Teaching

Pre-Semester Questions and Answers

You asked — I answered.

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

It’s been difficult to connect with students via Zoom this semester as I teach large lectures that approach 400. To help, I added a question to my pre-class survey this semester in my intro to macro class: Is there anything you’d like to know about me as a person?

I believe it is important to follow through in your classrooms on any assignments or tasks you have of your students to make sure busywork isn’t a term used to describe your class. Thus, below are the questions and answers. I’m posting them here so students know I don’t just send out this pre-class survey for fun — I read them.

If anyone has other questions, students or non-students, feel free to ask in the comments. Enjoy!

Q: Did you attend Penn State/If not, where did you go to school?

A: I did not attend Penn State. For undergrad, I went to Western New England University in Springfield MA where I majored in Economics and Math. For graduate school, I went to UC-Irvine in Southern California.

Q: Do you follow any sports?

A: Yes. I follow more teams than the sport itself. I am a huge NY Mets fan and follow the NY Giants for the NFL. NBA and NHL I don’t follow besides checking in on former Penn Staters. I follow the B1G for both NCAA Football and Basketball as a season ticket holder for both PSU teams.

Q: Do you have a dog?

A: Currently we have two puppers: Penny and Dakota. Penny is some tiny terrier mix (read: mutt) and Dakota is a Puggle. We adopted both from Centre County PAWS and they have their own Instagram that they don’t update nearly as much as they should.

I am a dog person. Not a cat person.

Penny on the left. Dakota on the right. Pictured here in Downtown State College.

Q: Do you live with a family? If so, where at?

A: I currently live here in State College about a mile from campus in the Highlands neighborhood with my wife, Kimberly, our two dogs, and our roommate Jason.

Q: Do you put students first or ease of teaching first?

A: I believe there must be a balance between your work and personal life. I’ve spent the last 6 years at Penn State finding that balance and using technology to allow me to focus as much time on both my students and my outside-of-paid-work interests. For example, utilizing online homework systems, Google surveys, etc. With that being said, I believe I have become a very compassionate instructor and care deeply about my students’ successes.

Q: Favorite food?

A: I’m a big fan of honey bbq boneless wings at Wings Over. Recently, I’ve cut out meet 6 days a week so on the one day I eat meat I always want to order from Wings!

Q: Going into ECON 104 as a virtual class this semester, what is your teaching situation like? How do you feel about virtual learning? Sometimes it helps to know these things to feel like we’re in it together when I’m struggling with virtual learning.

A: Currently I am teaching three different courses completely virtual. My office is set up here at my home with a dual monitor and upgraded microphone/camera. I always connect to Zoom with my iPad as well so I can draw and share that screen.

Photo taken August 19th, 2020 before my first virtual class at the new home office.

I miss in-person classes because of the connection with students. However, there are things that I would not have done in person that I am now doing in a virtual setting. For example, it’s much easier to show data from FRED or to pull up information on one of my screens and share it with everyone.

I believe switching to anything can be a struggle and it takes time to get used to a new environment. Going into my second full semester I feel much more confident in my ability to deliver a solid experience for everyone and invite students who feel they are struggling to reach out.

Q: How did you come to decide you wanted to pursue economics?

I took an economics class during my second semester in undergrad with Dr. Michael Enz and really enjoyed both his teaching style and the material. I decided to take additional classes and really connected with the faculty and the curriculum so decided to continue.

Q: How did you get to where you are today? How did you decide to become an economics professor?

I’ve always wanted to teach. When I was younger, I used to set up ‘school’ for my younger sisters in our basement and I admired the teachers at my public school. In college, I was debating on getting my teaching credential and teach math. When I met with some of my professors they asked if I had thought about grad school. As a first-gen student, I didn’t even know what that meant. With the help of a few, I was able to apply and get in. In graduate school, I realized I wasn’t too fond of research and started focusing on teaching both as a TA, as a tutor, at a few local community colleges. A few moves later I ended up being offered a teaching professor position here at Penn State.

