Professor Max Auffhammer honored with 2009 Distinguished Teaching Award

March 15, 2009
Maximilian Auffhammer, assistant professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and International and Area Studies, has received the Distinguished Teaching Award for 2009.

Maximilian Auffhammer

Auffhammer has been at Berkeley since 2003. Auffhammer revitalized one of the least successful courses in ARE, turning it into one of the most popular and successful courses in the graduate program. Students time and again point to the fact that he manages to turn a subject that they don’t necessarily respond to, economics, into something fascinating and relevant: “I have done poorly in econ before,” says one student, “and this is a 360 degree change for me. I now actually like econ.” Auffhammer’s colleagues, too, praise his teaching: “Not more than one in a hundred ladder faculty members achieve the kind of success in the classroom that he routinely achieves, year after year.” The Committee noted that he is both an incredible mentor and an incredible teacher, leading students through dense material with clarity and enthusiasm.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Since I am a product of an all public school education, teaching at Cal is the greatest privilege to me. Ten minutes after the hour, when the classroom quiets down, I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement and - at the same time - responsibility. I have before me hundreds of California's brightest, hard working critical thinkers in their age group. They have entrusted me with the responsibility to make them understand and evaluate the framework that governs the way I think about how individuals make choices in the face of scarcity - economics.

In my course, which the students have now titled "economics for students who hate economics”, I go to great lengths to prepare materials which convey the core concepts to "mathematically challenged" students. I use fancy German color chalk to draw all my graphs by hand. I believe that students learn more from me correcting the occasional mistake on the chalkboard than seeing the perfect graph projected digitally. I have designed a number of in-class experiments, to show that most students behave according to the theories we’ve discussed. To describe concepts which would usually require the use of calculus, I use a laser level used in building construction . Finally, to show that students respond to incentives, I distribute an extravagant amount of fine chocolate in order to get students to answer often difficult questions in front of 150 of their peers.

The two most important things about teaching to me are: First, the energy in the classroom varies from lecture to lecture. In order to deliver what students come to me for as the teacher, I have to be able to read and adapt to these cycles. This means sometimes moving a topic to the following lecture in order to finish a stimulating discussion or inserting another related topic or additional examples on the spot. Second, and more important, if you do not love your subject, you do not stand a chance at being a great teacher. Being passionate about something as dry as economics appears strange to the students at first, but eventually they start cheering when my voice starts skipping from excitement over a downward sloping demand curve.

I do this job because I love every minute of it. The mix of students from every corner of the world and part of society provides for the most stimulating intellectual environment I have ever encountered. The greatest moments in my professional career have happened in the classroom. The feeling of having done my job and having done it well is priceless. I am grateful to the university and my students for giving me the opportunity to teach here.