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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


» Read Cecilia Conrad (in her own words)
» Read Conrad's Faculty Profile

Meet California's Professor of the Year

Professor Cecilia Conrad's selection as California Professor of the Year
gives Pomona a "three-peat."

The selection of Cecilia Conrad, associate professor of economics at Pomona, as 2002 California Professor of the Year completes a rather unique cycle for Pomona College. This is the third consecutive year that a Pomona professor has won the award. Together, the three winners represent a new generation of women teacher-scholars, according to Pomona College Vice President for Academic Affairs Gary Kates.

“These three women are changing the curriculum in profound ways and offering different models in education and scholarship,” Kates says. “Cecilia Conrad, in economics, perhaps in the most traditional field, teaches courses on the effects of race and gender on poverty. Nicole Weekes’ work is in the cutting-edge field of neuroscience, the intersection between psychology and biology. Katherine Hagedorn, who received the honor in 2000, teaches ethnomusicology, not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. These fields were not here 20 years ago. At Pomona, this generation of women professors is making tremendous contributions to all three of the College’s divisions, the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities.”

Conrad was selected to receive this year’s honor by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
In the words of colleague Eleanor Brown, a fellow economics professor at Pomona, Professor Conrad is a “wildly popular” teacher. “The line of students hoping to get into her Race and the Economy class this term spilled out of her classroom and down the halls of the building.” One reason, according to former student Melinda Chung, Pomona Class of 2002, is that Professor Conrad “exudes enthusiasm and passion for her work… She fills classes with anecdotal stories and personal experiences that bring subject matter to life and bring theory to a more accessible level.”

Outside the classroom, Conrad focuses her research on the impact of race and gender on economic status in the United States. She is currently researching firm recruitment practices and employment of minority workers.

Her teaching prowess and contributions to her students were also recognized earlier this year when she was named a Wig Distinguished Professor by a vote of the junior and senior classes.


Cecilia Conrad (in her own words)

Asked to describe her teaching philosophy as part of her nomination for this award, here is Professor Cecilia Conrad’s description of her work—in her own words.

On one of my course evaluations, a student wrote, “I strongly suspect that economics is not nearly as much fun as Professor Conrad makes it seem.” I was thrilled. I am not in the business of edutainment but economics need not be a dismal science. There are theoretical and empirical controversies, puzzles, intriguing questions. I want my students to feel the excitement. I want even those who will never take another economics course to know how to argue with an economist.

Arguing with an economist is easier if you speak the language. Robert Frank of Cornell University has likened teaching economics to teaching a foreign language. To learn it well, one must use it often. In my classes, students have a variety of opportunities to practice speaking economics. After a walking tour of downtown L.A., for instance, students in my Urban Economics class analyze location choices, exploring questions like: Why was a seniors’ apartment complex built on Bunker Hill in the heart of L.A.? Through such exercises, students master economics as they could never do by answering end-of-the-chapter problems in a book. It is like the difference between listening to French dialogue in a language lab and wandering the streets of Lyon.

With some students, however, the challenge is not convincing them that economics is fun, but convincing them that it applies to their lives. Following a local police shooting of an African American man, for example, one of my African American advisees missed several classes, including Economic Statistics. Asked to explain, he said, “It just doesn’t seem important to the struggle.” We talked about racial profiling. I handed him a working paper by two economists on whether the New Jersey State Police engaged in racial profiling and said, “To read this paper, you will need to understand statistics.” He returned to class. I later hired him to help me analyze the impact of Social Security reform on African Americans, and our results were presented in a pre-election press conference on C-SPAN. I may have finally persuaded him that working for racial equality and studying economics are compatible. This spring he returned from a semester in Brazil and proudly handed me a research paper on black-owned businesses in San Salvador.

In class, I mix traditional chalk-and-talk with experiments, skits and in-class debates. In one experiment, I use masking tape to outline a lake in the center of the room and scatter dimes to represent fish. I instruct my volunteer fishers that there are two rounds: Fish are worth a dime in the first, a quarter in the second. For the first minute or so, the fishers are motionless, but then one lunges and the rest follow. By the second round, no fish are left. Then I carve the lake into parcels and assign each fisher the right to fish in a specific parcel. When I scatter the fish, I leave some parcels barren. The affected fishers complain loudly. Some even resort to theft, but fish survive to the second round. Students see that the problem of overfishing is solved, but at a cost. This opens the door to a discussion of equity versus efficiency and of alternative solutions to the problem.

As much as possible, I use concrete experiences to explain abstract concepts. In Race and the U.S. Economy, for instance, I use family history to discuss trends in the economic status of minority women. Using photos of my mother, my grandmother and myself, I compare our biographies as workers to broad statistical trends. I use such personal stories not only to make the ideas less intimidating, but also to make students feel comfortable with me as an African American woman. Such comfort is especially important in Race and the U.S. Economy, where the majority of students are white, where we discuss politically and emotionally volatile subjects, and where my presence as an authority figure could easily have a chilling effect on discussion.

Once after several lectures outlining theories of racial inequality, we had an in-class debate on the topic: Resolved, there is no racial discrimination in U.S. labor markets. Students were randomly assigned to the two sides. My job was that of a neutral mediator and research consultant to both sides. In such debates, I enforce one requirement on everyone: Back up each statement with empirical evidence. If you can’t, then acknowledge it is a stereotype. In other words, I emphasize the importance of subjecting all theories, even personal ones, to empirical test.

I subject my own theories of pedagogy to empirical test by talking with graduates. Sometimes the link between coursework and postgraduate life is obvious. (One alum still e-mails me with regression analysis questions.) In other cases, it is subtle. Another former student reports that she can’t think about globalization or repealing the estate tax without thinking about tradeoffs between economic efficiency and other social goals.

The only thing that would please me more is if she admitted it was fun.

—Cecilia Conrad

Photo by Phil Channing