see Colin the Caretaker (or Col as he likes to be called) there in the lift. "Hello Kostas" he says "I didn't expect to see any academics here in the building today, what with the computer system being unavailable". I don't admit that I hadn't been aware of the lack of computing facilities today and tell him that I am off to the Library to work. "You know you really should take a few days off to recharge your batteries like some of your colleagues, or go off on one of those conference jollies" says Col. "You have been working much too hard recently, I know how early you have been getting in here in the morning and how long you have stayed here at night. You need a break."

Perhaps he is right. But I am determined to at least make the effort today. As I leave the building I discover that it is pouring down with rain and I have left my coat in my office. Never mind, I think, and make a dash for it. Arriving at the Library I glance at my watch and decide to go to the Library coffee bar first. After all I left most of the coffee that I had made myself in my office.

Sitting in the Library coffee bar I get out my iPhone. I wonder what films are on at the cinema. Maybe I should give myself a bit of a treat and go to see a movie in the evening. Looking at the choices it occurs to me that as the schools are off everything on at the multiplex is aimed at teenagers or even younger kids.

I check my emails on my phone. Mostly boring stuff, but then I see one from Jack. He says that he, Richard and Sian are going to meet for lunch at The Ship pub where we go after staff seminars. Would I like to join them at around 12.30? Why not, I think. Only a couple of hours to waste until then. Let's get another cup of coffee.


Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

The other day a few of us were sitting in the cafeteria having our lunch when in burst Richard Gardener in a very stressed and agitated frame of mind. "Students!" he yelled. "But they love you, Richard" said Gus. "You give them so much time and attention". "That may be so" said Richard "but that doesn't seem to stop them arriving late for lectures, talking to each other when I am trying to take them through a rather difficult proof, and sitting there texting when they should be concentrating on what I am saying".

"That reminds me" said Sian, "Did you see that thing that someone posted on Facebook last week? A picture of an overhead slide with the words 'Dear Students, I know when your'e texting in class. Seriously, no one just looks down at their crotch and smiles'".

"Maybe your students arrived late because the previous lecturer overran. You know that we are supposed to finish at ten minutes to the hour so that students can get to the next class in time but not everyone complies" said Jack Cork. "Perhaps, but that still doesn't excuse their talking and texting" replied Richard.

"Perhaps you need to break up the lecture session a bit more and get them to do some things themselves" said Gus. "Why not put up the proof with a key line missing and ask them to see if they can work out what it is? It makes them active participants rather than just spectators." "Yes" said Jack "Attention spans are not what they used to be. I heard someone on the radio the other day say that TV commercials are going to get shorter because people just tune out of them now after three or four seconds"

"You could make use of the Personal Response System that we have installed in some lecture rooms" said Sian. "You ask a question and offer three or four answers and get them to tell you what they think the answer is". "That all takes so much preparation" said Richard. "Well just get them to put up their hands then if you won't use the technology "said Gus. "And as most of them have mobile phones now you will probably find there is an app that can automate it for you and send the results straight to your website."

"They were even using their mobile phones to film me" said Richard. "Bits of my lecture are probably up on Facebook or YouTube by now". "Is that a problem?" said Gus."It will give them an accurate record of what you said that they can go over again and again. And if you don't like that you use the Capture technology to do it yourself as Dave Starr advocates."

"You know" he continued, "that reminds me of what happened in one of my lectures back in the 1970s. A Cypriot student, Christos something or other, asked me if it was OK for him to bring in a tape recorder to my lecture so that he could listen to it all again later. All was going well until the third lecture when, just after I had completed my recap of where we had got to in the previous lecture, as I always do, I heard my voice booming out at me. When I asked him what he was doing he said that he didn't need the recap and that he was rewinding to start again when I said something new, but he must have accidentally hit the Play button instead of Stop." "What did you do? asked Sian. "I told him please to leave his editing until he got home! "said Gus.

"Going back to the late arrivals do you remember what old Gavin Alexander used to do?" asked Jack. "He used to lock the lecture room door so that they couldn't get in. We'd be in trouble if we tried to do that now." "But they used to love him "said Gus, "His nickname was Mr Mackay, you know the main prison guard from Porridge".

