Recognition for Undergraduate Teaching

At the Westwood Village Starbucks on Gayley, I walked in and ordered a cappuccino and said that my name is “Matt” so that I could be handed the right drink.   When the barista called out my drink, she said “A cappuccino for Matt Kahn — the best econ professor ever”. I was then handed this cup.


I take great pride in this “cup award” but I must admit that I didn’t recognize the student who was kind enough to give me this honor.  That troubled me. I looked at her and she looked vaguely familiar but UCLA classes are so large that I only really get to know a subset of students.  My environmental economics class this winter will have 100 students. That’s a big elective!  Now, this student may have been playing an “Ashton Kutcher “Punked”” on me but I still enjoyed my 15 minutes of cappuccino.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

24 thoughts on “Recognition for Undergraduate Teaching”

  1. My first thought was, “What a nice recognition!”
    My next thought was, “Did she spit in it?”

  2. bravo!

    and speaking as a sixth grade teacher who sees only 100-120 new faces each year, i generally only remember the 1% most amazing and the 5% most appalling after the year i have them is over. don’t feel bad about not recognizing that one.

  3. Suppose I told you she did it for money? That is I gave her 10 bucks to write that.
    Would you have taken a picture of it and blogged about it if you knew that?
    Probably not.

    Especially since environmental economics will no doubt discuss “green economics” and why we need to put a market price on rain forests and marsh land.

    I once wrote a poem that had the line: “Try not to reduce the world to digits”.
    I might rewrite that line today as: “Try not to reduce the world to dollars”.

    And yet…
    And yet…
    I understand that reducing rainforest acreage to dollars is just a measuring stick that everyone can understand.
    And that it might actually end up working…

    And yet…
    And yet…
    Look at Kahn over there with that goofy happy grin on his face…
    Taking a snap of a non-monetized coffee cup as if it made his day, in a way 10 bucks, never ever could…

    1. And, having already received his reward, he did not tip a penny more than usual, nor will he in the future. That would be irrational.

  4. That’s awesome. I used to teach a popular and challenging upper level biology course at an elite R1 private university with excellent undergrads. I always got evaluations that said things like “best course I ever took” and “best professor at X” and “challenged me to learn”, you get it. Well, when I was up for tenure, after being enthusiastically supported by my department, and after receiving a recommendation from the Division council, the Dean decided not to recommend me for tenure because he noted that my research productivity and funding, which were in his words adequate, could have been better had I not devoted so much time to my, in his words, outstanding teaching. You see, it was a research university, and excessive time spent teaching represented lost opportunity for additional research productivity.

    So I don’t teach anymore. And I’ll probably never get a Starbucks cup. I did get some pretty cool op-eds written about me in the student news paper, though.

    Congratulations, Matt. It’s very cool.

    1. A colleague related a story from his department. A new assistant professor won “Teacher of the Year”. His chairman told him sternly “Don’t do that again.” He was not kidding.

    2. I’m sorry you were misused. Still, as someone at a lower level in the biology-research hierarchy, I can understand the prioritizing of research over teaching at a research university; it really is the goal of those appointments to generate excellent (and funded) research, much more than to generate excellent (and essentially unfunded) teaching. A biology department is a profit center for the university, with the faculty paying their own salaries and overhead off of grants, not for the most part taking their salaries from tuition bills. So their prioritizing research accomplishments and funding makes sense.

      The important thing becomes the definition of “adequate”: if as i assume your research and funding was up to expectations, your brilliance as a teacher should have been a huge bonus, not a detriment (as Keith Humphreys fears) or an irrelevance. The departments I’ve known have been proud of their research faculty who cared deeply about teaching. From what you say, they made a bad decision, and I’m sorry to hear it; we need good researchers who are good teachers. But i can entirely see why they put the emphasis on the research.

    3. Same thing happened to one of my best (and only female) law professors. This was at a UC in the mid 90s. Bunch of bums. Btw, it was my second year before I even had a female professor.

    1. I’ve heard of something similar in the NFL – they do intelligence testing, and want linebackers not to be too smart, because they don’t want them to over-think the ramming into people or something. It was the subject of a magazine article perhaps a decade ago, maybe in The Atlantic . But I’m surprised to hear of it in a context like this.

      1. Linebackers? They’re supposed to be the smart guys on the defense. What do they do with linemen?

    2. I got turned down for a job at the Chevron refinery in Richmond once for having scored too high on their new employee exam. Haven’t thought about that in years. Murray devoted quite a lot of his Bell Curve book to asserting that general intelligence made people better at almost any job, even those you wouldn’t think had an ‘intelligence’ piece. I wonder what the Chevron/New London people know that Murray doesnt?

      1. What they know, that was irrelevant to Murray, is that you’d have likely not stayed long. Turnover is expensive.

  5. Yes, Warren most NFL coaches are probably happier, with a Jerome Belcher type linebacker mentality, perhaps minus some of his homicidial madness, performances being the same, than a player with a higher IQ who quietly reads books, who might be more difficult to manipulate to take part in bounty schemes on the opposition. Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ was written in 1931 in which the population were test tube bred into castes, with limited intelligence, so they could unhesitatingly do the work for the Alphas, but it was written and meant to be taken as a work of fiction, a satire. You wonder where police captains get their inspiration for their personnel evaluations; it can’t be justice or solving or reducing crime, if intelligence is it’s own deterrent?

