Professors’ on-campus and off-campus commitments often compete for their time, but perhaps none as significantly as with Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who teaches in the economics department and the Wilson School and writes a biweekly column for the Times. Like others on campus with a semi-celebrity status, Krugman is constantly balancing the many roles he has assigned to himself throughout his career.
Krugman is not teaching a class this semester, though he will teach two Wilson School graduate seminars in the spring, though one will last only half the term. But even without a course to teach, Krugman still has a full schedule. Krugman has kept both his job as a Times columnist and his tenure at Princeton for over a decade without any significant backlash on his ability to commit to either role. And Krugman himself expresses an equally intimate interest in both his role as a professor and as a famous columnist.
However, with his high-profile engagement in national politics and economic matters almost overshadowing his professor role, it still remains a mystery for most how Krugman does it all, or if he is even truly able to balance his dual roles.
“50 percent duty”
Since he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2008, Krugman has been on more or less “50 percent duty” as a professor, Gene Grossman, chair of the economics department, said. When he won the top award in economics, his public profile increased significantly, meaning he suddenly had fewer free hours to commit to his job as a professor, Krugman said in an interview in his office last spring.
“Since the Nobel, with all of the pressures, I am buying back my falls, which is not going to continue indefinitely,” he said, noting that his other commitments are why he only teaches in the spring. “In some ways teaching keeps you sane. I feel disconnected from reality after a semester of not teaching ... it is good to come back and teach basics,” he explained.
In the past two years, Krugman has taught a spring term Wilson School special topics seminar for undergraduates on the economics of the welfare state, a course he invented in 2005 during the Social Security privatization debate in Congress. He will not teach the course this spring, though he will teach the two graduate seminars, one of which is classified as “half-term.”
As a result, Krugman does not fulfill all of the duties expected of full economics professors. A professor can fulfill their requirements by teaching two courses, advising a senior thesis and participating in “one major administrative task,” Grossman said.
The economics department has a points system that counts whether a professor has fulfilled their requirements by the end of the year. Professors accumulate points by teaching different classes, participating in committees and advising theses, Grossman explained. Large classes such as introductory economics courses are worth more points than a small upper-level seminar.
“It is our way of making sure everyone’s teaching and administrative load is roughly comparable and fair,” Grossman said.
Economics professor Alan Blinder ’67 and Krugman have requested to get their duties as full-time professors lowered, and those requests have both been granted. Blinder said he has been on “75 percent duty” for around a decade. In order to receive a reduction in duty, a professor must have his or her request approved by the Dean of Faculty.
“Generally, [full-time] faculty members are allowed one day a week for non-university related activities, such as consulting,” Blinder said.
Krugman admitted, however, that he doesn’t always abide by that rule when he is teaching a class because of his other commitments. He said he is only on campus two or three times a week.
But Krugman does try to be on campus to meet with students and the Wilson Undergraduate Committee has become a regular commitment. Krugman does not participate in faculty committees.
“Just look at my office, you don’t want me to be administering anything,” he said.
Krugman the Professor
While Krugman’s work as a columnist is responsible for his high profile as a public intellectual, he finds teaching classes to be a rewarding aspect of his career.
Krugman explained that he cares a lot about his classes, despite his other commitments.
“I feel really bad if I don’t think a class went well, so I put in a lot of time on the prep,” he said.
During the semesters in which he teaches classes, Krugman takes several hours out of his weekend to prepare for his next class, and he tries to make sure his session is up to date with current events. His class is never static and very interactive with the real world, he said.
He also explained that he enjoys engaging with students — which he said was a different experience than engaging with his commenters on his Times blog.
“Students are all really interested in the issues. Teaching a class provides a different relationship compared to me throwing something out and seeing who shoots bullets at it,” he said.
Though Krugman said he enjoys his time with students, he hasn’t advised a senior thesis in the past two years. Grossman explained that it’s possible for professors — especially those only on 50 percent duty — to not advise a thesis for a number of years.
Krugman added that he does try to make himself available for students.
“I try to be available, but I’m sure I look harassed when folks peek their heads in the office. It is not the easiest thing,” Krugman said. “But I am always available.”
Krugman, who lives in Princeton, noted that he can always come in to work, even if he isn’t in his office at the moment.
“I don’t do a lot of long distance travel, compared to other people in this position. If I am not here, I am two miles away,” he said.
Though Krugman tends to teach upper-level classes, he said that he would be willing to teach introductory economics courses and freshman seminars “without question.”
“I am always willing, partly because I have my own textbook,” Krugman said about introductory economic courses. “At rare intervals I do freshman seminars, which I enjoy too. Smart seniors are fun, but smart kids who are seeing the stuff for the first time is even more gratifying.”
Online evaluations of Krugman’s courses highlight indicate the positive and negative consequences of having a star public academic as a professor. Comments that state that Krugman “enjoys being in the classroom” clash with others describing a lack of guidance and personal interaction in his classes. A common comment is the fact that Krugman did not get to know the names of the students in his class very well.
“On the one hand, he is brilliant, and it has been great to have a seminar where he describes a lot of economic concepts in a very accessible way,” said Noah Freedman ’12, who took Krugman’s spring class. “He doesn’t always post readings online, on the other hand. He is a very busy guy, and teaching isn’t always his biggest priority.”
