A Guide to Talking to Your Professor

By Jamie Barker & Cahal Moran

We know that approaching your lecturers to ask them to teach economics differently can seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be! Here’s a short guide to working with academics to create the change you want to see, with some top tips on how to be more persuasive.

Academics often do really care about their teaching. Almost all of them want to be teaching valuable content, in a way that will be of benefit to students in their future careers. If you can convince them that what they’re currently doing is not achieving those things, then they will generally be very eager to get your views on how they can improve. The problem tends to be that academics don’t grasp how bad the present state of economics education is; they think that they’re doing a lot better than they are. This is where you come in! You can explain what you feel is missing from your classes, and what could be taken out to make room for your suggestions.

Speak as a fellow economics enthusiast

You’ll be a lot more persuasive if you can come across as enthusiastic about their subject area (even if not the details of their module). Most students don’t engage with academics, so they’re often more willing to listen than you’d expect if you make an effort, they really appreciate it. Additionally, more academics than you might expect have their own frustrations or misgivings with the economics that they teach in class, so you may be pushing on an open door! It’s also important to be polite and respectful in your conversations with academics, as well as being the right thing to do, this will make them more likely to treat you the same way.

Keep in mind that it is much harder to change someone’s mind if they feel under attack. When this is the case, their natural reaction is to become defensive, to cling onto their beliefs, and potentially to push you away. Try to frame your conversations with academics as working together to see whether there are opportunities to improve what and how they teach, rather than a direct attack on what they’re currently doing. That doesn’t mean you can’t say that you disagree with what’s currently being done, and obviously they will know to some extent that you’re trying to convince them that change is necessary. But you’ll find your discussions to be much more productive if they’re framed as working together rather than working against each other. It can be a difficult balancing act at times, and you won’t be able to achieve it in every meeting, but it’s something to aim for.

It is very difficult to resolve differences on how to improve economics education if you haven’t first agreed on what “improve” means. Before you talk about specific changes that you want to see, try to understand what your lecturer is trying to achieve with their classes, and try to have a direction in mind where you would like to go, beyond just what you don’t like. 

Assume your lecturer has good intentions

In a lot of cases, you may find that you have a lot more in common with your lecturer than you think. In particular, academics would often like to encourage their students to do more independent thinking within their courses. They usually don’t want students to just memorise models without understanding them, and they normally don’t want them to believe that the models are perfect representations of reality. Many lecturers also like the idea of linking what they teach to the real world, and would like to do more in that direction.

Go into meetings with an open mind, and assume the best of the lecturer that you’re engaging with until you’ve been proven wrong. If you can frame the conversation around questions rather than accusations then you’ll find yourself covering the same material but in a much more productive way. For example, “I haven’t heard the climate emergency come up in any of our classes yet, why is that?” instead of “you don’t teach us anything about the climate emergency”. You’re still challenging your lecturer on the content that they’re including in their class, but in a constructive way that gives them the opportunity to respond, and leaves you in a position to follow up. For example, if they say that they don’t feel like they personally know enough to teach the links between the economy and the environment, then you can offer to provide them with resources. Or if they say that they already struggle to fit in the material they cover, you can help them decide what to take out of their curriculum to make room.

How to deal with genuine disagreement

Unfortunately, it won’t always be that easy. Sometimes there will be a genuine disagreement with your lecturer on what kind of economics education they should be aiming for. This is most likely to be the case if you’re trying to move away from exclusively neoclassical economics to a more pluralist curriculum. Most current academics around the world would have only been taught neoclassical economic theories that were written by privileged white men from the Global North, and may not recognise the value in perspectives that they are less familiar with.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to argue for different ends or different means, the more concrete and specific you can be, the better. For example, “when economic models are introduced, I feel like we spend most of our time solving equations and relatively little time questioning when the assumptions might hold”, rather than “I don’t like the way models are taught in your class”. Being more specific means that you are less likely to be misunderstood, and makes it easier for you to focus on the issues that are most important to you. Until the academic understands the problem that you’ve identified, it’s very difficult for them to do anything to fix it!

Another top tip is to present solutions and alternatives to the problems and issues that you raise. As well as balancing out the tone of the discussions by providing positives as well as negatives, it also makes finding a resolution much more likely. You don’t have to have a fully-formed solution to every problem that you raise, you can absolutely find an answer through an open discussion with your lecturer. But if you can at least bring along some tentative thoughts towards a solution, you’re taking the pressure off of them to fix things on their own. It’s much easier for your lecturer to say yes to a proposal that you’ve put forward than to work something out on their own.

Face-to-face or video meetings may not always be the most effective way to get your message across. Written documents and emails can also be really helpful as part of the dialogue because you have more time to think about what you write. It can also be really helpful for academics to have something to refer back to when they’re thinking later on about what you raised with them, and when they’re planning out their clases for the next year if they agree with some of your suggestions. You can also send them articles you read that you feel are persuasive.

Concrete starting points

It helps to bring something as a conversation starter or even to anchor the conversation to a concrete proposal. The book Economy Studies contains some tools, such as:

  • Building Blocks: Ten concrete yet flexible bundles of skills and knowledge, suggesting what to teach, how to teach it and what teaching materials to use.
  • Adapting Existing Courses: Plug-and-play suggestions to improve existing economics courses with attention to institutions, history, values and practical skills.

You’re not alone

Hopefully this guide has made you excited to get started! Talking to academics is often a very rewarding experience. It will take time to make changes, it won’t all happen in one conversation, but even a small change in approach from your lecturer means that dozens or even hundreds of students are being taught differently and will go out into the world as different economists. That’s a big impact!

You should also remember that you’re not in this alone. If there are other students at your university with similar concerns, then you can work together to plan out what you’d like to talk to academics about, write emails together and go along to meetings together. There are also lots of like-minded people around the world trying to make changes to economics education. The team at Rethinking Economics are always happy to provide support and answer questions from their own experience of working with academics. You can reach them at academia@rethinkeconomics.org.