A waning bliss.

One of the most melancholic moments of my childhood came on the first day of third grade. That was the day it truly hit me that my friends and I only had a year left on the good playground– the one with the tall, cylindrical jungle gym that served as our spaceship. It was a great jungle gym; it had interior and exterior bars, so we could pretend that the interior set was our engine room. The rounded bolt heads were the buttons that sped us through space, raised the shields, fired the weapons, and scanned for life on the sandbox or teeter-totter. Awesome, I know.

So that day, I was down because in a year’s time, we’d be torn from our beloved ship. Fourth graders and used a different playground, one with a plan old boring hemispherical jungle gym. All you could do with that is climb it, and what fun was that? It didn’t have interior bars– how could you possibly fix the engines? And the buttons were the wrong kind of buttons, and there weren’t enough nearby objects to scan, and so on. It was dome-shaped, not rocket-shaped, so unless you wanted to pretend it was some weak old flying saucer, you were out of luck spaceship-wise. Maybe we would eventually happen upon a way to imagine the fourth and fifth graders’ jungle gym dome into something awesome, but wouldn’t everyone be better off if my friends and I were permitted to keep using our preferred jungle gym to fix the warp core and blow up Klingons? The knowledge that I was going to lose the ship put a bit of a damper on each day we played.

Anyhow, that’s how I feel about this school year because the brain trust up at the College Board decided to ruin the AP United States History exam.

About a year into my teaching career, I realized that I wanted to teach American history in addition to (or instead of) government and economics. But we already had APUSH teachers in place, so I had to wait three years to get my shot. Loved it right off that bat. I’m probably better qualified to teach government and economics courses, because I have more coursework and credentials in those areas and because I’ve actually read those textbooks, but APUSH is certainly my favoritest of the bunch. One reason is that it’s a year long whereas my other classes get unmercifully cut off at the semester’s end. Another reason is that, being essentially a great big wonderfully elaborate story that attempts explains how we got to now and today, I find it inherently less dry than the government or economics classes. Another another reason is the multitude of viewpoints, and the endless onion-like layers of history, and that in peeling them back you’ll always find more to the story. I love it more with each passing year.

And the College Board has gone and pooched it. The upcoming school year will see the last APUSH exam administered under the current format: an even balance of writing essays and answering objective multiple-choice questions. The new format, to be administered in May of 2015, puts far more emphasis on writing– which is good– but what few multiple-choice questions remain (it’ll be less than half the number we have now) will depend mostly on how well a student can read a primary or secondary document.

Don’t get the wrong idea: utilizing information from documents is a vital skill, but the expanded essay portion will more than cover that skill. The new multiple-choice section de-emphasizes objective knowledge (i.e., knowing facts) and instead emphasizes reading skills. So if you don’t know much history, but you’re a strong reader, you’d be screwed on the current version of the exam, but you’ll do well on the new exam. The lazy but bright kids will benefit from the upcoming change.

Conversely, if you have an abundance of objective knowledge about history but you’re not as strong or as fast a reader, you might do well enough on the current version, but you’re in a lot of trouble on the new version of the test.

In short, the new test will emphasize reading skills more and historical knowledge less. It’s more of an intelligence test and less of a history test.

I followed the APUSH listservs for months after this decision was announced. There were virtually no positive comments about the changes to the exam. Granted, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or at least the attention if not the grease, but I don’t remember seeing anyone stick up for these changes.

The new exam and course design may turn out to be fine or even better than the current exam, but it’s hard to see either of those possibilities happening. But we’re still a year out, and in the meantime, I’ll just have to enjoy smooshing as much APUSH as possible into my students’ brains.

I’ll edit tomorrow if necessary.

Answers about majoring in econ.