  6. Please try harder to go to coffeeshops not owned by large corporations.

    Your visit to Starbucks imposes the negative externality on the rest of Los Angeles by encouraging the destruction of the middle class and increasing the presence of multinational retailers that would like to make Los Angeles look like a denser and warmer version of a suburban strip mall.

    It’s not that I don’t go to SBUX and even worse WMT myself, but I at least recognize its immorality and would never post about it on a blog using my real name, doing so is a bit like telling your friends about your favorite porn site. Have you no shame sir!

    1. Hmm, I appreciate your intent here, but, not so much. Your argument works at least as well, if not more, for *any* coffeeshop, or any restaurant. One can either eat at home, or tip well, or just free ride. Those are your choices, imho. Starbucks probably treats workers better than average, and, they make a decent hot chocolate, which you will otherwise be hard pressed to find.

  7. My neighborhood, which is thankfully free of right-ish academic economists, manfully fought and delayed for years the opening of a Starbucks. When it finally opened, it was boycotted by residents but is kept afloat by our tourists, who themselves are attracted by the the charm of a community that otherwise almost entirely served by independently owned businesses. When we heard that SBUX was going to be shutting down many locations due to the economy, a petition was sent to the CEO volunteering our location for the ax, though unhappily no action was taken on it by management.

    I hope Professor Kleiman will join me in this protest of the immorality of Starbucks patronage, just as he protested a few days sgo Susan Rice’s patronage of Canadian oil sands stocks, which I found thought-provoking and correct.

    1. My sister, who is farther left than I, excoriates Walmart for many of their business practices, which she willingly discourses on in great detail. Among other reasons, she says they abuse their employees, and their predatory purchasing and pricing practices are destructive of the overall competitive marketplace.

      She also avoids Starbucks, but she doesn’t hate them, she simply doesn’t particularly like paying such outrageous prices for such a middle-of-the-road commodity product. She says it’s absurd to overpay so much when she can get an equal, or even better, product at 7-eleven or Dunkin Donuts for much less money. She says Starbucks is a peculiar counter-intuitive story in the economic realm: over-built and over-priced, it’s a mystery how they make money.

      But why, Igloo, do you dislike them so? Their outrageously overpriced products aren’t driving their competitors out of business. Their business practices aren’t predatory, nor are they so powerful in the community that they have any political leverage to restrict competition. What have they done to earn your enmity?

      1. The presence of a Starbucks can definitely drive upscale independent coffee shops, who are actually their competitors, out of business. 7-11, as a convenience store, isn’t even operating in the same market as them, and although Dunkin Donuts sort of is, it’s not gourmet coffee by any stretch. What Starbucks does when they open in a neighborhood that already has an independent coffee shop is to pick off a lot of the people who want a coffee shop that feels like a coffee shop, but who have fairly undiscriminating taste in coffee.

        Which is not to say I never go there. Particularly in the suburbs, it is sometimes your best option.

  8. First of all, congrats to Prof. Kahn for the obviously heart-felt compliment he received. It is nice to know that teaching efforts have an effect on the students.

    As to the Starbucks hating, I am no big fan of Starbucks, but…

    When I moved to my Southern California neighborhood many years ago there was nowhere for miles around even close to cafe-like to go out and have some good coffee. Just doughnut shops etc. Over the years things changed. First an Italian, family-run bakery and cafe opened not too far off. Great coffee and fresh rolls. But, they didn’t open until 9AM which often stretched to 10AM. I suggested several times an earlier opening would more than pay for itself but it turned out they would not open if either the wife or husband were not there to take the money–they did not trust employees to take in cash. And then the couple started fighting about various things, in the shop, in front of the customers. Eventually there was a dish, pot and bread throwing fight and the next day they had closed.

    Then a Starbucks opened nearby. Not the the greatest, but, at least, there was somewhere for me and the local AA folks to handout and drink acceptable coffee. That Starbucks was eventually demolished for a Whole Foods which also has a cafe. Meanwhile several other Starbucks opened in the area, some quite nice, as well as an independent, cafe. Unfortunately, the new independent has very mediocre coffee and very high prices. And, again, they did not open until 10AM. They hung on for several years but never got going. The late opening didn’t help, IMHO. Then a Peets opened. (Do we have to hate Peets because it is a large chain and German owned?) A great hangout and pretty good coffee. Opens at 5AM.

    To sum up: Starbucks came in my local area (not especially lively or hip, unlike Westwood) and provided a popular service that others could not make work–a coffee place and hangout. Before Starbucks there really wasn’t any place that had decent coffee, opened early and where folks could hangout.

    Remeber, the prefect is the enemy of the good.

    Would I rather the Italians or the non-chain shop were still around? Sure. But, they aren’t.

    Starbucks brought the cafe experience (okay its not Saint German and Les Deux Magots)to many, many places that never had anything close to that. A local, non-alcoholic place to hang out is good for a neighborhood.

  9. Hate is too strong, but Sbux is to a cafe what the University of Phoenix is to a University, a soulless simalcrum experience that defines lowest common denominator through sheer ubiquity and mediocre faux friendliness.

    1. I don’t even drink coffee, but I doubt that Starbucks is the *lowest* common denominator. There is lots worse coffee than that. Is 7/11 really a perfect substitute? And what about the Wi-Fi? In Toronto a community pushback against a Starbucks’ takeover of a local coffee shop stopped the advance for a while, but that shop eventually closed, and Starbucks opened a block away. But there are coffee shops on almost every corner, so all tastes can be accommodated.

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