Talk centers on diversifying economics classrooms

Amanda Bayer ’95 Ph.D.
Amanda Bayer ’95 Ph.D.

Economist Amanda Bayer ’95 Ph.D. is an advocate for promoting diversity in her field, which has long struggled to attract and retain women and people of color among its ranks.

We have real imbalances in our profession at all career stages,” said Bayer, professor of economics at Swarthmore College, during a panel discussion on Oct. 2 at Sterling Memorial Library on fostering inclusion in the classroom. “We haven’t been very aware of that as a profession.”

Statistics compiled by the American Economic Association (AEA) support Bayer’s assertion: During the 2015-2016 academic year, less than 16% of bachelor’s degrees and 10% of doctoral degrees in economics nationwide were awarded to non-white students. In 2018, about 14% of full professors in Ph.D.-granting economics departments were women, which was an all-time high.

Bayer was joined on the panel by Michelle Nearon, senior associate dean for graduate student development and diversity, and Suzanne Young, director of graduate and postdoctoral teaching development at Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Ebonya Washington, the Samuel C. Park Jr. Professor of Economics and the economics department’s director of undergraduate studies, moderated the conversation, which centered on practical approaches to creating an inclusive classroom and drawing a more diverse range of students into economics.

The first steps toward creating a comfortable environment for all students should occur before the first day of class by developing a syllabus that clearly establishes the instructor’s goals and expectations, said Nearon, who directs the Office for Graduate Student Development & Diversity at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The instructor should focus the opening class on setting a tone that encourages students to ask questions and be engaged.

I would not recommend on your very first day just jumping into the material,” Nearon said. “It’s about relationships. How faculty members relate to individual students and groups of students, and how students relate to each other.”

Bayer explained that she is careful to identify the specific skills that she aims to teach her students.

For economics, one of [those skills] involves the scientific process as applied by economists: how to be curious about the world and formulate a question; how you mine and collect data to speak to a hypothesis,” she said.

Young suggested that instructors should set parameters for what constitutes excellent writing in their given field.

Without underlying guidance — pulling the curtain back and saying in this field, this is what excellent writing and thinking looks like — we’re doing a disservice to our students,” she said, adding that failing to define good writing advantages students who received the highest level of preparation before coming to Yale.

Washington asked the panelists for advice on helping students overcome imposter syndrome — the belief that they do not deserve their place on campus — as well as those suffering fixed-mind syndrome, who believe their potential is capped.

Encouraging students to embrace imperfection is key to treating both afflictions, Young said.

To whatever extent you can in your classrooms, break through that gently but firmly and say, ‘This is a space where we are going to make mistakes. This is an error-positive environment,’” she said. “You can just announce it at the beginning of class, so students don’t have to sit back quietly until they are certain they have the right answer… The evidence is clear that students who take risks and make mistakes learn better and learn faster than students who always stay on safe ground.”

Washington, who co-chairs the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession, raised the issue of attracting students from diverse backgrounds to economics, which is the most popular major at Yale. (According to Business Insider, economics is the most popular major at six of the eight Ivy League schools.)

Bayer suggested that many students simply do not realize the wide range of issues that economics addresses, such as climate change, inequality, and early childhood education.

With colleagues Syon Bhanot and Fernando Lozano, Bayer conducted a field experiment to identify the extent to which misperceptions about the field contribute to the lack of diversity in economics classrooms (PDF). The researchers identified a sample of 2,710 incoming students across nine U.S. universities with a strong record of sending students to Ph.D. programs in economics. The students were women and/or members of an underrepresented minority group. The students were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: a control group that received no treatment; a group that received two welcoming emails that encouraged them to enroll in an economics class; and a group that received welcoming emails that included information about the diversity of research and researchers within economics.

The study found that students who received the additional information were significantly more likely to enroll in an economics class, supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that students are unaware of the field’s breadth and depth. The greatest increase was among first-generation college students, said Bayer, whose work to help the U.S. Federal Reserve diversify its research staff was recently reported in The New York Times.

We found that students who wouldn’t ordinarily take our classes completed an econ class in their first semester of college,” she said. “It’s still to soon to know if they end up being majors, but they stuck it out for the whole semester and learned some economics they wouldn’t have otherwise learned.”

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Department of Economics; the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration; the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning; and Belonging at Yale.

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