I contacted four of my former students regarding the questions in the previous post. Here’s what I sent them:

“A few of my students have asked about majoring in economics (what sort of careers are open to them, what sort of coursework does it entail, what sort of master’s work can it lead to, what would be an ideal minor, what if I’m not so good at math, blah blah blah). I gave them some answers, and offered to put them in touch with former students of mine who’ve majored in econ. That’s you. May I give them your email/facebook address? Or would you mind answering some of the above questions so I can pass the info along?”

And here are their responses so far:

From Former Student 1:

yeah id be happy to help them out! feel free to have them email me […] as for those questions, ill try to give general answers: Careers – Usually it depends on degree level and program. Most of the econ majors I know have gone into a variety of business positions (management, marketing, etc). The finance industry is very receptive of bachelors in econ grads. A masters and PhD degree open you up to a variety of economist positions and research analyst positions. Econ course work is becoming more mathematical, especially with new models being developed after the recession. Course work is broken down my macro, micro and mathematical econ (econometrics, math econ etc). I was terrible at math, but now I really enjoy it so im sure if a student isnt good at math, they can learn the skills (especially since its put in the econ setting which is exciting). as for the ideal minor, that usually depends on the individual’s preference. Some do political science, some statistics, some finance. It all depends on where you want to be after the program. And tell them theyre making an awesome decision if they major in economics, yet as a grad student preparing for a final tomorrow, it requires some sleepless nights, being considered the nerd on campus, and studying on Friday nights.

From Former Student 2:

Definitely! […] I’ve written some answers to some of those questions before, I’ll forward that along when I find it. Honestly, after all of my classes so far, if they want to become an economist, majoring in math and computer science is much more useful than a major in econ. A minor in econ would suffice as long as you read stuff on the side. But the most useful classes to what I’m working on currently are probability, linear algebra, and micro theory.

Forwarded answer from Former Student 2:

The following responses are more geared towards the students interested in an econ Ph.D. program and careers that result from that.

A little bit about me (so you can see my biases): Currently a Junior at [some lame university that isn’t Clemson] majoring in Mathematics and Economics with a minor in History. I started as a History and Business Econ major, after working as a research assistant (RA) and taking more math, I decided to try and become an academic and my goal is to get an economics professorship at a research university. I work as a research assistant and an undergrad TA.

Careers : What can’t be a career? You can do anything with economics. I think it’s an excellent door opener. I know people who currently work as: actuaries, investment bankers, working on econ Ph.D., and a transfer agent. Research economist, you get to become a complete expert in your niche, you’re always learning higher level stuff, the downsides include long hours, working in isolation (even when you’re part of a research group), and you need a high tolerance for setbacks and rejection.

Coursework (personally, I believe that the following list of courses will open the most doors. The following should allow you to pursue graduate level econ, grad work in any other social science, make you a very attractive job applicant, and teach you to “think like an economist.”):

  • Principles, Intermediate, and Advanced Microeconomic Theory (some schools call it Price Theory)
  • Principles and Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory. Feel free to take more macro courses if you wish, but since macro varies so much from school to school, what you learn in undergrad may very well be the polar opposite of what you end up using.
  • Econometrics
  • Game Theory
  • Math: Bare minimum: Calc I-III (don’t take business calc, I can tell you more about this if you wish since I’m a business calc TA.), linear algebra, intro to proofs, probability, statistics
  • If you want econ grad school, take the above and these: real analysis (this is the big one, if you had to take a class that wasn’t already listed above, take real analysis!!!), topology , differential equations (this stuff is trivial, it’s not necessary per se, but important enough to get mentioned)
  • Try not to take “Mathematical Economics,” I hear these courses tend to be watered down mathematics. See
  • If you want law school, take the “Law and Econ” elective and ask some professors or your academic advisor about a pre-law track for econ.
  • Any class you find interesting! I believe that you should take a class with professors who are experts in their fields, ones that know what they’re doing. You can pick up a lot of stuff on your own, you can do that whenever. But you won’t have another chance to take a class with Professor XYZ if you pass up the opportunity. Plus it could lead to extremely valuable career advice and mentoring.
  • If you’re considering applied economics or economics, take some computer science courses. I don’t really have any advice on that since I haven’t taken any and everyone I know learned it on their own (they, like me, figured out that comp sci is needed for econ too late). But something on data mining, programming, and software would be helpful.

