Not many economics professors have had their work quoted by a chairman of the Federal Reserve. Even so, Ken Snowden’s proudest professional moments have much more to do with his students than with his brushes with fame. The emails he receives years after students have graduated and the honor he recently received when he was bestowed the Senior Teaching Excellence Award—that’s the kind of validation that really matters to Ken.
“I’ll say this: I have a lot of fun when I teach,” he says. “I’m enthusiastic about what I do.”
Economics won Ken over when he was in high school. After a two-week unit, he was instantly hooked. “I loved it. I majored in it in college, studied it in grad school, began teaching it and never looked back. I tell my students, ‘You’re being taught by somebody who just thinks economics is great.’”
Ken enjoys teaching the subject as much as the subject itself. On the road to instilling the same kind of passion that he has, his biggest challenge is getting students to overcome the assumption that that can’t succeed at the analytical aspect.
“Sometimes they have to fail at it first, but ultimately they realize they are capable of doing analysis. That’s my most important job—making them comfortable with it so that they can see that it’s actually fun.”
Ken’s second goal is to get his students to understand how powerful economics is and how much it affects their lives. “I’m constantly trying to connect what they are learning to what they are experiencing,” Ken says. “We all experience economics every single day.”
Experiencing economics is exactly what Ken empowers his students to do. In recent years, he’s won two prestigious grants from the National Science Foundation, and with each one, he’s involved students, dozens of undergraduates over the last decade, directly in his research.
“Including students is very important. They benefit tremendously from that kind of experience.” Ken’s area of expertise is the history of the United States mortgage market. For one grant, Ken and his students recovered historical mortgage records, visiting archives and viewing microfilm to examine data spanning the 1870s to today. The project will be part of a book he is writing on the American mortgage market.
“I hope to leave behind an authoritative history that will help us understand mortgages better and make better decisions in the future,” he says. “Economic historians don’t expect to be in the newspaper,” he says. “We toil in the basement and hope one day our work ends up mattering.”
Matter, it has. When the recession hit in 2008, Ken’s research hit the newspapers. He got his 15 minutes of fame when then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernake cited his work in one of his speeches. Ken was asked to testify in front of the U.S. Senate regarding his work. As a result, he was invited to become a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research, one of the top academic research organizations in the world.
Even so, Ken is perfectly happy if the biggest impact he makes lies in the hundreds of students whose lives he has touched.
“It feels great to get confirmation from both students and colleagues that you’ve done a meaningful job.”