Students who think they can sit in a David Mustard course and just blend into the decor quickly become aware that this award-winning Terry College economics professor is an enthusiastic proponent of the Socratic Method. Mustard typically asks his students a whole string of questions, his intent being to encourage and extract wisdom even from students who don't think they know the right answer. In this kind of teaching environment, proclamations of ignorance don't get anyone off the hook. If Mustard feels the student needs to expand their thought process, he'll continue with his line of questioning until, more often than not, the student arrives at the right answer.
"My classes are very interactive and you should expect to be called on. It makes some people feel uncomfortable, but I'm not trying to make people feel uncomfortable," says Mustard, a senior fellow at the UGA Institute of Higher Education whose recent mentees includes Rhodes Scholars, Marshall Scholars and a Fulbright Fellowship recipient. "I think it is fundamental that you really don't understand what you're learning until you are able to articulate it and work through it in your own way."
Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Mustard enrolled in the University of Rochester's engineering program, but it was a course on one of society's greatest ills that sparked his interest in economics. "I took a history of economics course that dealt with slavery and I was shocked at how much economists contributed to what we understand about it," he says. "I thought if economists could say this much about problems pertaining to people then I needed to learn more about economics."
Mustard's studies took him to Edinburgh, Scotland, for graduate work and then to the University of Chicago for his PhD where he began researching human behavior and government policy. His research on crime, discrimination, casino gambling, gun control and education has been featured in major media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio since his arrival at UGA in 1997.
One of his research projects, a study of Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program with colleague Chris Cornwell, was inspired by conversations with his students and the results of their work have influenced the Georgia State Senate to address ways to improve the program. It is one of several instances where Mustard has been in demand to testify about his research before state legislators or as an expert witness in the courtroom.
Mustard's research also aids his work in the classroom. His Honors Economics of Education course was created from his research in the field and the class often gives students their first taste of academic research with a semester-long project. His undergraduate advisees have qualified for the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) conference and won university-wide awards for Most Outstanding Paper in the Social Sciences, the Most Outstanding Paper on an International Topic, and the Most Outstanding Paper with a Civic Focus, which keeps Mustard inspired. "You pour yourself into them and they go beyond you and do amazing things.