Q: How did you pass the time during the first quarantine

At the very beginning, when I wasn’t scrambling to move my in-person classes virtually, I spent a lot of time with my wife and roommate at home. My roommate Jason does a lot of streaming on Twitch and Facebook. We would set up a talk show and do some fun things with local bands. Once the weather got nicer, I spent a lot of time on the golf course.

Hole 13 at Mountain View Country Club

Q: How do you help students succeed during online learning?

A: The main way is by providing all materials online which allows for asynchronous learning. I made a decision early on that I have no idea what each students’ situation is at home and I did not want to require attendance over Zoom. I still hold Zoom classes but it is much more similar to a flipped classroom where we do activities and go over questions that individuals have rather than lecture.

I also offer 3 hours of open Zoom help each week that students can drop in and allow for scheduling through Calendly for 15-minute one-on-one help.

Q: How has your knowledge in economics made you a better business person?

A: Not only do I believe it has made me a better businessperson, but a better decision-maker as a whole. In economics, you will learn about marginal analysis and incentives. This helps not only make decisions for yourself but understand the decisions your customers and supplies are making.

Q: How long have you been a professor at Penn State?

A: This is currently the second semester of my 7th year at Penn State. Time flies when you’re having fun.

Our first photo in State College at a Spikes game.

Q: How long have you been teaching?

A: I taught my first solo class in the summer of 2010 as a graduate student at UC-Irvine. So that makes this my 11th year of teaching.

Q: How long have you taught this course?

A: I’ve taught intro to macroeconomics here at Penn State every semester except for one since I have been here. My first section was in the fall of 2014.

Q: How was your break/ what did you do for fun?

A: Break was relaxing. My wife and I did a few house projects we have been procrastinating on. We also did a few puzzles. I worked a bit on my company Happy Valley Improv to try and position ourselves for when the vaccine rollout allows for in-person theatre.

One of the four puzzles Kim and I did over winter break.

Q: Do you like BTS?

A: I’m actually not a huge music fan outside of live-local bands which makes people gasp. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll listen to music, but must of the time my office is silent or I’m listening to a podcast. With that said, I appreciate all types of music and some of the BTS songs bop. Let’s be honest.

Q: I saw your email ended with “cheers”, and your last name sounds of British origin. My aunt moved to England in 2007, so I’m always interested to interact with those from across the pond here in the states. If you are not British, then you can ignore this!

A: I’m actually not British and the reason why I sign my emails with Cheers comes from a graduate professor who did the same. I thought it was different and more welcoming than the traditional Sincerely and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Tierney (at least with my family) comes from Ireland. It was O’Tierney but when my ancestors immigrated, they dropped the O’ to help limit discrimination.

Q: I think it would be nice to know about your interests and lifestyle so that it helps students connect to you on a more personal level, rather than just knowing you as our virtual economics professor!

A: My interests are, in no particular order: entrepreneurship, improv comedy, social gatherings, live concerts at small dive-bars, Las Vegas, golf, macroeconomic history, education, cities and transportation, sustainability, breaking down barriers and local laws that lead to unequal access to higher economic status, Schitt’s Creek, Succession, comedic writing.

https://medium.com/jane-austens-wastebasket/its-me-your-hotmail-account-let-s-talk-e96c95a94be5

Q: I think it’s really nice you take the time to read through all of these and try to get to know your students more in such a large class. Will there be any more opportunities like this? Likewise, will there be opportunities for us to learn more about you, in return?

A: I’m an open book, for the most part. Open office hours are also a time that you can come and we can discuss topics outside of the current material.

Q: If you were to give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

A: You’re good enough so stop being a jerk to try and prove yourself. Over the past year or so I’ve done a lot more thinking about who I am and how I’ve treated people. I realized that my background as a low-class, first-generation student led me to believe that I did not belong in places like my college, grad school, and specifically in academics with a bunch of economists. Thus, I acted overconfident at times which led to cockiness and lost friendships and connections. Once I realized this I was able to feel a lot more comfortable with who I am and where I am and at the same time be a nicer person.

