February, 2017

Walk into the economics department at Macalester College and you’ll find plenty of students stopping by. Senior Ellie Fuqua is one of them; she describes how professors keep their doors open and students are always coming in to talk. “Sometimes I take it for granted and I need to pull back and realize the fact I can go into my professor’s office and talk with her for an hour is not normal, or it wouldn’t be at a big school.”

“There’s a community here,” agrees Pete Federer, faculty member and department chair. “We really push these kids hard, at Mac and in our department in particular, and the personal interaction we have with them as professors helps them and supports them emotionally, at a human level.”

Experienced faculty members making time to talk to undergrads — that’s what private colleges in Minnesota want to see happen. There are several ways private colleges work on this, from a focus on hiring Ph.D. faculty to keeping classes small. But beyond the data points, what is the experience really like at a private college? And more importantly, why does it matter? We turned to the economics department at Macalester College to hear more.

The answers are not just academic for high school students choosing a college. And they may not realize that the focus on undergrad-faculty interaction is rarer at large research institutions. This has come up in past alumni research. And it was demonstrated recently by a survey of economics undergraduates at the University of Minnesota: For 46 percent of the students, none of their classes had been taught by a Ph.D. faculty member. A recent Minnesota Daily article notes that last semester, grad students and teaching assistants taught 19 of 26 regular courses in the U of M’s department. And the majority of the survey respondents said they were probably or definitely unaware of the reliance on grad students as teachers when they enrolled.

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The introductory course in economics at Macalester is capped at 25 or so students. You can imagine that with economists involved, they’ve evaluated whether there could be greater efficiency and savings by changing that ratio. But Federer said the department’s faculty “keep coming back to the point that this is where we first start to meet these students and get to know them. You really get to know these kids and who are serious about going on in the department and you start to build a relationship.”

That happened for Fuqua. She credits the professor who taught her introductory course for changing her trajectory at Macalester and in some ways her life. “When I realized I could excel at this, she was interested in mentoring me through. That was really important for me, to get that personal push.” Fuqua. “She has continued to be my advisor and key to my growth.”

That kind of contact with faculty with Ph.D.s in economics is the norm for the department’s students. The only exceptions are intentional, with one professor having a Ph.D. in accounting and another, a retired investment banker, having an MBA from Harvard University. There are eight tenure-track positions for Ph.D. economists. (There are no grad students at Macalester to consider enlisting into teaching; undergrads can work as preceptors, which involves grading homework and being available to help with questions, but not teaching.)

“Being taught by Ph.D. economists with serious experience means that what you’re getting in the classroom is likely of higher quality, because of the existing teaching experience. That really shines through in our department, we have incredible lecturers, and that is because they’ve practiced,” Fuqua said. “They instill this enthusiasm for the field and they have such a deep background in economics.”

A recent faculty hiring process was another reminder of the emphasis placed on teaching. Yes, the final candidates for the position needed to have scholarly ambition, but Ferderer said they also needed to be good teachers and have a strong inclination to work with the students. The candidate who won out — after plenty of chances to meet with students when visiting campus — was the one who engendered the strongest student responses. For Fuqua, who was a student representative on the search committee, the finalist won them over because “he clearly had an enthusiasm for students that really came through; he really seemed genuine about wanting to be in this kind of small environment and have an impact on individual students.”

Counting returns

Economics vies each year for being the most popular major on campus, with 65 economics majors expected to go through commencement this spring. For all those new grads, the contact they had with their faculty will have helped them get through a challenging major, one where some personal support can make a difference. It is almost like being a life coach at times, Ferderer said. Fuqua agreed with the impact of these close relationships, especially when times are stressful: “A lot of professors acknowledge the stress they’ve gone through and times when they’ve failed — that is very beneficial. The more you get to know professors, the more you realize how human they are.”

And many of the new grads will have had additional chances to dig in, such as Fuqua’s work last summer doing research with her mentor and helping with a paper. The plan is for it to be submitted to an academic journal.

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The contact in and outside the classroom adds up, with professors able to help students consider career options and speak up for the students. An MIT economist had just reached out to Ferderer to ask about a recent graduate’s fit for a research assistant position, for example. “I can tell him a lot, because I’ve been working very closely with the student for years,” Ferderer said. “That’s an example of where that close relationship comes in. I can address how the student has a lot of raw intelligence and a lot of creativity and character — that’s what you can see up close.”

For Fuqua, her plans after college involve moving to Boston to work at a firm doing research work, bringing her skills and interests to a more corporate environment. And yes, her faculty mentor was supportive in this job search too, as well as in encouraging her to think about grad school and other options.

“In many ways it is a calling,” Ferderer said, reflecting on the unique role that the faculty play at Macalester. “You develop these life-long relationships with these kids, whom you may not see for years. I feel very fortunate to have this in my life.”

By John Manning