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"Good intentions are not enough, doing something is where it starts!" An interview with Pr

Professor Jason Kerwin obtained a B.S., B.A., and an M.A. from Stanford University and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He now focuses on development, health economics, and labor economics while simultaneously teaching APEC 3001 Applied Microeconomics: Consumers, Producers, and Markets and APEC 5151.

Years with the University: Professor Kerwin has been with the university for just over 2 years.

Current projects/research: Professor Kerwin is a development economist, specializing in the use of randomized field experiments to understand health and labor markets in sub-Saharan Africa. His research topics fall into two broad areas. The first is studying how people form subjective expectations and how those beliefs affect their decision-making processes. The second is labor markets in rural Africa, broadly defined – from choices people make about their effort at work and how to spend their wages to their decisions about their own and their childrens’ education.

Advice for ApEc students:

  • Regarding applied economics coursework, focus on solving problems rather than reading the textbook, reading isn’t always the best way to succeed in classes.

  • Think about what you want to do after you graduate college. Your job as a college student is to figure that out and to set up a path the follow to be successful.

  • Go to office hours: recommendation letters only happen if professors know you and have something to write about.

  • Read The Grapes of Wrath if you want to understand global poverty and economic development.

What do you like to do in your free time? Professor Kerwin and his wife own a rescue shelter dog named Max and they enjoy spending time with him on walks or playing with him. He also enjoys playing pick-up basketball and traveling, especially to Malawi because of his research and the fact that the culture is so generous and welcoming.

What is your passion that has driven you to who you are today? Professor Kerwin doesn’t think it is fair that there are people who, because of where they were born, will live out their lives poor. He is driven and called to help these people and has found that through research economics he can make a legitimate difference in their lives. He commented that getting his M.A., Ph.D. and working in the field of economics has given him the scientific tools to solve these kinds of problems.

“Good intentions are not enough, doing something is where it starts”. He referenced a book titled More than Good Intentions by the authors Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel (this book is about how to figure out what works to solve economic and social problems especially in the world’s poorest places).

What is something you wish you would have known as an undergrad? Professor Kerwin wishes he would have known how cool economics was as a freshman. He thinks he would have used his time more effectively if he had looked at it earlier in his academic career. Also, he wishes he would have known what the actual job of professors was and how college works. For example, how the faculty is set up and what their titles mean. Tenure-track faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors) don’t just teach, they also are expert researchers, focusing on a specific topic and becoming a leading expert on it. That’s a great resource that college students don’t take advantage of enough.

What is something you wish your students knew?

  • It is worth their while to go to class, there are studies that prove that it improves learning.

  • Teaching is only a small part of a professor’s job and students should try to take advantage of the researcher that is presenting to them rather than thinking of them as only an instructor.

  • Professors often need students to help them. He wishes students would pursue what they are interested in and try to get involved with the faculty. He wishes they would try to set up meetings to ask the professors questions. (Hint: professors are in that field because they love it and will probably want to talk to you about it anyway.)

What do you see yourself doing in the next 5, 10, 15 years? Over the next five years, professor Kerwin will be continuing his work on a few lines of existing research. He is currently working on a long-term intervention project of teaching kids how to read in Uganda. He would ideally like to work on and is interested in questions about the long-term agricultural and economic development of developing countries. Somewhere around 90-95% of Malawians are farmers while about 2 to 3% of Americans are. He is curious how developed countries transitioned to efficient agricultural production and economies focused on manufacturing and services instead of farming. In the US, the path to the modern economy was very difficult, it happened during the Dust Bowl and Depression which drove people to the coasts. The next 50-75 years the rest of the world will be coming out of agriculture and he wants to figure out how to help the countries have a transition like China (which has been less traumatic than what happened in the United States).

What is the most annoying thing students do? When students come to him after they struggled on an exam, say they studied and then ask why they didn’t do well. By “studying”, they usually mean they carefully read the lecture slides and textbook. Professor Kerwin stated that “reading doesn’t count as studying in economics” you have to practice solving economics problems to really learn the material. He wants his students to do well, it is tough for him to see them try hard and struggle because they don’t listen to his advice on how to approach their economics classes.

What is your favorite thing students do? When students come to office hours or send email questions that link a topic from class that wasn’t discussed but is related to the material. Especially when their question sparks an idea for him.

What is one myth you think undergrads have about professors that you believe is false? “That they don’t think we care, even in huge lecture halls we care about how the students are doing”. He believes this about his colleagues too. Professor Kerwin thinks it’s hard to express how much he cares when the students who are struggling are the ones who don’t come to class or don’t ask questions.

What do you think is the most important part of education? “School makes you smarter, we haven’t totally figured out which part of education makes you smarter, but there are studies that show that more education literally raises your base IQ”, said Professor Kerwin. A lot of legitimate benefits of education probably come from practicing thinking and working hard. Struggling with things that are not easy teaches you perseverance. The job market isn’t easy, and learning how to work through it is a necessity, in school you learn to fight and persevere through tough problems.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences,
Department of Applied Economics
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