Master’s work: I personally know/have heard of students who have gone into: econ, math, computer science, physics, history, political science, public policy, law, Russian, accounting, international business, and finance.
Econ is extremely versatile.

Ideal minor: Math, Computer Science, or Econ.

What if I’m not good at math? Allow me to refer you to what I’ve been referred to several times:

Now some advice and a personal story. At Paxon I hated math and science; I was convinced I couldn’t differentiate even the most basic equations. I can pin-point the exact moment at Paxon that made me despise math (it was in Algebra II). But now, I love it! I took business calc my first semester at [some lame university that isn’t Clemson], when I was told I needed real math to become an economist I was scared. But there was no other route. Luckily my Calc 1 professor hated teaching undergrad so she made the class extremely difficult (no other Calc 1 prof wanted students to write proofs on exams!) and I saw what higher level math was like and I love it.

What I’m trying to say is that you’re probably not “not good at math,” you’re just approaching it with the wrong attitude and inefficient study habits. It’s not entirely how many hours you put into studying; it’s about how you spend those hours. Don’t be afraid to fail!

Let me close with a quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“… the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher–in some degree.  He must understand symbols and speak in words.  He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought.  He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future.  No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.”

From Former Student 3:

I’d be happy to answer those questions! […] There are a lot of careers open to Econ majors, depending on what you want to do. Yo can use it as a foundation for international relations, politics, law school – which is what I’m doing – and go in with an understanding of why and how the country runs the way it does and how the economy is so integrated with legislation. You can go on to graduate school in economics and end up doing research; I know someone who is getting a PhD in Economics, and is just doing studies with his professors, some of his recent work relates to the effects of incarceration crime rates on the economy, and the wealth gap. You can also teach, at whatever level. And economics is just knowledge that is useful always, regardless of the field you end up in. The coursework at [some other lame university that isn’t Clemson] is all I can talk about with any confidence in what I’m saying. You need to take Principles of Micro and Macro (which can be covered with AP Micro and AP Macro), Intermediate Micro and Macro – neither of which are that difficult, but that could be because I enjoy what I’m learning. And then you need to take upper division electives to complete the major requirements. There are a lot of opportunities for research or volunteering to help professors here with their research, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in Economics. A minor with Economics could be Business, or you can double major with Economics pretty easily. And it’s not that math intensive, though you will basic calculus. […] I hope what I’ve written has answered the questions, somehow at least. I hope I’ve helped at least a little!

This is why I teach: so others will write my blog posts for me.

Question about majoring in econ.

An anonymous reader writes:

I just wanted to say thank you. You and Mr. ZYXWV really sparked my interest in Economics and now in about a semester I will be done with my AA and start taking my Econ classes. I’m also very happy to read that it is a very flexible degree and one that is highly sought after by employees. Is there a minor that you would recommend me taking? I’m thinking Poli Sci. I just want to be happy in what I do and make very good money.

I passed your message along to Mr. ZYXWV, and we both thank you for your kind words. However, we could use a little bit more to go on in terms of your future plans. Is there a general field you’d like to enter, or a type of work you see yourself doing? Was your AA in business, computers, something else? Let me know via the contact page or email, and it’ll help me answer your question a little better.

In the meantime, I’ve asked some former students their thoughts on the matter (because a few of my current students have also asked about majoring in econ), and I hope to cobble together some answers for you soon.

An open letter to Mayor Emanuel.

Dear Mayor Emanuel,

Hear me out:

I currently teach in Duval County Public Schools. My base salary last year was approximately $41,000 due to having a bachelor’s degree and being in my tenth year of teaching .

The base salary of a full-time appointed teacher in a 38.6-week position in Chicago Public Schools with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years in the system was over $70,000 last year .

