Lauded in a Limerick

Economics professor David Weiman wins the prestigious Jonathan Hughes Prize

By Jessica Gross

Over the summer, a colleague of David Weiman’s called him up and explained that he was needed to lead the discussion at a 6:30 a.m. teaching breakfast on a Saturday morning. On receiving the invite, “I became suspicious,” says Weiman, the Alena Wels Hirschorn ’58 Professor of Economics at Barnard. “Now, what I didn’t know—and apparently many do—was that leading the discussion is typically a sign that you’re going to get the award.”

The award, which the professor did indeed receive, is the Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History, a prestigious honor conferred annually by the Economic History Association. His prize was announced in the form of a limerick, as on the public-radio show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, with the audience filling in the rhymes. The clues started trickling in: the limerick referenced Palo Alto, where Weiman had earned his PhD at Stanford, and the name of his advisor. And, lo and behold, the award was his.

Weiman has been on Barnard’s faculty since 2001, which includes spending three years as chair of the economics department and two as the dean of faculty diversity and development. (He has been the Alena Wels Hirschorn ’58 Professor since 2003.) But his decades-long career has included a number of schools, as well as positions outside university walls. “I’m a peripatetic,” Weiman says.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, he was an assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College, then an associate professor of economics at Yale University. In 1994, Weiman joined Queens College as professor of economics. “That was a frustrating job,” he says. The mission—teaching students who often didn’t have the kinds of educational opportunities that, say, Yale or Barnard students do—was vital, but “politically, it was a very contentious time in New York,” with constant attacks against CUNY.

When Weiman got the chance to move outside the academy, to serve as the program director of the Social Science Research Council, he took it. A couple of years later, he moved to the Russell Sage Foundation as senior program officer and helped develop an initiative that examined the unintended impacts of mass incarceration. “I think we helped put the very good research being done on this problem right now on the front burner,” he says. “Our job is really to be catalysts, to say, ‘This is an important issue and attention should be paid to it.’” He adds, “In terms of the social value of anything I have done—aside from the teaching—this is probably one of the most important things in my career. It’s a tragedy what has happened to a lot of low-income, inner-city, minority communities because of policing policy, and the get-tough, long-incarceration policies in response to nonviolent crimes.”

While at Russell Sage, Weiman was asked to apply for a tenured position at Barnard. He saw the high racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity as a boon, not to mention the appeal of training women in a field where they are underrepresented. He also was drawn to the tradition of Barnard as a liberal arts college affiliated with a research university. “This struck me as the best of both worlds,” he says.

Weiman is currently researching the economic history of the United States between the 1840s and the 1920s. By 1830, Americans rendered economic transactions in dollars as opposed to pounds, but there was no common currency. Banks issued currency when it received a charter from its particular state enabling it to do so. And, various currencies’ dollar units were of different values: Chicago’s dollar might be worth 98 cents in New York. In 1863, during the Civil War, Congress enacted a common currency through federally chartered national banks, so that they’d all issue bank notes of uniform value. Finally, in 1918, the Federal Reserve mandated that checks, too, be cleared and settled dollar for dollar, across the country. “We move from a system where you have common units of accounting to a common currency to what I’ll call a common bank money,” Weiman explains. Together with John James, a University of Virginia economics professor who passed away recently and unexpectedly, Weiman has been charting the course of this evolution. At the end of it, the country was left with the Federal Reserve, which orchestrates our bank transactions. One of the main questions Weiman aims to answer is: was that a good thing or a bad thing? The project is nearing completion.

This Jonathan Hughes Prize winner is, of course, also a masterful teacher. (The award depends on former students’ nominations.) Weiman teaches a course on theoretical foundations of political economy, a survey course in United States economic history, and he will teach a course that charts our economic history at the turn of the 20th century, beginning with the second industrial revolution associated with chemical and electrical engineering. Together with his wife, Madeleine Zelin, Dean Lung Professor of Chinese studies at Columbia, he will teach a graduate course, Industrial Revolutions, in spring 2016. Both had first taught the course in spring 2013. Weiman is also the co–principal investigator of the Empirical Reasoning Lab, which introduces empirical literacy to first- and second-year students in subjects from chemistry to the classics.

He also takes great joy in supervising independent thesis projects, and in watching students transform from nervous beginners “who can’t conceive a project of this size” to ones who have produced theses of great length and mastery. “At the very end, when they give their presentations, they’re poised, articulate, informative,” says Weiman. Barnard, he points out, views teaching, advising, and committee participation as a service that professors give to their departments; supervising independent work is a vital component of this role. “For me,” he says, “I think this is one of the hallmarks of a classic liberal arts education.”

In hours not devoted to teaching and research, Weiman is committed to his athletic pursuits of running, biking, and tennis. An avid participant in the Bike-a-thon to benefit Columbia Community Service, which aids local community nonprofit groups, he won the one-hour time trial on the stationary bike three years in a row. He’s “the man to beat and a top fund-raiser,” says his team captain Robin Beltzer of Barnard’s human resources department. And then there is his continuing enthusiasm for his piano lessons, begun not long ago and steadfastly pursued—a hallmark of his personal commitment to lifetime learning. 

Latest IssueSpring 2021