The comments also say Krugman did not frequently allow for participation or offer feedback, though Freedman described him as very approachable.
While students in his class sometimes feel starstruck, this is juxtaposed with the feeling of being a side aspect of Krugman’s main public life. According to Freedman, Bloomberg and CBS had even filmed his class in an effort to promote Krugman’s book deal.
Alexander von Lockner ’09 and Theodore Ellis ’08, who had Krugman as a senior thesis adviser, emphasized that Krugman was committed to teaching.
Shortly after von Lockner was notified that Krugman would be his senior thesis adviser, Krugman won the Nobel Prize. Despite his expectation that a recent Nobel Prize winner would be unavailable, Krugman never let his commitment to his advisees fall by the wayside.
“I was expecting him to be occupied but he was still very willing to meet multiple times a week and chat,” von Lockner said. “I would send a few potential topics to him to discuss and he would just go off on tangents and discuss. It was like chatting with an old friend — except about economics.”
Ellis, currently an MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said Krugman was responsive and engaging despite having “the most glamorous life out of the professors” at the University.
“I wasn’t expecting any hand-holding or anything, but when we were still trying to pin down a topic that would be achievable in a year, he was pretty creative and was willing to brainstorm with me, pushing me down certain routes,” he said.
Once Ellis submitted his thesis, Krugman discussed it with a prominent journal editor, and Ellis ended up getting published.
“I emailed Krugman to thank him for making the introduction, but I never heard back,” Ellis said.
Krugman the public figure
Krugman explains his career in stages. In his 30s, he focused on research. While he hopes to be doing some good research continually, he acknowledges cutting-edge research as a “younger person’s game.” He began writing for the Times in 1999, one year before he became a professor at the University in 2000. Now, his column-writing takes center stage.
“Managing to produce 800 words that inform people about important issues and boil down something complex into something that is readable without actually doing violence to the substance — that is like pulling off a good jazz performance,” explained Krugman. “There is a lot of satisfaction in just getting it done.”
According to fellow columnist Gail Collins, the only requirement the paper really sets for its columnists is the 800-word, twice a week deadline. Collins points out that because of such flexibility, the way each columnist goes about his or her column-writing is different: Some deliberate for a while over their writing, while others write with a sense of ease and speed.
For the busy Krugman, this flexibility works to his advantage.
“I am pretty much left on my own. They don’t know what’s coming in until it crosses over their threshold at 5 p.m.,” Krugman said. “The main thing is that I sell papers, so it is all good.”
In addition, Krugman has published a leading textbook on introductory macroeconomics and maintains an active presence in the social media sphere — he has more than 896,000 followers on Twitter and maintains an active blog on the Times’s website, often posting more than once a day.
Krugman the person
According to Krugman, his extensive commitments inevitably get the better of him.
“I am a modern professor who has too many balls in the air and is always dropping some of them,” Krugman said.
But perhaps he is being too harsh on himself.
Those who know Krugman as a colleague, professor or friend praise him for his intellect and how he balances his life.
Krugman is known to be efficient — he has no other choice.
“Professor Krugman is a lone wolf. He stays in his office or in his home pounding out things. You don’t see him hanging around the water cooler or coffee maker,” Blinder said.
Furthermore, Krugman is a fast thinker and writer. Ellis remembers him as “overflowing with ideas,” noting that “the amount of ideas an average person would have in a week he has in five minutes.”
“That is his strong suit. That’s why he can blog,” Ellis added.
Grossman, who knows Krugman from having shared an office with him in Jerusalem one summer, also praised Krugman’s writing skills.
“I have never seen anybody write as fast as Paul,” Grossman said. “The guy is just unbelievable. He would just spit out a paper in a few hours that would take me a week. I have seen him on a Thursday afternoon with a Thursday night deadline for the column without having really started, and it doesn’t seem to bother him ... I don’t know how he does it all,” he explained.
Since he tries to travel less than he did when he was younger, Krugman is generally in the local area and frequently accessible.
“To the extent that I do stuff out of Princeton, N.J. Transit, 3 or 4G wireless [networks] are a match made in heaven,” Krugman remarked.
For example, Wilson School professor Kim Lane Scheppele, who is office neighbors with Krugman on the fourth floor of Robertson Hall, said she has frequently seen Krugman working on Times columns while sitting in his office on a Thursday, with his door open to students for office hours.
“I have seen him come in on Thursday with his laptop balanced on the edge of his desk and his lap while writing the column. He doesn’t get writer’s block,” she explained.
Nevertheless, Scheppele does not doubt Krugman’s equally strong commitment to academics.
“He is such a professor, deeply committed to academics,” Scheppele noted. “When he teaches, he is really here. He really has office hours, his door is open, he is really available. He cares a lot about his teaching.”
For Krugman, maintaining his public media persona and his role as a professor do not necessarily represent two separate spheres.
“He is a man who has firm commitments based in evidence. It is certainly in his column and on display in his life,” Scheppele said. “He never says things he can’t back up.
It is this sense of responsibility along with his bottomless energy that Krugman feels towards both the public and especially to his students that makes him, as Scheppele sees it, “a professor here and to the world.”
Anjali Menon contributed reporting.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misattributed a quotation. Gene Grossman, chair of the economics department, said that since Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2008, Krugman has been on more or less “50 percent duty” as a professor. The 'Prince' regrets the error.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/11/12/31782/