"Well what else can you suggest?" said Richard. "And how can I get my attendance rate up too? It has fallen off a bit in the last few weeks." "If you want them at the lecture" said Gus" you have to give the something there that they can't get just by reading the notes or looking at your PowerPoint slides". "Why not include a few YouTube clips? There are some great ones out there. You can use funny ones too. My students love it when I play them that JZ style spoof that those Berkeley students made 'I've got 99 problems, econometrics ain't one'".

"Yes" said Jack, "show them a few cartoons or tell a few jokes".

"But the lecture shouldn't be too gimmicky" protested Gardener. "This is a university, after all". " Look, there is no reason why you can't have a bit of fun in the lecture" replied Gus, "I mean would you watch a TV programme that, however informative, wasn't entertaining?".

"Emily Willis from the School of Computing reckons that we should issue all students with iPads when they arrive and get rid of traditional lectures completely" said Gus. "And Steve Wheeler argues that as well as formal classroom learning we should pay more attention to collaborative learning. It doesn't undermine personal learning, it enhances it". "Well thanks guys" said Richard."I will give it all some thought before next week's lecture. Now, I had better go and order my panini or they will have sold out." "Are you having more than one? " joked Jack. "I think the singular is panino!" "Don't be a pain Jack" said Gus, "pun intended!".

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Staff Appointment

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

The other day I was invited to join Professor Mike Rowe and two other senior members of the department to look over the applications that we have had for our recently advertised new member of staff so that we could come up with an interview short list. Our deliberations are, of course, supposed to be completely confidential so I can't tell you what really happened in the meeting. But by altering some of the facts I can still give you a flavour of the kind of dilemmas we faced and the arguments that were made.

Present at the meeting: Professor Michael Rowe (Head of Department), Dr Gus Johns (Deputy Head of Department), Professor Tony Steel (Chair of the Faculty Research Committee), Mrs Molly May (Department Administrative Assistant).

Professor Rowe opened the meeting by saying how gratified he was that there had been such an excellent response to the advertisments for the post - there were over 60 very well qualified candidates (and a few no hopers who obviously couldn't read the job requirements carefully enough!). He said that he hoped that we had all had a chance to look over the applications to select our front runners and that the purpose of the meeting was to come up with a short list of four candidates for interview, with maybe a couple more who could go on standby in case any of the top four were to withdraw before the interview. Mrs May had a proforma for us to record our decisions. He wondered if we could go round the room listing our top four candidates in the hope that it woud be possible for us to reach a concensus without having to go through all the candidates. Mrs May said that might help us to choose our shortlist but we would still have to go through all the candidates recording whether or not they met the job description and noting reasons for them not being chosen for interview. A frustrated look crossed Professor Rowe's face but he said nothing.

After a short pause Professor Rowe looked at Professor Steel and said "Tony, perhaps we could start with your top four?" "Yes, certainly Mike. I like the look of the two Greeks, the German and the Belgian guy. They all have PhDs from prestigious universities, a good selection of publications in top journals and good records in obtaining grants and other external funding." "OK", said Mike "How do you rank them exactly?" "I'd put the Dr Mavros top and then the other Greek, followed by the German and then the Belgian" was the reply.

"Gus, you can go next. What do you think?" said Rowe. "Well Mike, I have a slightly different take on it as I don't want us to get too fixated just on research and the REF. The new person will have to carry some kind of a teaching load, especially as this single appointment is all you could get the Dean to agree with to cover the two people who left us. Someone has to come in and teach the postgraduate core theory course and we need a bit more cover for econometrics classes too. I would like to include our own Sian O'Driscoll on the list, especially as we are rather short of women in the department since Martha and Pat left. Sian completed her PhD here last year, she already has a couple of publications and she has been taking classes in micro and econometrics for us for three years now, getting excellent reports from students. And we mustn't neglect the National Student Survey. Students won't like it if they get another lecturer in front of them who they can't understand. And we really should try to bring through some of our own students who recognise the kind of university that we have here". "I agree that the Greeks look good, although we already have several of them in the department" he said, looking at me. "But I would put Sian on our list rather than the Belgian guy".

