Putting the fun back in finance

When Jeannie Gillmore looks out at her first-year macroeconomics class, she doesn’t see a sea of 435 faces. Instead, she sees individuals with different backgrounds and stories to share.

Gillmore, a lecturer in the Department of Economics, is known for taking advantage of the free moments before class to talk about Lady Gaga or look at students’ Facebook photos.

“Every time I walk into a classroom I tell myself it isn’t 435 students out there, it’s 435 individuals. I try to connect with as many of them as I can,” Gillmore says. “If you show an interest in somebody, then they are more accountable and they are going work harder.”

Gillmore feels she has just as much to learn as her students and feeds off the energy they bring to the classroom. “They talk to me and I find out all kinds of things,” she says.

She might ask them whether they play varsity sports, what song was just added to their iPod playlist or their plans for the weekend. These insights keep her connected to her students and open the lines of dialogue for more serious discussions about personal issues that might be affecting a student’s work.

With news of interest rates, budgets and debt limits flooding the news recently, this is an exciting time to be studying macroeconomics, Gillmore says.  “By the end of the course these students should be able to pick up a newspaper and critically dissect the aspects of the world economy,” she says.

The course closely follows the textbook, so students should come to class prepared, she advises.

In order to ensure her students understand the financial concepts discussed during the lectures, she has them turn the lessons into song, to the tune of the William Tell Overture. The exercise is based on the YouTube sensation, The Mom Song.

Gillmore isn’t trying to teach students how to sing, but if their creative vocal abilities hit the right note, they just might earn a better mark. The evidence of the number-crunching crooners is then uploaded onto YouTube.

“You can’t actually do this unless you know the economic concepts and principles,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how badly you sing; I don’t care. It’s all about having fun and learning.”

The concept has piqued interest south of the border. A competition has been waged between the 2011-12 class and the University of West Georgia. But students should expect to be singing to a different tune, she says.

When she is not teaching, Gillmore works with economics professor emeritus Michael Parkin, co-author of the course textbook, to produce supplementary materials. Working so closely with the first-year course content allows her to re-evaluate continuously how to improve learning opportunities in the classroom.

Gillmore completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western. She understands how intimidating university can be and encourages students to visit her office hours to talk about anything from the course work to life in general.

“I need them to know I care about them,” she says. “My teaching philosophy is you are teaching individuals, you are not teaching a subject, and each one of them is important.”