Q: In all seriousness. What are your dogs' names? Especially the one who started barking at me thru your window when I came to pick up that textbook.

A: Ha! That would be Dakota. She’s the one that barks like crazy and she 100% will during our class. Glad you were able to pick up the textbook.

Dakota (left) and Penny (right) getting ready to bark bark bark.

Q: Thoughts on crypto?

A: I believe the blockchain and other technological developments surrounding tokens and cryptocurrency have great potential and I have for many years. I don’t believe, at this time, it has much of a future as a currency because it isn’t accepted in exchange for goods and services. Plus, as the value continues to rise, it gives very little incentive to spend which can be dangerous when it comes to money.

Personally, I own a couple of ETH tokens but nothing else. Mainly because I like to see what networks are being powered by ETH.

Q: What brought you to PSU?

A: I was teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh in way upstate NY when I got a message asking if I would be interested in applying for an opening at Penn State. I applied, interviewed, and got an offer that paid more money than my former job. My wife also was looking for a change, so we moved! We love it here.

Q: What is it about economics that interests you?

A: The way you can tell stories with theory, look at the data, and then tell a completely different story. The way you can look at how things are ‘supposed to work’ and then figure out why they aren’t working that way. The way you can use the economic way of thinking to help less advantaged groups succeed.

Now, this can be very difficult because there are many people who think economics is a strict science and do not like to look beyond the theory. But that’s a discussion/fight for another day.

Q: What is the reason you decided to devote your life to economics?

A: I believe I devoted my life to education and not necessarily economics. If economics ended tomorrow, I would be OK and find ways to continue to teach something else. I’ve just always felt education and learning was fun and enjoyable and I wanted to share that joy with others.

Q: What is your favorite movie?

A: This sounds like you’re trying to ask some of my Password questions… but it’s 100% Dumb and Dumber (note to self, change favorite movie for password recall).

Q: What is your favorite place to eat in State College?

A: This is going to be different from my favorite food because I don’t want to go to Wings Over. It would have to be Kamrai Thai in Lemont. Delicious food, great staff, and wonderful environment.

Q: What is your favorite thing to teach in economics?

A: Micro: Externalities. Macro: Unemployment. Econometrics: none.

Q: What was your first job after college/ grad school?

A: I ran a tutoring business in Southern California that specialized in math and economics between the time that I was in grad school and my first University job.

Q: What things do you value most in life and why? Do you think you’ve fully discovered yourself as a person (mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.)?

A: I value friendship and laughter the most in life. I do not believe I’ve fully discovered myself and I don’t know if that is ever possible. I’m always trying to become a better person to my friends, family, and students. I don’t always succeed but that’s ok.

Q: What type of teaching style do you have as it relates to zoom? More of PowerPoint presentation or read off the textbook/ lecture type?

A: When it comes to Zoom I think it lends itself much better to discussion and Q&A. That is why I will post all material to Canvas pre-class and open up our class times and more of review sessions and practice time.

Q: What was your favorite class that you took in college?

A: I took a philosophy of fiction and film class as an elective that was fascinating. Something completely out of my comfort zone and I really enjoyed a break from my math and economics classes.

Q: What would the students be surprised to find out about you?

A: I used to be a very good bowler.

Q: What’s your favorite place you’ve been?

A: Las Vegas. I just think it’s so fascinating that statistics and psychology and addiction and what have you built a megacity in the middle of a desert.

A photo I took a few years back of the Wynn.

Q: What’s your favorite Disney/Pixar animated movie? This isn’t an important question, it’s just fun. Thanks!

A: This is tough but I’m going with Monster’s Inc. As for least favorite, 100% Wall-E.

Q: Where are you from?

A: I’m from way-upstate NY — Champlain to be exact. A small town with approximately 6,000 residents.

Q: Would you consider yourself an introvert, ambivert, or extrovert?

A: I am an extrovert which comes with its pros and cons.