"With respect" said Steel "Sian's publications don't really measure up to the Belgian guy's and we can't discriminate on gender or nationality." "The Dean has made it very clear that she wants to push research and with only one post available that must be our priority. And if you are worried about whether the guy can teach we shall be asking them to do the usual mini-lecture in the morning so that we can screen out anybody that just can't be put in a classroom". A look of irritation spread over John's face. "Last time we gave you our views on the mini-lectures we made it quite clear that you know who wasn't up to the job and yet in the afternoon you still went ahead and appointed him" he said. Back came Steel. "He did really well in the interview, and anyway, he is going to get a nice big ESRC grant and we will be able to buy back his teaching time. Maybe we can use the money to keep Sian on in her part time role." "Isn't that a bit dishonest?" said Johns. "If we want to hire a full time researcher then that is what we should advertise for, not get someone in on a normal contract and then get a part-timer to do the teaching". "No" replied Steel, "it seems like good economics to me!"

"Kostas" said Professor Rowe. "Who would you go for?" "Well" I replied " Dr Mavros would be top of my list, followed by the German and the Belgian. But I would actually put the Estonian in as my fourth choice as he looks to be a top Game Theory man".

"I agree with you" said Rowe. So I think that leaves us with a top four of Dr Mavros, the German, the Belgian and the Estonian. Then the other Greek guy and Sian can be on our reserve list. I can see what Gus means about having more women, and people who know the kind of university that we are and all that. If we had been able to get two posts approved I would be more willing to back Sian but, as Tony says, we must put our research effort first. And I think we will be doing Sian a big favour even just putting her on the list with a chance that she might get some interview experience. There are several other applicants we are ignoring who look just as good as her." "Now, I am rather busy, so can I leave the rest of you here with Molly to complete all the paperwork and comply with what we need to write about the candidates that we are not inviting in for interview. Molly, when it is all done please bring it into my office and I will sign it off".

And with that he was off leaving us to spend a tortuous hour and a half completing the paperwork with Molly. "Looks like we will be getting yet another Greek" she said, glancing over at me.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Departmental Away Day

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as most of the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty! Earlier this week we had a Departmental Away Day at the Ageas Bowl, the home of Hampshire County Cricket and I thought I might pass on to you how we got on.

The morning session just involved staff in the department and was called "Refocusing the Curriculum". The University, in its wisdom, has told us that we must redesign all our modules so that they provide no more than 2 hours contact time per student per week. Ostensibly this is so that we can also fit into student timetables sessions for study skills, careers planning and enterprise development. In reality it also means that we have to cut back on what we can put into our courses as you can't just lose a third of your contact time and still cover the same syllabus. It is also about accommodating more and more students without increasing staff numbers. Actually we are probably better placed to cope than many other departments in the university as we have a long history of embracing technology to support our teaching and learning. Our Deputy Head of Department, Gus Johns, reminded us during the morning session that the Virtual Learning Environment (VLA) that we use has lots of useful features that we can make use of for quizzes, searchable FAQs, a wiki and online discussion sections etc. He said he would be happy to put on some special departmental staff development seminars to illustrate how he had used these features, as well as blogs, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook to support his teaching. Johns said he would also ask the Faculty Learning and Teaching Champion (LATCH), Dave Starr, to show us how to make use of the screen capture software that we have available to record short instructional videos. Johns said that students do value face to face contact time with staff and we perhaps have to be more willing to meet them at times and in places that suit them rather than us. For example, he said that instead of sitting in his office for his so-called Office Hours at times he knew no students would be about, he had introduced Economics Cafe sessions where he would sit in the student cafeteria to meet up with students who were leaving classrooms right next door. This achieved a much better take up rate and students told him they liked it that way.

At the end of the session I didn't feel quite so downhearted and I began to think that we do have both the willingness and the expertise in the department to address the future. However, I can't help feeling that it all requires a lot of extra preparation time compared with the old way of doing things.

