• Assistant Professor of Economics
  • Niagara University
  • Bisgrove Hall, 2nd floor, Room 254H
  • rcragun@niagara.edu
  • 716-286-8196

Teaching Philosophy

I have experience teaching five intermediate and eight principles of macroeconomics courses, four econometrics courses with both master and undergrad students, two money and banking courses, and a growth and development course, and I am developing field courses in labor economics in line with my expertise in this fields. I also have many years of experience as a teaching assistant for a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate economics and mathematics courses. I have been the instructor for courses with between 3 and 48 students.

As an instructor of economics, I have the privilege of teaching students on topics about which they are often already excited and opinionated. Everyone is an economist. I want my students to leave my class with the ability to clearly articulate sound reasoning in the real-world discussions they will have throughout the rest of their lives.

A salient component of everyday economic discussion is the prevalence of common fallacies. I view science as rejection of the intuitive heuristics or “common sense” that students typically bring into the class in favor of systematic analysis, and this is the main point I try to communicate to them. I want them to leave my course with the ability to evaluate their economic prejudices. Thus in class discussions, practice problems, and graded work, I emphasize popular misconceptions.

I make practice—rather than memorization—a priority in the classroom. Approximately half of course meetings include time for students to work on real-life problems in small groups, giving those who might not follow along easily a chance to try out and clarify ideas with quick feedback and students who comprehend easily a chance to practice expressing sound reasoning. I provide exhaustive lists of practice problems and encourage students to work through them throughout the semester. The first few times students work through problems of a particular type, the problem is broken down into individual steps that are easily handled. I then ask them to look back at the set of steps and describe the overall process and conclusions. After a few such skills-building problems, they work through a problem with no guidance like they would in the real world. I have incorporated short answer problem sets, online homework systems, students' in-class presentations, and short analysis papers into my classes as study aids and means of evaluating student performance.

I want my students to know exactly what I expect from them, so the questions in class, on homework assignments, and in the lists of practice questions make up the sum of all content I expect them to comprehend, and I take exam questions almost directly from those lists. I regularly make myself available to discuss answers and strategies for those problems. I make most questions open-ended, because those are the kind students will face in their lives.

A big part of my teaching is helping students learn how to thoroughly and directly answer a question, a skill they can transfer to any field. I may repeatedly say, “Why is that?” until students exhaust their capacity to give answers. I expect them to justify their claims, and if they cannot, I ask them to consider what evidence would justify their claims. The classroom forces students to rely only on evidence that is articulable—whether they are actually speaking aloud or simply considering the instructor's words. I expect well-reasoned answers and give zero credit on graded work for economic-sounding nonsense, because I do not believe that students get much of value out of a course where their performance depends primarily on their ability to reproduce jargon.

There has been a lot of debate about covering the IS-LM system and the importance of discussing financial markets in macro courses, but I think we have a more fundamental problem: students often do not leave their courses with a basic understanding of economics and subsequently substitute the GDP expenditures accounting identity for real economic ideas. I think that the macroeconomics field is partially to blame for creating ignorant experts whose sole knowledge consists of vague ideas about GDP accounting. We throw GDP accounting at them over and over and then wonder at the public saying things like, “Reducing malaria would reduce incomes because malaria treatment expenditures are counted in GDP.” For this reason I both repeat the difference between accounting and economics regularly and put relevant questions in practice problem sets and graded work. Similarly, I try to be careful about how I present exceptions to general principles, because experience has taught me that students will overestimate the importance of those exceptions (e.g. “GDP per person does not tell us how well off people are because it does not count leisure”).

Some of my best classroom experiences as a student involved the instructor sharing his or her expertise. I have one memory of a neurology professor stopping to talk about the differences between albino and other mice and how frustrating it was to him that other researchers ignored the fact that albino mice were more different from humans than other mice were. It was nice as a student to feel like an insider in the field. Furthermore, this was his field; he was speaking from knowledge beyond what I would get from a textbook. I try to emulate this behavior, so I share in detail the importance of macro-development, fertility, human capital, and patterns of technology accumulation. One of my smaller goals is that my students will leave the course knowing more about some topic than the average economist, so I develop a few in-depth lectures on select topics, often drawing from my fields of research. I think this both improves class engagement and introduces them to the idea that scientists are specialists, helping them avoid finding authority in the wrong places and avoid brushing off entire fields because of disagreements between people in the field.

Where I am not an expert, I am uncomfortable making strong claims, but I believe that I have a comparative advantage in finding and evaluating the available evidence, so I look up data online and make graphs to share with the class. I also see this as an opportunity to let students use their new skills of economic analysis without the fear of being wrong that might otherwise make them not speak out. I ask them what their initial beliefs are, what would constitute an answer to the question, what sort of evidence we would need, how we could gather that evidence, what theories could explain different data, etc. Recently, my course spent one meeting looking at the evidence for a claim we found in a textbook: that fiscal outside lags are shorter than monetary outside lags. In another course we discussed evidence regarding the income growth effects of the public capital stock.

I want students to feel free and unembarrased to be wrong. I try to be critical of the “right” answers and demand strong evidence for them while aknowledging evidence for “wrong” answers, pointing out that they are common views, and then carefully discussing why we might reject them. I emphasize my own uncertainty where appropriate to model scientific skepticism and point out areas of research that represent holes in our knowledge of economics (and opportunities for students to earn Nobel prizes) while also maintaining that it is unreasonable for someone to conclude that economics is useless simply because some economists disagree about some things.

My grading philosophy rests on the idea that a student who proves her or his competence deserves a good grade, and I am open-minded about what constitutes evidence of competence. I try to give students as much opportunity to prove their selves as possible. In small courses, one of my favorite grading schemes is to specify a set of actions through which the students can achieve particular grades and a set of skills and ideas that I expect them to master and then allow them to find other ways to prove to me that they are competent with those skills and ideas if they do not like the method I have given them. I have had students produce innovative solutions for achieving A grades: in a recent class, one student spent much of my office hours discussing economic issues with me. He would show up each week with a news article and talk through analyses of the events. Through these discussions he showed that he was astute, had mastered the course concepts, and could produce meaningful analysis. Successful application of these principles in the classroom requires constant dialogue with students regarding their performance. Although I believe it is the students' responsibility to prove that they deserves good grades, I try to improve learning outcomes by helping them plan how they will do this. Thus I routinely tell them, “If I had to assign you a grade today, you would receive...” and then I ask, “Do you have any plans on how you can improve this grade? How can I help?”

I approach introductory and higher-level courses differently. In beginning courses that will not lead to future study, I am careful to avoid the systems of modeling that make more advanced work so much easier. Writing down an intertemporal budget constraint is the easiest way for me to represent the choices people make over time, but it is more important for my students to simply understand that we make tradeoffs over time. The central issue is for them to see in every scenario what the benefits and costs of behaviors are. On the other hand, my experience as a graduate student has given me the opinion that the greatest help experienced professors can provide to their graduate students is often in directing them to the most relevant literature, providing strict criticism, and being quick to provide assistance with the details of work when students get stuck.

I enjoy teaching, because I view it as helping students make a little more sense of their world.