Teaching Advice: Running a Speaker Series

By: Joshua Hall, Associate Professor of Economics at West Virginia University

Before joining West Virginia University, I taught at Beloit College, a residential liberal arts college in southern Wisconsin. One of Beloit College’s signature programs is the annual Upton Forum on the Wealth and Well-Being of Nations. Every fall, the Forum brings to Beloit’s campus a distinguished scholar working within the classical liberal tradition. Over the course of a week, the Upton Scholar engages with students and faculty across the disciplines in dialogue around the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. The first four Upton Scholars were Douglass North, Hernando de Soto, Israel Kirzner, and Elinor Ostrom.

We attempted to extend and deepen the impact of these short-term residencies by integrating the ideas of each year’s Upton Scholar into the broader curriculum. Each year, our senior economics seminar is built around the ideas of that year’s Upton Scholar. This advanced preparation allows students to not only verbally engage in a substantive discourse with the Upton Scholar during his or her visit, but to seriously engage with her or his work during the process of writing a senior thesis. As part of the research and writing colloquium I directed, several of our senior seminar students then worked with me to get their scholarship ready for possible publication.

To extend the influence of each year’s Forum throughout the academic year, we solicited regular grants for support of a speaker series. The grants allowed us to invite young scholars to campus who were working on ideas building off the work of that year’s Upton Scholar. During the academic year surrounding Israel Kirzner’s visit to Beloit, for example, we were able to bring to campus throughout the year the following scholars: Adam Martin (New York University), Peter Klein (University of Missouri), Stephen Gohmann (University of Louisville), Randall Holcombe (Florida State University), and David Henderson (Naval Postgraduate School).

The speaker series has had several benefits for Beloit students. Here I will focus on only one very important pedagogical benefit, which is building a mental bridge between students and a potential career in the world of ideas. In my opinion, one of the most difficult leaps a student interested in the academy must make is from a consumer of ideas to a producer of ideas. Too often students feel they have nothing important to say, or feel what they have to say is unimportant, or are unwilling to put forth their hypothesis until they have learned more. The problem with this perspective is that scholars learn through the process of producing scholarship. In the words of George Mason University’s Richard Wagner, “thinking without writing is daydreaming.”

By featuring speakers who are at earlier stages in their career and who are largely presenting works in progress, this speaker series helps build a mental bridge between our students and a potential career in the world of ideas. Not only can they see in real time the process of creating and refining one’s argument, they often can make a positive contribution through an insightful question or comment during the talk. In addition, they almost always have the opportunity to discuss their own research with the speaker over dinner, which frequently results in a nice confidence boost and a flurry of activity on their senior thesis.


 

This is the first in a series of three posts by Professor Joshua Hall on how to better engage your students, challenge them intellectually, and introduce them to producing their own original contribution to academia. The two other parts of the series are:

Cultivating Independent Undergraduate Research

Encourage Your Undergraduate Students to Publish


Bringing a distinguished scholar to your campus or starting a speaker series can, as Dr. Josh Hall showed, have a big impact on students and faculty alike. You can start a cross-disciplinary discussion, introduce new ideas for research, and show your students the process of a academic scholarship.

You can partner with IHS to help realize your campus vision. Through the On-Campus Faculty Partnership, made possible by the John Templeton Foundation, IHS and faculty from across the country work together to encourage campus conversations beyond the classroom.

If you, like Prof. Hall, have an idea for engaging your students on the ideas of liberty, check out how IHS can help you make your vision a reality through the On-Campus Faculty Partnership.

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IHS is currently accepting proposals to host events for the 2016-2017 academic year.