After an excellent lunch we began the afternoon session which was led by Dr Weasel from the university's Centre for Independent Learning, Teaching and Assessment (CILTA). He got us into small groups of four and then tore off sheets of paper for each group from his big flip chart. He asked us to draw a big pin man on the paper and then, after discussions in our groups, to attach next to each arm and leg the four key things that we would want an economics graduate to know about upon graduation. After about ten minutes he collected in all the bits of paper and began to consolidate what we had written into what he said was the best representation of our ideas.

When he had done this Gus Johns put up his hand and asked why the summary didn't include either "the importance of marginal analysis" or "a recognition of the need for tradeoffs" which had been suggested by his group. Weasel replied that he thought this was covered by "understanding policy analysis" which was one of his four summary points. Johns responded that policy analysis, although important, was rather vague and that his group's suggestions were sharper and more specific to economics. Perhaps Weasel would put up all the suggestions made by all the groups and then we could vote on which four points we thought best captured what economists need to know. Weasel said something to the effect that we didn't really have time for that as he had some other things he wanted to run past us. Johns persisted and said that if he really wanted our engagement in the session he should let us get involved properly. Weasel again said no, at which point Johns lost his cool and muttered "Bollocks!". Weasel looked across at Johns and said "How long have you been teaching here?" "Just over 35 years" said Johns. "Well, I suppose you can't teach an old dog new tricks" said Weasel.

The session was in danger of falling apart and at this point Professor Rowe jumped in. "Dr Weasel, I think there is some merit in what Dr Johns has suggested. It might be better to conclude this part of your presentation satisfactorily than to try and press on to cover other points but not achieving any real outcomes because we haven't devoted enough time to them". Reluctantly Weasel concurred and the staff voted for both John's groups suggestions amongst the four main points. We then had a tea break after which Professor Rowe thanked Dr Weasel for his contribution and apologised for the rather robust responses from the floor. He added that the economics department had a bit of a reputation across the university for blunt speaking, but he felt that this was a healthier approach to collegiate behaviour than the infighting and back-stabbing amongst cliques that seem to exist in some other parts of the university.

When Weasel had left Professor Rowe reminded the younger members of staff that as a condition of their employment they were required to obtain the Certificate of Higher Education (CERTHE) and that this was organised in CILTA by Dr Weasel. So perhaps it would be wise when participating for them to grit their teeth, comply, and do things the way that Dr Weasel wanted them done. Just get the certificate and then you can move on. Johns said that he didn't disagree, but he hoped that Rowe would support the staff in attending the excellent workshops sessions put on by the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy at Bristol University. These had the merit of being run by economists who, as well as being up to date with modern educational thinking, recognised the specific requirements needed for teaching economics. He said that staff might also want to look at the blog posts of Steve Wheeler from the School of Education at the University of Plymouth. He had given an excellent keynote lecture at the university's annual Learning and Teaching Conference last year and his blogs were full of great ideas and suggestions. You could also follow him on Twitter where he goes by the name of timbuckteeth.

Johns wondered if Weasel used the same old tired flip board trick for all the departments he visited, just substituting the name accounting, or engineering for economics. He had shown us no respect with little evidence of thought or preparation for the session. He could have looked at the department's web page to find out more about us and what our interests were - it's all up there. And actually in his session he had failed to do two things that his own Centre preached: there was no attempt either at the beginning or the end to outline what the learning outcomes of the session were supposed to be. And there was no evaluation sheet provided at the end for us to give feedback. He wondered what Weasel's boss Dr Baker would think about that. He was not so much a man from CILTA as a man out of kilter!

So, quite a memorable afternoon. A nice lunch though, and at the end Mike Rowe invited me to go back to the Ageas Bowl later in the summer to watch some cricket with him and have the intricacies of the game explained to me. After all, even though I am Greek I would be expected to participate in the annual staff v students departmental cricket match!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Reading suggestions for aspiring young economists

I have quite often been asked at Open Days and on other similar occasions what reading material would be suitable for aspiring young economists who are currently working on their A levels and who are hoping soon to start an Economics degree at university. (Actually it is usually the parents rather than the A level students who ask this question!).

Of course students will have text books to work on for their course but I think it may be helpful also to read other stuff that is lighter and more friendly.

