2017 Top 40 Undergraduate Professors: Marianne Wanamaker, University of Tennessee (Haslam)

Marianne Wanamaker

Associate Professor of Economics

University of Tennessee, Haslam College of Business

Due to Marianne Wanamaker’s extensive research in areas focused on American economic history, education, demography, and, labor economics, she’s become the first-ever University of Tennessee professor appointed to serve the United States government via the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This summer, she moved to the nation’s capitol to begin a one-year term wherein she’ll impart her expertise on labor and education economics.

Professor Wanamaker’s research centers on the economics of being a black man in America. Specifically, labor market experiences of black men in the U.S. from emancipation to today and attempting to equalize the mobility of black and white Americans.

The President’s Council of Economic Advisors isn’t the first time she’s been tapped for her thought leadership in economics. Professor Wanamaker holds a Faculty Research Fellow position at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a fellowship role with the Center for Business and Economic Research. Just this year she received a Haslam Summer Scholars Research Award which is given to a group of business faculty each year in recognition of their high performance in academic research and to incentivize these top researchers to continue their outstanding work.

Age: 38

At current institution since: 2009

Education: PhD in Economics, Northwestern University (2009); BA in Math and Economics, Vanderbilt University (2001)

List of courses currently teaching: When I arrived at Haslam, I created a new course on Markets, Capitalism, and Ethics. I still teach it, plus the occasional graduate course.

Fun fact about yourself: I made ends meet in graduate school by teaching an LSAT prep course to future law students. During the breaks, I would try to convince them to choose another career.    

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I was working in management consulting and wanted to run a multivariate regression to answer a client’s question. My bosses cringed and gently told me to draw a slide instead. I needed a different job if I was going to get to use my preferred toolkit.

“If I weren’t a business school professor…”  I might switch to anthropology.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Moonlighting

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? I’ve been here long enough that many of my dearest former students have graduated and moved off into the real world, and now they’re awesome people you want to just hang out with when you can. They become your forever friends, and they’re such a blessing.

What is the biggest challenge that comes with teaching undergraduate business students? Convincing them that learning economic theory will make them better at business, or at life. I’m probably more liberal arts-y than many business professors, and I want students to use their education to understand the world, not just business. Big, world-changing ideas usually come from other disciplines; business majors just take them to market. The most interesting person at a dinner party is the one who knows more than just how to run their business. And the best CEOs know as much about some other topic (philosophy, politics, maybe even art history) as they do about accounting. If we forget that, we risk producing business students who miss the point.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? That’s hard. I’m proud of so many of our students. But I’d have to say our students who ended up at the Federal Reserve Board or at the White House make me particularly proud.

What is the least favorite thing one has done?  I can’t say that out loud. In general, you always hope your students would use their genius to make the world a better place and not just make themselves rich.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Take the information they learned in class and pivot with it to say something about a different issue or question they haven’t seen before. And they need to be able to write convincingly. Multiple choice tests and rote memorization are the bane of this generation’s educational existence.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Tough

“But I would describe myself as …” I had a math professor in college whose English wasn’t so great. On our final exam he wrote “Final Exam: Is not easy, but is fair.” That’s how I feel about my classes and my grading.

What are your hobbies? Running, being outside, travel, chasing kids around, politics. I also reflexively play this license plate game in my head that I made up as a kid. I can’t seem to kick the habit.   

How did you spend your summer? Going to an economic history conference in Strasbourg, followed by a good friend’s spectacular wedding in Provence.

Favorite place to vacation: Disney World. Every day there is like a mini time optimization problem, and I love working it out in my head.

Favorite book: Ina Caro’s The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France. I’ve probably read it five times because it’s almost as good as actually going to France myself. I’m also a big fan of Richard Russo’s Straight Man because it is such an accurate portrayal of the realities of academia. Only an academic would find it funny, probably, but I usually end up crying from laughing so hard.

Favorite movie and/or television show: House of Cards

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: meh.

Bucket list item #1: The hike to Macchu Pichu.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? My co-author and I just published a paper about the effects of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. We started that paper nearly three years ago, and it was a ton of work.  

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? That’s hard, but getting tenure is certainly somewhere near the top of that list.

Professor you most admire and why: Claudia Goldin (Harvard). She is the original trailblazer for women in economics and is one of only three women to be elected president of the American Economics Association. (Seven “Robert”s have held the title.) And she did it while spending a career in my subfield, economic history, which hasn’t traditionally been the hottest subfield in the discipline. Claudia is tough as nails. There is not a single woman in economics today who didn’t benefit from her powerful leadership. Plus she has been endlessly generous with time and advice as I’ve tried to plot my own path.  

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My work largely focuses on the labor market experiences of black men in the U.S. from emancipation to today. The biggest discovery from that work is just how little progress has been made in 150 years in terms of equalizing the mobility of black and white Americans. In a nutshell, black men 150 years ago faced substantial headwinds that their white peers didn’t face, even white men who grew up disadvantaged because their fathers were poor sharecroppers. It turns out we’ve made very little progress on that front. Being born black in a low-income household today is still a far worse fate than being born white in a low-income household.

Twitter handle: @mwanamak

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Psychology, history, English composition, cross-cultural experiences

“And much less of this…” Online courses and multiple choice exams

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would like for you I have a job I love at an institution that supports my ability to creatively do that job.  But I can see how easy it would be to get complacent. Success will mean continuing to be creative in how I teach and mentor students, changing my strategies to meet the needs of the next generation of students.

Students say…

“She presented complicated, dull economic material and made it come to life via her enthusiasm, class activities, and assignments.”

“She goes the extra mile, not just to make sure we understand information, but that we have a close relationship as well.”

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