Q: It’s always my concern that professors have a political bias that is brought into the classroom. Everyone including myself has a political bias and I’d like to know how you plan on keeping your personal opinion outside of a topic that is so heavily influenced by politics.

A: I think it is impossible to keep personal opinions out of a class like an intro to macroeconomics because there is debate within the discipline on how to attack teaching this course. Personally, I’ve decided to teach this intro class the way most mainstream economists would. We will bring in facts and figures and talk about the macroeconomic theory most agreed upon. However, I will let inform you of other schools of thought.

I wouldn’t say this is political bias. For that, I try very hard to not put one specific agenda. Unless, of course, a political party and or individual is making decisions that go against what we are learning in class. That happens a lot — on both sides of the aisle.

Q: Why the Mets? Strawberry was one of my favorite outfielders when I was growing up.

A: My father is a Yankees fan. Yuck! Growing up just 40 miles south of Montreal, he used to take me to a lot of Expos’ games. Since, at the time, the NL did not play the AL other than the World Series, he too me to a lot of Mets games. When I was old enough to start to follow baseball, I realized the Mets won the World Series in my birth year and thus decided to become a fan.

Q: Did you study Marxism at any point during your path to becoming a professor?

A: I’ve taken a couple of history of economic thought classes that have touched on many schools of thought including Marxism. I wouldn’t call myself an expert. I know just enough to get me trouble arguing for and against — which is my goal with most topics.

Q: What is something you found helpful in adapting to the new covid guidelines?

A: Having Zoom happy hours with friends from my previous locations. I’ve connected with more old friends now than ever before.

Q: What keeps you motivated especially during a time of lockdown?

A: Getting shots in arms!

Q: What made you interested in doing improv and stand-up comedy?

A: When I was in undergrad, my roommate was the entertainment chair of the Campus Activity Board. He was putting on an event called WNEC’s Last Comic Standing and they were having troubles filling the spots. He asked if I would be interested and I agreed to do a 10-minute set.

It was very thrilling and I decided to start doing some open mics around town. At about the same time I took an improv comedy class to fulfill my art requirement. That was when I fell in love with improv and haven’t looked back!

Q: If you could pass on any wisdom to your students, what would you share?

A: Be organized. Get yourself a planner and plan out the entire semester now. Get into good habits and you will succeed.

Q: As an economist, do you think that the way GDP, unemployment etc. is reported on gives the average person an accurate picture of the economy as a whole?

A: Yes. However, I don’t think it gives an accurate picture of different sectors of the economy. Most economic indicators we study are meant to show the economy as a whole. The thought part is digging in and realizing that different parts of the economy are having different experiences. I hope during my class you get to learn about some of these other indicators that look at different parts of the economy.

Q: Are you left- or right-handed?

A: Right

Q: Do you like teaching macroeconomic or microeconomics more?

A: Macro because it is always changing, even at the intro level. Micro is fun too but unless you’re teaching at a higher level it’s mainly set semester to semester.

Q: If you could have any job in the world (money and relationships aside) what would it be?

A: To be honest, I don’t think a single job in the world would be satisfying to me. The closest would be to run a small arts center that was very dynamic in its offerings. Perhaps have a small theatre, a coffee shop, space for yoga, a bar area with TVs, etc. That way, I would satisfy all of my interests!

Q: Do you have a name that you go by when you perform comedy?

A: Just my given name. James Tierney. Maybe I should get a better stage name.

Q: Why do you like teaching?

A: I like connecting with people in a way that expands knowledge. I get a lot of joy seeing people succeed. When I play a part in that journey it’s even more rewarding.

Q: I read your “meet the instructor” page…you have so many interests. I’m wondering where you find the time!

A: Well, having no children or plans to have children help. I also continue to find ways to automate parts of my life including teaching, scheduling meetings, etc.

James Tierney is an improviser and economics instructor. Follow him on Twitter for some amusement.

Economics Educator. Improviser. Community Builder. Always looking for the next new thing, for better or for worse.

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