May 3, 2007

Prof Agrees to Donate Book Royalties to C.U.

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Prof. Robert Frank, economics, plans to donate $60,000 of the royalties from his new book The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas to the John S. Knight Institute’s Writing in the Majors program. The donation will be in honor of the hundreds of students whose ideas contributed to the question-and-answer style book, which will be available starting May 21.
“Sharing money is not what an economist usually advocates — it’s not a selfish investment but it’s a good one,” said Prof. Paul Sawyer, director of Writing in the Disciplines, the organization in charge of Writing in the Majors.
Frank modeled his book after an assignment he has given for 15 years in his economics classes in which students pose an interesting question about society and answer it in terms of economic principles.
The Economic Naturalist is a “best-hits” compilation of some of the most thought-provoking queries Frank has encountered over two decades concern — for example, why is there a light in your refrigerator but not in your freezer? Why does a $500 tuxedo rent for $90 a day while a $20,000 car rents for only $40? Why do the keypad buttons of drive-up cash machines have Braille dots?
The book is a testament to Frank’s style of teaching, which forces students to question the driving force behind societal norms.
“A good way to learn about something is to write about it,” Frank said. “I usually start writing a book before I know exactly where I want to go; it’s a great way to find out what you need to learn when you’re pursuing a new idea.”
Based on his own experience, Frank assigns what he nicknamed the “economic naturalist question” to his ECON 101 students each semester in order to help students master the basics of micro economics.
“Certain things, although they seem contradictory at first, make more sense when you look at them from an economic perspective,” said Shweta Bharadwaj’09, a student in Frank’s ECON 101 course this semester.
In response to the assignment, Bharadwaj asked the question, “Why are arranged marriages generally more successful than love marriages? One would think that a love marriage would last longer, but in arranged marriages in India the divorce rate is 1 percent, while here in the U.S. it’s over 50 percent.” She analyzed the situation based on cost-benefit principles, concluding that the social stigma and financial losses of divorce for women in India outweighed the benefits.
Frank said he would have liked to include many of this semester’s examples in the book, but the publisher’s cut-off was in 2006. Over 150 questions from past students make up two-thirds of the examples used in The Economic Naturalist, drawing on responses from the early ’90s through spring semester of last year.
“Many of them are much better than the average question I think up,” Frank said of the student contributions. Aside from examples originating from his own curiosity, Frank includes two verbatim question-response essays from students in the book, while the other student examples are rephrased slightly or expanded. After each, the student’s name appears in parenthesis as a form of recognition for their thoughts.
The money Frank donates from the book’s royalties will fund teaching assistant positions, which are necessary in order to grade writing assignments in large lectures that are part of the Writing in the Majors program.
“We’re trying to integrate writing with active learning in upper-level courses where learning was previously too passive, partly due to class size,” said Prof. Keith Hjortshoj Ph.D. ’77, director of Writing in the Majors.
Hjortshoj helped to develop the program twenty years ago as a way of turning science and math-minded students into articulate writers. Currently, 35 courses are part of the program, ranging from fields as diverse as geology, entomology, economics, math and biology.
“They turn conventional learning on its head somehow. It’s the difference between learning equations and learning how to use them,” Hjortshoj said of the Writing in the Majors courses. With Frank’s donations, the program will integrate three new courses next year and three more two years from now.
Frank’s books include What Price the Moral High Ground? The Winner-Take-All Society, which won Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1995, and made Business Week’s ten best books list of that same year. Every fourth Thursday of the month, his “Economic Scene” column appears in the New York Times.