"Pop" economics books There are now quite a few of these around. Here are details of four of my favourites.

1 Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

2 The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

3 The Logic of Life by Tim Harford

4 The Economic Naturalist – Why Economics Explains Almost Everything by Robert H Frank

There are also two very good economics comic books by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics – Volume 1 Microeconomics


2 The Cartoon Introduction to Economics – Volume 2 Macroeconomics

Yoram Bauman is also known as the World’s Only Stand-Up economist!

You really can learn quite a lot of economics from these books.

Blogs You might also want to keep up to date by reading economic and business blogs. Here are some of my favourites

1 Stephanomics – the blog of the BBC’s Economics Editors, Stephanie Flanders

2 Robert Peston – the blog of the BBC’s Business Editor (usually first on breaking finance and banking stories)

3 Gavin Davies - FT blogger on macroeconomics, economic policy making and financial markets

4 Martin Wolf - chief economics commentator at the FT

5 Economists’ Forum - guest blog contributors at the FT

6 Tim Harford – The Undercover economist - author, FT columnist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “More or Less” programme

7 Free exchange – a blog at The Economist magazine

8 Not the Treasury View – blog of Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research

9 Economix – New York Times economics blog

10 The Conscience of a Liberal – Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman at the New York Times

11 Freakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

12 Marginal Revolution - Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok

So good luck to all aspiring young economists. There is plenty of work for you to do!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tales from an Economics Department

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as all the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty! While chatting with friends and colleagues recently we exchanged stories from our times at USE and elsewhere, and it occurred to me that other people might find them interesting or entertaining - hence this blog. But I will let you, the reader, be the judge of that. This first group of stories concerns students attempts to cheat in coursework and exams. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying all students are like this - not even all Greek students (all the students in these stories are Greek). But as you will know if you work in HE, these things do happen.

1 Let's test the hypothesis

Not long after I had arrived here to work at USE the Head of Department, Professor Michael Rowe (sometimes called Mike Rowe the Micro Man,) knocked on my office door and asked if I would come and be an independent witness in an interview with some students about an alleged cheating offense. I followed him back to his office where there were a couple of young Greek women standing outside looking rather nervous. Mike explained to me that the two women, Maria and Sophia, were sisters. Although Maria was two years older than Sophia they were both second year students. Maria had originally started doing an accountancy course but she had decided to switch to economics and so now both sisters were on the same degree programme. They had both submitted essays on the topic of price discrimination for the second year micro course that Mike was teaching - and the essays were identical - word for word (even down to the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors!). With anonymous marking and so many students on the course with different tutors involved in the marking process maybe they thought the matching texts would not be spotted. Mike called them in.

Mike invited Maria and Sophia to sit down and then placed the two essays in front of them, side by side. He asked them to confirm that they were the essays each of them had submitted, and then to explain how it happened that they were word for word identical . Maria answered by saying that although they were not twins they were very alike and went about their work in much the same way. She admitted that they had talked together about how to answer the question but denied that they had actually written the essays together, or that one sister had simply copied the other sister's work. Sophia nodded her head in agreement.

After listening to Maria's answer Mike said "Are you sure that is how it happened? Are you saying that you definitely wrote your essays independently?" . The sisters looked at each other and nodded their heads. "As I said before" said Maria "we are very close as sisters and you will find our work is often very similar".

"OK" said Mike. "As you know", he said looking at me "we are economists and we like testing hypotheses". "I am going to ask you to go with Kostas here and sit down for an hour in different rooms and rewrite your essays - with no notes or books to look at. Then we can test the hypothesis that you produce similar answers independently!

As you might expect, the answers that were forthcoming were not that similar at all. One (Sophia's) was quite good and similar to the one she had submitted for assessment. The other (Maria's) was rather poor and contained a number of errors and misunderstandings.

However the story has a happy ending. Never again did either of the sisters try to cheat by copying each other's work and in the end Maria did slightly better in her finals than Sophia - although they both got Upper Second Class degrees.

