Department Chair Donna Gilleskie’s interview with retiring Professor Rita Balaban. Rita served the department 17 years, having joined the economics faculty in 2006. She received her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in 1999
Thinking back over your time as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, what aspects of your work brought you the most joy?
The aspects of my job that brought me the most joy were working with students in- and outside of the classroom and my interactions with our talented teaching faculty. In particular, every semester I would have a few students who were frequent visitors to office hours. It was fun getting to know them better and to witness their growth and comfort with the course content. They wanted nothing more than to understand and learn the content better. Another joy was working with the teaching faculty. We have such a talented group with great ideas and a genuine desire to maximize our students’ learning. They are well schooled in evidence-based pedagogy and their motivation challenged me to evaluate, revise, and do a better job in the classroom.
Was there anything that you recall as particularly challenging?
The most challenging time was when we returned full-time to campus after being remote for a year, i.e., the 2021-2022 academic year. We could not do the same things in the classroom that we did prior to the outbreak and the students were struggling in multiple ways. It was really exhausting both physically and mentally.
Was there an epic moment during your career at Carolina that shaped your approach to teaching?
Absolutely! In 2012 a few of my former students (Andrew Powell and Neal Patel) stopped by to visit and asked me why nobody in the department was using a flipped classroom approach. I had no idea what they were talking about. After they described it to me, they asked if I would consider adopting such an approach and I emphatically said, “No! It sounds like way too much work!” They were not deterred and asked would I reconsider if they helped me. I bit and I have never looked back.
What were the biggest changes you experienced in teaching over your tenure?
Our classrooms have become more active learning spaces. The use of small-group problem solving and polls to provide instant assessment is commonplace. Courses are not just lecture and exams. There are multiple assessments being used now. This is good news for the students because more learning is happening in the classroom because we have migrated towards an active versus passive learning environment.
What was the greatest success or accomplishment in your entire working history?
I am humbled to have been the recipient of some very prestigious teaching awards on- and off-campus, e.g., the Tanner, Chapman family, and Elizinga awards. There are so many great colleagues and mentors that have helped and supported me along the way. It is nice to be recognized for doing what I have wanted to do since I was an undergraduate – teach economics at UNC!