Saturday, December 04, 2004

Intellectual Activism: Economics Professor’s Teaching Inspires Devoted Following

Here's this week's Broadside column (and a little background). When I was a student George Washington University, the student Objectivists on campus made the university a worthwhile place. At George Mason, it is a professor. So when I started classes, practically everyone I knew said I'd want to take economics professor Thomas Rustici (and usually said so emphatically). Now that I've had him for a semester, I'm glad I took their advice.

Objectivists will be pleased to hear Rustici requires Ayn Rand's Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal as reading in his course on economics and public policy that I'm currently taking, and that he offers an extra credit book report on Atlas Shrugged in another. Rustici teaches the right ideas in economics in a truly inductive manner, teaching students how to think scientifically about economics and connecting what they learn in class to their lives in a way I've seen few professors match.

For example, his class on the economic devastation wrought by the minimum wage laws was so compelling that I felt that I had ran a marathon after it, and I am one who hardly needs convincing on the evils of the minimum wage. Rustici illustrated his argument though the story of his blind grandfather during the great depression, a man forced to abandon the in-home labor he had secured for himself because it paid less then the minimum wage laws allowed. Rustici pointed out that these laws effectively made his grandfather's life worthless, and devastated his family's ability to survive in a way that I don't think any of the students in attendance will ever forget.

But for this article, written for a general audience, I chose to zero in on Rustici's teaching method. Rustici is the "total cognitive authority" in his classroom. His class is almost entirely lecture, and he's good enough at what he does to anticipate his students' questions in advance, answer them, and leave students with the skills they need to get to the truth on their own. A lot of students I spoke to described Rustici's class as a transformative experience.

As for me, I think Rustici has reminded me how invigorating teaching can be. Teaching is a realm where people with our ideas can have a tremendous impact and see the results of their work first hand, without having to wait for "the culture to change." Rustici's example has certainly inspired me to think about melding my advocacy for capitalism with teaching in ways I hadn't considered before, and for that, I'm grateful.

So without any further adieu, here's the article:

Good teaching takes hard work. A professor must be an expert on his or her subject, understand the what the audience already knows about it, and be able to present new knowledge in a compelling and informative manner. That might explain why so few professors are good at it.

In many classes, the trend is often away from lecture and toward "discussion," where students, and not the professor, do most of the speaking. Discussion classes work well when students are already well-versed in a subject, but when they are not, discussion easily degenerates into the blind leading the blind. The result may be less work for the professor, but bad news for students, who miss out on the benefit of a solid course of instruction.

Yet not all GMU professors are willing to abandon lecturing; some, in fact, excel at it. You ask students on campus who the best lecturer is-and perhaps the best overall professor-odds are you'll hear one name repeated again and again: Prof. Thomas Rustici of the Department of Economics.

Rustici teaches 100-level micro and macroeconomic theory and 300-level economics and public policy. A one time Mason student government "faculty member of the year" in economics, Rustici's enthusiasm permeates his classroom.

"I love economics and I'm passionate about teaching it," says Rustici. "Too many professors shirk their responsibility to be professors. They don't profess their own knowledge and experience in a way that teaches students how to be scholars."

"Other professors place too much emphasis on what they believe students want, going soft on them rather then challenging them to think scientifically," says Rustici. "A class on current events is of no value if a student doesn't first understand the scientific method of his field."

To teach that method, Rustici relies almost exclusively on lecture, with few, if any interruptions.

"I'm a classical professor," says Rustici. "It is my moral and educational duty to provide my students with the fundamentals so they develop into scholars who know what they think and can think on their own."

Isaac DiIanni, a graduate student working toward his PhD in economics at Mason spent a year as Rustici's teaching assistant. DiIanni says Rustici's teaching method allows students to learn economic principles in a way that shapes their thinking in a whole host of disciplines.

"Rustici's curriculum is such that each student is invited to explore their own ideas, discover how they can pursue these ideas within reality, and use critical thought to observe and learn about the world in which they live," says DiIanni.

"Undergraduates leave his classes with a better understanding of economics and human behavior than many graduate students," says DiIanni. "He covers nearly every important area of economics, from government intervention in the economy to the environment, in a way that is interesting and relevant."

Rustici's classes are not without their controversy though. Students are expected to write cogent papers and sloppy thinkers do poorly on his assignments. Yet DiIanni says Rustici is willing to go the extra mile for a student who is having a hard time but willing to work to learn, or needs mentoring.

"While the queue to his office hours is often filled with students stopping by for advice on an assignment, it is equally filled with students coming by just to chat. Many of his students are regular visitors," says DiIanni.

DiIanni also says some Mason professors resent Rustici's impact on students. "They hate it when one of his students takes them to task for something they teach which contradicts what they learned in his class," says DiIanni.

Yet Senior Tim Bainton, a current student in Rustici's public policy class says that is exactly why he likes Rustici's teaching. "He is passionate and not afraid to express controversial positions," says Bainton.

"I think he is the most amazing professor at Mason," says Bainton. "He gives you a wealth of knowledge in a three hour course that would take other instructors 15 hours to communicate."

GMU alumnus Tim Cheadle (SITE '04), a computer engineer at America Online agrees. "Rustici's classes are as much about reality, truth and morality as they are about finances," says Cheadle.

"Rustici's aim, stated clearly during the first 20 minutes of his first lecture, is to exhibit that economics is the bridge between an individual's values and reality," says Cheadle.

"When I took Rustici's class, I wanted to be there," says Cheadle. "It was like watching a master at work, with the side benefit, of course, being that you left the classroom more knowledgeable and reasonable than when you entered."

"Rustici provided a challenge to think that was unparalleled in any other class I attended in my career at Mason," says Cheadle. "Not only do I still vividly remember material from his lectures I attended four years ago, but they also provided a foundation of discovery that I utilize every day."

"Rustici simply pushed me to be a better person," says Cheadle.

And that, perhaps even more then his lecture method, is why Rustici shines as a professor.

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