James Tierney Maximizes Utility As Economics Lecturer, Entrepreneur, Improv Comic, Twitter Talent
“At the end of the day, I like to do things for myself because I’m an economist and economists are utility maximizing,” James Tierney said. “But I really like to be involved in the lives of students in ways that I feel are valuable.”
To many, taking an economics course at Penn State means big classes, lots of graphs, and exams in the Forum Building. But it may also give you the chance to learn from the versatile Tierney — a lecturer in the subject, social media guru, and entrepreneur, among other things.
Originally from upstate New York — just 40 minutes south of Montreal — Tierney attended Western New England University where he studied both math and economics.
“I was going to go to school and be a math major, and probably teach high school math,” Tierney said. “I’d always had this business mindset, too, where I wanted to own my own business, so I figured math would give me a really good chance to do both.”
Economics entered the equation during Tierney’s second semester at Western New England after he took an especially interesting and engaging introductory course. That course quickly morphed into a minor, and eventually into a second major. While working as an intern for health insurance giant MassMutual before his senior year, Tierney realized that doing financial work for a Fortune 500 company, though interesting, wasn’t satisfying his desire to teach.
“I decided that I wanted to go and get a graduate degree in economics so that someday I could go and teach economics at the college level,” he said.
When he began his search for graduate programs, Tierney set his sights on sunny Southern California. The weather certainly influenced his decision, but so did his interest in standup comedy and improv. Los Angeles’s world-famous performing arts scene and Tierney’s passion for comedy provided a backup plan in case economics fell through. He fulfilled his academic aspirations and desire to live on the West Coast by earning a graduate degree at UC Irvine.
“Sports-wise, I have an East Coast bias because I’m a huge New York Mets fan and I always will be no matter what,” Tierney said. “So, I guess I have a West Coast bias on the weather.”
Tierney is deeply passionate about teaching. He enjoys connecting with students and explaining concepts in the best way possible, but goes above and beyond the educational standard. From using CBS’s hit sitcom the Big Bang Theory to help his students understand economic concepts to creating a free library in the Kern Building, Tierney is always searching for ways to relate economics to the lives of his students.
Tierney and his good friend, fellow economics lecturer Jadrian Wooten, recently submitted a paper called “Adam Ruins Everything Except Economics” for fans of the popular TV series. He has written class activities for different textbooks, and posts regular updates to his blog, where you can find even more attempts to connect economics to everyday life.
How does this sort of approach work in Tierney’s classroom? He likes to teach the concept of an inferior good, or a good that a consumer would demand less of as his or her income increases, by bringing “one whole chicken in a can” to class. This is, quite literally, an entire chicken stuffed into a can, and something that people would certainly like to avoid as their wallets grow. He also uses the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies to explain complements, substitutes, and other economic concepts.
Tierney’s lecturing approach is meant to make his field interesting and engaging for students. But his style has evolved since he arrived in State College four years ago.
“I spend a lot more time focusing on the ‘good student’ and the motivated students more than I did in the past,” Tierney said. “I had this initial thought of, ‘If you’re a good student and you’re motivated, then what am I here for? I need to focus on the C student or the failing student and really try to get them to pass.'”
Tierney received a Student Rating of Teacher Effectiveness (SRTE) response that claimed he failed to recognize the students who were doing well in his class and was harping too much on those potentially in danger of failing. As a result, he writes hand-written thank you notes to students who ace his quizzes, sends out congratulatory emails to students who’ve shown big improvements, and provides personalized rewards to the Penn Staters who show that they are willing to put in the work it takes to succeed.
Speaking of success, Tierney’s Twitter account is a triumph full of economics and teaching takes, jokes, and memes. Take a look for yourself:
Me: The first exam question will be super easy and just like this one we did in class but with different numbers. Don't mess it up so you can start off the exam being successful.
My Students: pic.twitter.com/hLFt0PYEsz
— James Tierney (@James_Tierney) March 22, 2018
“I have a more outgoing personality, which I think you need when teaching 350 18-year-olds,” Tierney explained. “That kind of lends itself to humor, and I’ve also studied improv for 13 years now and the idea of finding the joke.”
Tierney also sees his Twitter account as something that allows him to connect with current and former students, opening up the door for insightful political discussions or just providing a place to catch up.
“I never took large classes, but it must be difficult to see your instructor as a person at times,” Tierney said. “The Twitter page gives students an insight into the fact that I’m doing other things, that I’m running other businesses, that I have a dog, and that I go visit my family.”
Tierney believes it’s important to let students know that it’s okay to joke around. This attitude is reflected in his personality and improv background. Happy Valley Improv is the project that Tierney is most excited about — he co-founded the organization alongside three fellow improv enthusiasts, two of whom are faculty members.
The Happy Valley Improv team does as much promotion as possible, from TV appearances to radio shows. But the team believes that the organization will also grow naturally. Tierney said that improv breeds joy. It means letting go, breaking down barriers, and creating something out of nothing — all ideas that resonate with the lecturer.
“I became interested in improv because I got started in stand-up comedy, which I started as an undergrad,” Tierney said. “I had to take an art class, and the only things that fit into my schedule were paper making or improv comedy, so it was a pretty easy choice.”
Tierney loved the class, and his self-described “obsessive personality” allowed him to immerse himself in his new passion. After joining a few improv troupes during graduate school, he eventually found his way to Happy Valley, where there were no improv organizations open to faculty members. In 2016, the cofounders of Happy Valley Improv happened to find each other and decided to form their own team.
Tierney also co-founded a startup called Pets I’ve Met — a photo-sharing app that allows pet lovers to see good doggos and more. He attributes his ability to balance his numerous passions to the fact that he doesn’t have children and the support he receives from his wife Kimberly, a Pets I’ve Met cofounder and Happy Valley Improv’s stage light technician.
“The students here have been great to me, on average. There are people who hate my guts, and I think you need to have that,” Tierney said. “I think that if you are teaching a class of 350 students and everyone likes you, you’re doing something wrong. That’s why I believe that students should realize how beneficial it is to go to a big university, because you could run into someone whose teaching style you’re not comfortable with and you can find someone else.”
So, now the question you’ve been waiting for — does James Tierney prefer the West Coast or the East Coast?
“It depends on the day,” said Tierney. “We go back because my wife’s from the L.A. area, and the first day we’re like, ‘Why did we ever move?’ And on the second day when we’re sitting in traffic trying to go 30 miles and it’s taking us two-and-a-half hours, we realize why.”
Penn State economics students can thank light State College traffic, in part, for bringing a talented and versatile lecturer to Happy Valley.
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