Looking back on Fall 2021

By Enrico Manlapig in reflections

January 3, 2022

contemporary aboriginal art Our Land by Sarrita King. Used with permission.

Fall 2021 is finally over and, phew, I’m glad to be done with it!

This semester was my first one back after being on sabbatical.

I taught my regular three class load this semester: Corporate Finance, Applied Management Science (AMS), and Intermediate Microeconomics. Each one was both tremendously satisfying and frustrating this semester for various reasons. All of my classes were taught indoors with masks, in keeping with the college’s COVID-19 protocols.

Corporate Finance

Finance was, as usual, a tremendous amount of work but it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise.

I began the semester mostly confident about this class: I’d taught it many times over the years and planned on any major changes. With significant uncertainties in my other classes, Finance was meant to be a reliable and predictable place.

My only real concern was admittedly irrational and borderline superstitious. I was assigned a large classroom where I’d had a bad experience teaching Finance years ago. In that year, students would slink off into the corners or the back row and engagement was non-existent. I was a little bit worried this might happen again and thankfully it didn’t.

As usual, I admitted a few too many students: 40, which is one of the largest Finance classes I’ve ever had at Westmont. With a growing major and more students looking for a traditional on-campus experience, I wanted to be as accommodating as I could. The larger class filled out the room, which (I think) meant slinking was didn’t undermine engagement as much as it did last time.

The main change to the curriculum was a new system for recording participation. Participation has always been a bit challenging and subjective to record. As much as I want students to engage in class, there are many that either don’t want to or feel they can’t because they have nothing to contribute. Office hours, too, are a strange place to offer credit, since it’s really meant to be optional.

This semester, instead of recording participation in class, I let students submit photos of themselves working in groups. I got this idea from a presenter at ASU’s Remote Summit last year and was excited to try it out. For the most part, it worked really well. I do, however, need to do something about making sure everyone uploads something. Sometimes, students would submit photos of others. Other times, they would appear in photos but would not submit a photo themselves. In the end, I only graded submissions, which wasn’t exactly right, but manageable and defensible.

For the most part, the semester went pretty well. Participation was generally good (still a bunch of slinkers) but I did get a sense that students started to get excited about this field. I think that’s one of the best outcomes you can get at the undergraduate level!

The most troublesome element in this class was actually student health. Several students were absent quite a lot or not performing as well as any of us would like. To my knowledge, none of it was COVID related but it was very inconvenient and I didn’t see a lot of alternatives that would make things fair or equitable. For sure, Zooming sick students into class is not ideal, mental health is difficult, and extensions/delays/make-up exams aren’t really enough. I always wonder if there’s more I could have done.

Applied Management Science / Westmont Decision Lab

AMS will likely get a series all on its own so I’ll offer a few high-level thoughts here. This is the last version of AMS that will have an embedded project. Going forward, the project component will have its own class and AMS will get its career speaker series back again.

For this semester’s project, DLab helped a local private school with its strategic planning process. Our task was to help the school understand the landscape for private schooling in the area. It was a massive undertaking involving family interviews, teacher interviews, administrator interviews, whole-of-school surveys, Census data, web scraping, finances, and social media analysis. Lots of moving parts!

So thankful that the students stepped up and gave it their all this semester. This was still an enormous project management exercise for me but a wonderful opportunity to perform lots of different kinds of analysis from financial modeling, natural langauge processing, data visualization, geographic analysis, clustering, principle components analysis, and much more. As usual, I had to take a fairly active role in each piece, which I don’t like doing. But I was expecting it given how much we had to do in the time. It all worked out and the client was very happy. Hooray!

All in all, very happy with this class. It will be different but better when I’ve severed the project.

Intermediate Microeconomics

Oh boy… This was my first time teaching Intermediate Micro in-the-flesh. I’ve taught it twice before online but this is the first time I’ve actually stood in front of actual human beings and taught it. And wow - it’s a lot There’s sooooo much content and, in my opinion, it’s all important. Intermediate Micro, in my opinion, should include the core ideas of economics: supply & demand, consumer choice, theory of the firm, welfare, policy interventions, different market structures from monopoly to a variety of imperfectly competitive structures, and a bunch of market failures from incomplete information to public goods and others. All of these are topics are pretty common at the principles level, but at the intermediate level, in my opinion, they need to be presented in a much more rigorous fashion. By rigor, I mean with functions, algebraic manipulation, and calculus. We don’t need linear algebra at this level, thankfully.

I did my best to stay close to my textbook. I used identical notation, and followed the thematic preparation in a similar way. I even used some of the same illustrations and examples. But even then, students struggled to keep up with the math.

Since I followed the text, I think I was reasonably coherent and I think the course developed in a sensible way. But I know that the material didn’t leave the impresssion of have the same kind of impact that I wanted.

Part of the problem is that the students were not well prepared. Many of them had no introduction to calculus since my subsitute instructors did not teach it. I suspect, though, that even if they did, it may not be enough. I suspect that my introduction in Corporate Finance and Research & Forecasting / Intro to Business Analytics isn’t enough.

Part of the problem is with me, too. I’d like to get better at presenting this material in this way so I imagine that, if I do it again, I’ll teach it in a similar way. I gave away a lot of time to quiz preparation. I need to rethink how I assess this material for at least two reasons: 1. I need to find a way to reduce the amount of review, so I can cover more material. 2. I need to work out what absolutely needs to be covered in this course. What is truly canon in the world of microeconomics? What can I not teach?

By far, Intermediate Micro needs the most thought and revision. The curriculum needs to be curated and streamlined. The assessment needs to be overhauled. All of this means I need to do some very fundamental thinking about why Intermediate Micro is necessary for students' education. The work isn’t just for me, though. In answering thinking what is canon and why, the department needs to think through how to prepare students to take it before they enroll.

Posted on:
January 3, 2022
7 minute read, 1282 words
See Also:
Sabbatical thoughts