WHOOSH! A chair flies through the air in classroom C0.027 at University College Maastricht (UCM). “Enough! I don’t get it!”, a student shouts. “I hate this course! No one can explain it to me!” Panicked, tutor Jannis Besuijen – who, indeed, doesn’t seem to understand the course material himself – gets up to calm the student down. A notebook and a laptop suffer the same fate as the chair; so much for calming the student down. “Everyone, let’s just take it easy”, says Besuijen, voice trembling. But like his attempted explanations of the course material, his words don’t reach the students. Angrily, they pick up their stuff and rush out of the room. Besuijen stays behind, dazed and alone.
It would’ve been interesting for the sake of this article, but that’s not what happens during this tutorial of introductory course ‘Principles of Economics’ at UCM. In fact, everything goes smoothly: the students are interested and well prepared and there’s a lot of class discussion.
“Good afternoon, class”, says Besuijen when he enters the room. He immediately gives the floor to today’s discussion leader, who happens to be the only male student in the group of eleven students. As the Observant reporter knows from experience, this is an unusual male-female ratio for an economics course. “I noticed it too”, says Besuijen after class. “Last time I taught this course, it was exactly the other way around: ten male students and one female student.”
Besuijen’s planner contains an overview stating what year each student in, how often they’re present, how much they participate in class discussions and how much previous education in economics they’ve had. Secondary school only? Or not even that? “It’s a UCM course, so the students have many different backgrounds.”
Today’s class is about supply and demand diagrams. A student gets up and draws two axes on the whiteboard, labelling the y-axis ‘P’ for price and the x-axis ‘Q’ for quantity. “The supply curve runs from bottom left to top right”, she says. “The more expensive a product is, the more producers want to supply it.” Next up is the demand curve: “If a product is cheap, more units are sold than at a high price. So the demand curve runs from top left to bottom right.” It’s going well, so Besuijen hangs back and watches. The student continues: “The supply and demand curve intersect at the equilibrium point.”
“Is this a Nash equilibrium?”, a student asks Besuijen. “Those have to do mainly with game theory”, he replies. “They’re related, but irrelevant here. If you like, I’ll explain them to you in the break.”
Next up is the hard part. What happens to the diagrams if the market changes? The course book contains a number of assignments with examples about an oil market. A new technique for deeper oil drilling is invented; how does this affect the oil market? Besuijen asks a student who has been quiet so far to draw on the whiteboard. “The available oil quantity will increase, so the supply curve shifts to the right. The demand curve stays the same, so the equilibrium price will fall”, she says. “That was my initial answer”, another student says cautiously. “But I thought it was wrong.” Besuijen: “It’s OK to be more confident about your opinion. You know the answer.” How much the equilibrium price will rise or fall depends on the slope of the curve, explains Besuijen. This really is the hard part, so he walks up to the whiteboard to provide a drawing and an explanation himself.
Before this, Besuijen worked at the Albert Heijn on Plein 92 for two years, “but it became increasingly difficult to combine with my studies, and I went to Vienna for six months on exchange.” Before he started working as a tutor, he followed a one-day training course. “I learnt to deal with common ‘problems’, like students who barely participate in class discussions. It’s difficult sometimes, because I don’t want to give anyone a poor grade. I talk to quiet students about it during the break or after class. I found it difficult at first, but I’ve become a lot better at it.”