Unwritten Rules of Academia: Asking for Teaching Materials

I received the following email last week:

Dear Professor Bellemare,

I noticed that you taught the course “Microeconomics of International Development Policy” while at Duke which I find very appealing. Your course’s content online appears to overlap to some extent with an applied development policy course that I will begin teaching at [university name redacted] as a part-time fellow next academic term. As this is the first time I am teaching this course and thus have no course materials and also have many other time commitments … I wanted to ask you if you may be willing to provide a large favor and possibly share and forward your class presentations that I could use as a point of orientation to prepare the specific content of my class presentations?

I would be extremely grateful if this may be possible as it would help me not to start completely from scratch and I would of course be willing to offer a favour in return (for example, I could share [data sets] if these may be relevant for you, as I have worked with [institution redacted] over the past five years and have most of these data sets …). And I could of course forward you the presentations for this course once they are prepared.

I very much look forward to your response and would be very thankful if we could find a solution.

[Name redacted]

I hesitated before writing this post, but after discussing it with a colleague with whom I was in the field last week, he suggested that it could make for a good “teachable moment.” Besides, there so many unwritten rules in academia that I thought I should at least try to make this one explicit to current graduate students and newly minted PhDs. Maybe this is a rule only to me; if so, I’d like to hear from colleagues about how they view situations such as this one, in the comments section below.

The rule has two parts:

  1. Develop your own teaching materials as much as you can. Relying on someone else’s slide will make for sub-standard teaching on your part, and you owe your students better. One important exception to this rule is if you use a textbook that comes with very good slides from the publisher.* For example, when teaching undergraduate micro, I use Greg Mankiw’s textbook and the excellent slides that come with it, because whoever made those slides did a good job of showing how budget constraints rotate, how short-term cost curves can illustrate the Envelope Theorem, etc. much better than I can. (And with the number of textbooks I help the publisher sell, it’s only fair that I should get something in return.)
  2. You can ask someone else for their teaching materials if that person was one of your advisors or one of your classmates. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if the person whose materials you ask for refuses. In Canadian French, we have an expression that nicely illustrates how certain things are only acceptable between close friends and colleagues or between people who have shared the same hardships: “It’s not like we raised pigs together.”

Also, as a side note, being “too busy” is more often than not an excuse in academia, where everyone is busy all the time.

* Don’t do this if you are at a liberal arts college, however. In that case, students rightly expect you to prepare your own materials that will be tailored to them.

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