Your school system offered a nice raise to the teachers union, which responded by going on strike. I’ll take the union at its word that the strike is actually a response to the charter school movement and the evaluation system and so on and so forth, but still, it’s a nice raise they turned down.

With all that in mind, I make the following proposal:

Hire me to teach in one of your high schools for $70,000 per year, with whatever benefits you’d give to a tenth-year teacher. My salary will never change–not even for inflation– so that’s $70K this year, $70K five years from now, $70K ten years from now. You can use whatever evaluation system you think is “fair,” you can fire me at will, you can fire me without cause. And if I decide I made a mistake, or become unhappy with the job, or get tired of the snow, fine– I’ll quit, no harm, no foul. We’ll shake hands and that’ll be it.

Just drop me an email, and I’ll have my people talk to your people.


Vincent D. Viscariello

P.S. Perhaps “sincerely” is a bit of an overstatement since I know you’ll never read this letter or make this deal, and if you did we’d probably both end up floating in the Chicago River with dry-erase markers jammed in our eye sockets. And I’m pretty darn happy with my job down here, so even the sweet deal I proposed might not be enough to pry me away. I guess the point of all this is that it’s been way too long since some of the teachers in your city went hungry.

In-state vs. out-of-state.

An anonymous reader e-mails: “I was accepted into an out of state university and decided to go there this fall. But now I’m having second thoughts. Should I stay in Florida instead? Why did you decide to pick Clemson instead of staying in state?”

This question is eerily similar to one posed by a former student five or six years ago. Out of sheer laziness, I went through my old e-mails, found my response to the eerily similar question, and made some minor changes. Here’s my warmed-over response:

The short answer is that I always knew I wanted to leave Florida, partly because I wasn’t really happy about moving here in the first place (when I was 8). I think it was a bit of leftover Yankee snobbery– which was ironic since I would end up bunking just a few hundred feet from the home of John C. Calhoun.

The longer answer: when I was a freshman in high school, a lot of my classmates already knew where they wanted to go to college and what they wanted to do. I knew that most of them would change their minds, but at least they had plans. And I figured it was better to have a plan that might change than to have no plan at all. So I decided to picked a career and a school and go with them, unless and until a better idea occurred to me.

I’d heard of Clemson because they had a good soccer program, even though I knew I wasn’t going to play soccer in college. I also knew they had a good engineering program (at the time, the plan was to be an engineer), and I had a couple of friends from Virginia who would probably attend. Then my cousin’s best friends got accepted there, and one of my 11th grade teachers said she was an alumna, and so on. It became my default college.

While I did apply to several other schools (none in Florida), I never really considered going anywhere else. The clincher was that Clemson offered me a full scholarship before any other school had even sent an acceptance letter.

In retrospect, not applying to Florida schools was very risky: what if I simply couldn’t afford to go out-of-state? Never mind, I wanted to leave, and that was that. But if I were in high school today, I’d definitely apply in-state because there are two incentives to stay in Florida that are stronger now than they were back then:

1. Florida’s universities are increasingly reputable. Bigger applicant pools have allowed them to select better students and attract better professors. To be frank, this is partly a byproduct of the strong athletic programs.

2. The Bright Futures program makes it more likely that successful Florida students will attend Florida schools.

If you stick to your decision to leave Florida, I can almost guarantee that come October, you’ll feel homesick and think about going back (I did; midway through my freshman year I applied to UF and FSU). When you feel those pangs, ignore them. It’s not that Florida is a bad place; it certainly isn’t. But it is important to live away from home for a few years, partly to challenge yourself, partly to cultivate your independence, and partly to build an appreciation for the home you left behind. You can always return later.

Whatever college you choose, once you’ve made your decision, don’t waste a second worrying about the other colleges you could have attended. If you work hard and keep the grades up, those other colleges will still be there for grad school or your doctorate.

I hope it helped the first time around, I hope it helps this time around.