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‘A community of practice’: UC Berkeley professor James Campbell discusses economics, pedagogy

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KYLE GARCIA TAKATA | STAFF

Professor James Campbell discussed his experience teaching economics, pedagogy at UC Berkeley.

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City News Editor

SEPTEMBER 14, 2022

Nestled comfortably between a bike, unopened moving boxes and a dog bed, James Campbell, UC Berkeley lecturer of economics and pedagogy, sits in his newly assigned office on the sixth floor of Evans Hall.

“I don’t have a dog,” said Campbell about the dog bed, a leftover from previous occupants.

Campbell teaches Economics 1 and Economics 100A, two major requirements in campus’s economics department, along with Economics 375, described on the campus course catalog as a “GSI Pedagogy Workshop.”

Nearly 500 to 600 students enroll in ECON 1 every semester, leaving it to Campbell to determine how to structure his course to introduce students to a field they often have no prior experience in. So, for Campbell, the goal of ECON 1 is about “sparking joy” and showing students both what economics is and what it can be.

“ECON 1 is the hardest course to teach because I find it dangerous,” Campbell said. “I want to make sure that everybody could, in theory, continue pursuing economics and not feel like it wasn’t for them.”

Campbell was born and raised in Scotland but moved to England to receive his undergraduate degree in economics from Oxford University. After then gaining a graduate degree from Brown University, Campbell taught at the University of Toronto for a brief period, before returning to Brown as a visiting professor.

After another stint as an assistant professor at Providence College, Campbell said he was hired to teach at UC Berkeley, where he has taught for the last three years. 

However, Campbell did not always know he wanted to teach economics. According to him, Campbell was required to choose a discipline to study around the age of 15, as per English standards.

Campbell firmly denied being on the “tenure-track,” emphasizing that his main interest has always lied in education. According to him, faculty members are expected to engage in research to achieve tenure, which is often seen as the most desirable outcome for a lecturer — however, the opposite was true for Campbell.

“I was going to sleep thinking about pedagogy, not about economic research,” Campbell said. “This is really the job that I always wanted, but it was hard to convince people.”

The goal of Campbell’s ECON 375 workshop is to “teach teaching,” according to the course description. Although the course is designated for the economics department, Campbell said the majority of his students hail from different departments.

Campbell described the workshop as an “open discussion” about pedagogy methods.

“It’s just a community of practice,” Campbell said. “You’re getting a bunch of perspectives on teaching and pedagogy instruction in all kinds of different disciplines. That makes it crazy fun to do.”

Honesty and authenticity is a virtue in Campbell’s lectures — he describes his ability to wear different hats as “not very good,” which is why he presents himself in his lectures as he is. According to his students, this creates a degree of understanding in his lecture halls: Campbell’s teaching style is loose and relatable, sprinkled with anecdotes about sneaker collections and ramen.

(Side note: Campbell has an expansive sneaker collection and attempts to wear a different pair every day he comes to campus. According to Campbell, this is easier when he teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays — it’s not as doable for MWF courses.)

Campbell also described himself as “a theory guy.” He said he structures his courses around more abstract concepts and counterfactuals than data analytics; however, he noted economists are particularly in demand today because they possess a unique combination of skills.

“You’re thinking about the theory side of complex thought experiments, but then you’re also learning the practical statistical software,” Campbell said. “It’s that combination of that practical side with that kind of high-level thinking. It’s so complimentary to anything.”

This concentration on theory and ideas was what set Britain apart from the United States in regards to the teaching of economics, according to Campbell.

However, Campbell acknowledged that the gap between the two countries seems to be narrowing over time.

“In Britain, it felt to me that we were more in discussion with other economists’ ideas,” Campbell said. “When I got to the US, I felt it was more like you’re in dialogue with other economists’ work, like with what they find.”

Although Campbell’s time is largely occupied by his teaching commitments, he hopes to carve out time in the future toward making his course material open access for everyone. Currently, Campbell does not teach using textbooks with paywalls, preferring to teach from his own collection of notes without having to charge students an additional fee.

Canpbell hopes to work with open educational resource publishers to make this collection freely accessible.

Campbell also offered advice to students to take charge of their own careers, noting it was something he wished he’d been told sooner. According to Campbell, it was only when he quit his first job that he realized he had that ability, calling the moment “liberating.”

“If there’s something you want to work on or in, you can do it,” Campbell said. “You face constraints for sure, like of course you’ve got to make money, you’ve got to pay rent but if you want to work in music, business or anything, you can. You just have to want it and pursue it — you have so much power over your own future.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 16, 2022


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