USD Just Read! Interview

with Stephen Conroy, Associate Dean for Undergraduate programs, Professor, Economics

Picture of Dr. Stephen Conroy

Start your New Year’s Resolution with Just Read! Stephen Conroy, Professor of Economics and Associate Dean for the School of Business, is here to tell you how he engaged his students in the conversation of water conservation.

While the campus welcomed award-winning author, Karen Piper, Conroy introduced Just Read into his classroom. How did he connect economics with important social justice concerns? Read more below to learn more about his collaborative teaching techniques:

How do you create a collaborative learning environment in the classroom?

I like to bring in news articles and outside readings (including books, web links, etc.) that demonstrate the principles we are learning about in the course.  These discussions provide students a framework for learning that goes beyond the purely theoretical, "textbook" learning.  My classes are set up using the Socratic method, where I ask students questions--about the lecture material or outside readings, etc.--and rely on their answers to help provide serendipitous, unanticipated twists and turns that help enrich the discussion. Sometimes it's the "wrong" answers that are the most interesting because they provide an opportunity to explore folk beliefs, urban legends and common misunderstandings about the material--beliefs that may be factually incorrect or perhaps still "open questions" among scholars.  These unanticipated "detours" can be very fruitful and rich.  They provide entertainment for me as a professor and are hopefully very informative for students.  

How do you connect real world topics (like the Just Read topic) in class discussions?

Economics is an academic discipline that lends itself very well to classroom discussions on real-world topics.  Economists are famous for being experts on things they aren't even experts on.   The Just Read topic provides a framework on which to discuss the theories.  For example, the Price of Thirst book provided an opportunity to discuss the role of government vs. private markets in allocating scarce resources.  Talking about water in the context of the book brings up issues such as efficiency vs. equity and economic justice that may not otherwise come up in classic textbooks.    

What was your impression of the takeaways from the LLC Just Read discussion? How did you get the conversation started?

I think many of us were surprised by the lecture which was quite a bit different from the book.  Dr. Kathryn Statler and I conducted a follow-up discussion in the French Parlor immediately following the event to discuss some of these issues with the Insights (Honors) LLC.  I essentially asked a series of questions as "prompts" to discuss the material and the prompts were meant to push back a bit and challenge some of the assumptions that Karen Piper had made in her speech.  Since the speech was still fresh in everyone's mind, the level of engagement and energy was high.

What is the single most important thing you want students to know and learn from books like Price of Thirst?

I want them to learn how researchers go about investigating an issue.  The Price of Thirst was told from a particular point of view (which was not economics!) and this informed the assumptions, results and conclusions.

Just Read is allowing students to test boundaries and to start asking questions about real occurring events happening in our world today, how are your students getting involved with the problem of water conservation? (group projects, extra credit volunteering, etc.)

I'm not aware of any current student projects, volunteering, etc.  However, these events and initiatives often plant the seed for future development.  As students progress through their education at USD I hope they will continue to revisit this and related topics (e.g., about food, health, air) and come to form a more wholistic opinion about the issues raised in the book, including opinions on equity, efficiency, access and universal human rights.  In addition to providing students an opportunity to apply their "theoretical tools" on real-world problems, the Just Read program also provides an opportunity to learn about the process of investigation itself and to learn which types of "universal" topics are worth considering in the first place.