Great Professors: Charles Wheelan

Professor Charles Wheelan '88 is a teacher of economics, a pioneer of experiential learning, and a centrist activist.

Professor Charles Wheelan ’88 is a teacher of economics, a pioneer of experiential learning, and a centrist activist.

Charles Wheelan ’88 is a professor of Economics at the College. Wheelan is respected by his students for his work on economic systems and incentives, but he is also well known beyond the Dartmouth world for his popular books such as Naked Economics. Recently, Professor Wheelan has made an effort to incorporate extracurricular learning experiences in his courses, and The Dartmouth Review reached out to him to learn more about his vision for education at the College.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): What particularly caught our attention with you was the trip to India that you organized a couple of years ago, and I was wondering whether you could talk a little bit about its genesis?

Charles Wheelan (CW): It depends on far back you want to go. I am a Dartmouth alum, and one of the most formative experiences for me when I was at Dartmouth was an LSA to France and that was kind of interesting. But from 1986, I believe, some friends and I went for a weekend and traveled to East Berlin, crossing from West Berlin. I just remember that for all I had read about Communism and the Soviet bloc and so on, just going to Checkpoint Charlie from West Berlin into East Berlin was one of the single most formative experiences I’ve ever had. You can read about it forever, but just walking in through the checkpoint and being in East Berlin brings everything all together. And so I thought, through travel there were other opportunities to have that same kind of experience and reinforce what we learn in the classroom.

TDR: Specifically what was the process for the course you designed about the Indian economy where you had students research and then present in India?

CW: I used to teach at Dartmouth in the summers and at the University of Chicago for the balance of the year – and the fall of 2005 at the University of Chicago was the first time that I did the course. The way the course worked in kind of the way the course works now – we spent all fall researching some specific international topic and in December we spent the time traveling – and much more importantly, speaking to policy makers who have specific expertise in the issue that we are looking at. And so I did it about five times at the University of Chicago and then when I was hired full-time at the Rockefeller Center. One of the reasons that I was hired – one of the things that I explicitly discussed with Andrew Samwick – was doing that course over at Dartmouth. And so I’ve done it three times this year: India, one on the Northern Ireland peace process and sectarian conflict, and one this last December to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

TDR: When you were designing these trips, did the College have any sort of standing resources that were available for you to take advantage of in terms of organizing and maybe subsidizing the cost? Or did you have to draw up a proposal on your own and kind of hope to find resources yourself?

CW: One off the nice things about coming to Dartmouth was, as Andrew Samwick said, that we’ll earmark resources for this course and it doesn’t come out of the Rockefeller budget. Then, as Dartmouth has done more around experiential learning, they’ve created resources to replicate what we’re trying to do. There are two such courses in the econ department. I’m not sure what else is going on around campus, but I think there is an effort to create resources for these courses.

TDR: On the topics of experiential learning, we’ve done a lot of coverage on Hanlon’s vision. It was one of the big staples of his brand when he took over as President, and yet we thought it took kind of a while to get specific about what he meant. Have you spoken to the president about including experiential learning in the curriculum?

CW: Coincidentally, Hanlon came to my Education 20 class on Tuesday this week. My students asked him about experiential learning and he spoke about it a little. So I heard a little bit about what he had to say, but I haven’t had a detailed conversation with him about experiential learning.

TDR: Do you have any ideas personally about what Dartmouth might want to do to help integrate integrate experiential learning into its curricula broadly?

CW: So I’ve had some meetings – I met with Barbara Will and with some other folks and there is definitely excitement around it. It’s hard to get faculty to change what they’re doing; it’s hard to change that from the top. There has to be an eagerness from individual faculty members to change what they’re doing and incorporate it in the classroom. So I’m sympathetic to administrators not being able to just sprinkle experiential pixie dust across campus and make it happen. I think the really encouraging thing is that experiential learning is a meaningful idea, and it can take many different forms in many different types of classes. Most of experiential learning is having an active engagement with the material that can be as simple as having an outside speaker come in who is an expert on a topic or have a couple speakers of different views and you have to write a memo on the topic that they are debating. And what that does is it means that rather than just sitting there listening – a passive experience – I’m actually listening because this person has information that I need to know. I have to actually figure out about how I feel about the minimum wage or sanctions – any topic that I’ve got to figure out, and this person in front of me speaking knows what I need to know. And it just changes the whole nature of the interaction. In Hanover, I’m teaching education policy, and the class is too big, but I think we absolutely should be talking to local school principles and school teachers. There are so many different ways that you can get out of the standard lecture format in a way that reinforces all that material that you’re reading about.

TDR: I’m wondering if you have thoughts on Dartmouth’s academic standing in a broad sense. We’ve been slipping in US News ranking and teaching rankings. We recently lost our R-1 certification as a research institution. Do you have any thoughts on what’s going on in terms of Dartmouth’s academic credibility?

CW: It’s really hard for me to tell, because it like everyone is seeing part of the elephant. You as students see more of it than I do. I see my class, my students, and my tiny administrative silo. I feel as a faculty member very unable to pass judgment as to what is happening on the teaching or the research side writ large. I don’t see the US News and World Report as useful because there are some perverse incentives built in there – punishing efficiency and so on. It’s hard for me to know; what I’d cue off of is, “How does it feel here?” irrespective of what people outside of campus are saying. How does it fell on campus; are we working toward trying to better what we’re doing; are we taking advantage of experiential learning and those types of things? That’s probably a better indicator of the overall teaching environment. On the research side, I am totally ill-equipped because I don’t know what generates these rankings and so forth.

TDR: Have you thought about or are open to the idea that we could be seeing a sort of spillover from the social realm? With MDF we’ve seen a shakeup in Greek Life and I know your own house Alpha Delta was derecognized, and so it seems as if the campus is in turmoil in a general sense. Dartmouth’s reputation to outsiders has been taking a hit; does that lead people to think about our academic reputation in a lower light as well?

CW: It’s possible, but that sort of lament has been going on for twenty five years. Some of the same issues have been going on since the 1980s. The Review was not uninvolved, by the way. I think we as a campus have been working through that stuff for a long time. Things are little different because we are in such an isolated space; the social aspect is probably a little harder here than if you are in Cambridge or New Haven. The fraternity system, because of the Animal House legacy, has always been kind of something we have to deal with. Because of that legacy, every time that is a story about drinking or social life or so on Dartmouth, the go-to place to report about it. These things are probably not inconsequential, but I would be very hesitant to draw a straight line between that and some of the stuff on the academic side. It’s probably a little easier to ask whether some of that stuff is affecting the number of applicant, the yield, perceptions of the college. On the reality of teaching and research it seems a little bit more of a stretch.

TDR: As a final question we were curious as to whether your students are involved in some of your independent projects like some of your books or your centrist initiative?

CW: I had a series of students as research assistants on the books. I just actually finished a book called Naked Money about central banking, and I had three Dartmouth students working as research assistants on various parts of that. All the stuff that I write tends to involve Dartmouth students.

TDR: Thanks.
CW: Good luck.