LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The next conversation on today's program is personal. It's part of NPR's partnership with StoryCorps, a project that's recording conversations between loved ones and friends. I sat down with a teacher I've admired for many years. Karl Case is a retired professor of economics at my alma mater, Wellesley College. Our conversation is something we're hoping you might do with a teacher the day after Thanksgiving, something we're calling the National Day of Listening.
Karl, who's known as Chip to his friends, is a superstar economist. He helped create the popular S&P/Case-Shiller index, which tracks the prices of homes. But he's always prided himself on his teaching, something he's done for more than 30 years.
You know, your subject, economics - please forgive me - can be very dry. Somehow you draw these kids in with tricks.
Well, I don't know if it's tricks. It depends on the level. And my tricky course is I teach an urban economics class, which is about cities and how they grow and how they come to be what they are. And I discovered after teaching that for four or five years that they don't understand what I'm talking about from day one.
KARL CASE: So I trick them and I send them out to do a project. I give them a building, and they have to find out who's in it, who put that building there, how much did it cost, what's the vacancy rate. And they get into it. But at the beginning, they're fearful.
I had this student come back after the first time I gave the assignment. And she comes in, and she says, no one will give us that information, with big tears in her eyes. And so I said to her, look, if you were working for Goldman Sachs and your boss sent you out to find out about this building, the last thing you'd do is come back into his office and cry, because if you did that, you'd be fired. So I said, from now on there's only one grade on this assignment - A, and fired.
But they get into it, and it doesn't take a lot of time. But then they know what I'm talking about. Kids understand stories. They understand stories and they understand physical things that they've seen and visited.
WERTHEIMER: Do you remember the first day that you stood up in front of a class at Wellesley College?
CASE: I remember that first class. And not only can - I remember that first class. I can tell you where all the people are that were in it. But in the classes of 1976, '77, '78, those are the years you remember the most. I've got little folders down in my basement that have their photographs on them.
I learned their names before they came to class, which kind of freaked them out. I'd go through them like flash cards the day before class. And so I'd be calling on them by name. And they actually loved that. It was...
WERTHEIMER: After they got over being scared to death, I'm sure.
CASE: Yeah, I suppose.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, what about, you know, when you had your year-long retirement celebration? You had...
CASE: It was a bit extraordinary.
WERTHEIMER: You've had a lot of kudos over the years. Is there anything that sort of stands out as the personally important moment for you?
CASE: Well, you know, I'll tell you. Last week, we had the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I took my first graduate school exam at Harvard at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1971. And it was taught by a guy named Ed Leamer. I basically flunked that first exam. And I got in the car with my wife and we decided to go look at prep schools because I wasn't going to make it through economics.
Ed Leamer called me up about five years ago. He's now a dean out at UCLA. And he invited me to come out and give a keynote talk at a conference he was running. And I said, Ed, this is terrific. You flunked me in my first graduate school exam. He, of course, didn't remember.
WERTHEIMER: The guy who's exam you couldn't get through wanted you to come speak? That just said to you, you're...
CASE: I made it.
WERTHEIMER: You're OK.
CASE: I'm OK. That course was called statistics for slow people. And I took it because I was getting - OK. I came to Harvard right out of the Army, and I didn't want to take the real hard courses. So I took this little remedial course in statistics, which was really hard.
WERTHEIMER: But he didn't look you up and cancel the invitation?
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CASE: No. No. No. No.
WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much for this.
CASE: Well, thank you, Linda. I love your work. And it's been a pleasure talking to you.
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WERTHEIMER: That's Chip Case, professor of economics emeritus at Wellesley College. Our conversation is part of the StoryCorps National Day of Listening project. Find out how to do this with your teacher at NPR.org.
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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.