Game on

This story reminded me of something that happened when I was teaching at the University of Profitis Ilias in Greece. It concerned a group of four students who were taking a class in Game Theory with Professor Dimitrios Papadopoulos. An exam was scheduled for Friday morning and the four students, who shared a house, decided to do some last minute revision together on the Thursday night. However they pretty quickly tired of Game Theory and switched instead to playing computer games - and drinking a few bottles of Mythos while they played. As happens in this kind of situation time passed quickly and they suddenly realised it was well past three in the morning. So off they went to bed, with one of them supposedly responsible for setting the alarm to get them up in time for the morning exam. Well, you can probably guess what happened. Either the alarm was not set properly or they just slept through it. One of the students woke up and realised that it was already nearly 9.30, and the exam was scheduled to start at 9.

Eventually the students got dressed and got into their car to drive to the university. By the time they arrived the exam was over so they went to plead with Professor Papadopoulos. "We missed the exam because we had a puncture on the way here" they claimed. "Please give us another chance to sit the exam. We revised for it and we are ready to take it this afternoon, or tomorrow even." "Very well" said the Professor. "Come here tomorrow morning and I shall have an exam for you to sit".

Saturday morning came and the students arrived at the Professor's office to take the exam. "OK", said the Professor "I want you to go to separate rooms to take this exam. Good luck". When they were settled and turned the paper over to see the exam questions this is what they read.

Question 1 (10% of the marks). Briefly outline the notion of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Question 2 (90% of the marks). Which tyre was it that had the puncture?

Strip search

Another story that Professor Michael Rowe shared with me concerns a student who was seen cheating in an exam. The invigilator noticed that every now and then this particular student leaned down and put his hand into his sock, glanced at something and then resumed writing. The invigilator said nothing during the exam but when the exam was over and before the students were allowed to leave the room she phoned Mike Rowe to tell him of her suspicions. The suspected cheat was asked to remain behind. When Professor Rowe arrived he asked the student if there was anything he would like to say about his conduct during the exam. The student said "No, nothing". "OK", said the Professor, "Would you please remove your shoes?". "You want me to take off my shoes?" said the student. "Yes please". "And now your socks". The student removed his left sock. "And now the other one please". The other sock was removed but the student kept his foot clenched. "Please just unclench your foot" said the Professor. And onto the floor dropped a piece of folded up paper with lots of helpful notes in tiny writing on it. "How did that get there?" said the student. "It must have been on the floor of my flat when I was getting dressed this morning".

Needless to say the student was accused of a cheating offence and subject to disciplinary procedures. But my question to Mike Rowe was "But what would you have done if the student had secreted the notes in his underpants!".

The heat is on

This also reminds me of an occasion when I was invigilating an exam in Greece when I thought a student was cheating. He was quite a few rows back and every now and then he seemed to be leaning to his left and looking over the shoulder of the girl in front of him. I should mention that it was in June and it was very hot despite the air conditioning in the exam room. Most of the students, including the girl, were not wearing very much in the way of clothing. I walked down to get closer to the student I thought might be cheating. I whispered to him that I was keeping my eye on him and he should not be tempted to cheat, because if I caught him I should certainly report him. "Oh, no", he said, "it's not that". "Look, when I lean slightly to the left I can see that girl's cleavage". "Would you like me to move you to another desk?" I replied. "Oh, yes please" he responded "otherwise I shall never be able to concentrate in this exam!"

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Students from many nations

The other day I was trying to think of all the countries from which students I have taught have come. Here are the ones I can remember (49 altogether). If you were a student of mine and I have forgotten your country please let me know. Surely I have taught someone from Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland or Austria! If so it has slipped my mind.

United Kingdom (including the Channel Islands) Republic of Ireland France Spain Portugal The Netherlands Germany Italy Norway Sweden Finland Russia Poland Romania Czech Republic Bulgaria Greece Turkey Cyprus Lebanon Iran Israel Saudi Arabia Bahrain Algeria South Africa Botswana Zambia Zimbabwe Tanzania Nigeria Ghana Mauritius India Pakistan Singapore Malaysia China (including Hong Kong) Taiwan Japan Thailand Viet Nam Australia Fiji USA Canada Mexico Brazil Guatemala