Ph.D. Student Wins Prestigious Teaching Award

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Chelsea Garber

Duke Economics Ph.D. student Chelsea Garber has been named a recipient of the 2020 Dean’s Awards by the Graduate School. The award recognizes “outstanding efforts in mentoring, teaching, and creating an inclusive environment for graduate education at Duke.” 

Garber was shocked to learn she had received the award. "I remember last year reading about the recipients and they were very impressive people." But Garber's background is also impressive. “I've been like a lifelong Duke fan,” said Garber, who grew up in the area. “I went to Brown University for undergrad and studied math and economics, which I really enjoyed. I had also read a lot of Pat Bayer's research before coming to Duke, which was one impetus for coming here.” Between her undergraduate degree and starting her Ph.D., she worked for a year at the Stanford Law School studying the intersection of law and economics. This became the basis for Garber’s dissertation, which studies low-income community development and anti-discrimination when it comes to lending practices. 

Her first exposure to teaching at Duke was becoming a teaching assistant for Thomas Nechyba’s ECON201 Intermediate Microeconomics I class.  “Teaching was something I kind of fell into,” said Garber, “There was a time where I was feeling a little discouraged about my research so sought out teaching opportunities.” Garber has been able to TA for not only Duke courses but also became an adjunct professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. The diversity of experiences has been invaluable, and has honed her skills as a teacher as well as helped her sharpen her focus on her research. “Now I'm back somewhere in the middle of teaching and research, a really good balance.”

Garber likes to play around with her teaching style in order to figure out how best to challenge her students to learn about economics. Her courses are generally big—typically 200 students in a class. “It’s very easy to fall into the PowerPoint trap in a class like that.” So, she stopped using PowerPoint altogether. “It’s hard to take attendance in a class that big. When I stopped posting notes and stopped using PowerPoint, attendance was really, really good. It seemed like students were much more engaged because they know they have to actually take their notes if they want their notes.”

Around campus, Garber is known for being an engaging, creative instructor. Franklin Wu (Trinity ’23) said, “Among my friends, it was a consensus that Professor Garber’s lectures were unskippable, because she taught the content in half the time that it would take for you to make it up yourself, and she taught it better too. She had a way of manipulating the information so that it fit our brains.” One of Garber’s more creative endeavors is an exam for ECON201 where all of the questions are written in the context of the TV show “Parks and Rec”. “I try and take the dismal out of dismal science. I think economics does get a little bit of a bad rap, and I wanted there to be more value added because I think economics is fun,” she said.

“I loved Professor Garber and thoroughly enjoyed her class,” said Ivy Zhang (Trinity ’23), “She is willing to take the extra step outside of class to clear confusion and review material before exams, and her expectations are always clear and reasonable. Economics has become more interesting to me thanks to her.”  Isaac Fan (Trinity ‘23) added,“Professor Garber knew every nuance of the material, and was always willing to engage with the students outside of the class. She cared about our learning, and you felt like more than a grade in her class.”

So what’s next for Garber? She will graduate with her Ph.D. in May, and recently learned she’s been accepted to Duke Law School, starting in the fall of 2020. Her interest in law and economics will enable her to continue the research she started at Duke Econ. While she won’t be able to teach her first year in law school, she hopes at some point she can get back into it. Her plans for the future are wide open. Garber mentions continuing in academia and possibly dipping her toe into local politics. Ideally, she would stay in the Triangle. “This is home. I would stay in Durham forever if I could. I would love to be a professor at Duke Law School one day.” 

Garber hopes that other graduate students find teaching as rewarding as she does. “Teaching has taken up a lot of time, but it's been worth it. I always said if I was going to take that on, I was going to do it right. I don't want to shortchange myself or my students. The more you give, the more you get back and get out of it.”