Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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Teaching critical literacy.

That’s what professors do in the classroom. We teach students languages in order to make some sense of the world around them. How to view a film or read a novel. How to think about economics, politics, and culture. How to understand cell biology or the evolution of the universe.

And, of course, how to think critically about those languages—both their conditions and their consequences.

I’ve been thinking about the task of teaching critical literacy as I prepare the syllabi and lectures for my final semester at the University of Notre Dame.

Lately, I’ve been struck by the way mainstream economics is usually taught as a choice between markets and policy. Whenever a problem comes up—say, inequality or climate change—one group of mainstream economists offers the market as a solution, while the other group suggests that markets aren’t enough and need to be supplemented by government policies. Thus, for example, conservative, market-oriented economists teach students that, with free markets, everybody gets what they deserve (so inequality isn’t really a problem) and greenhouse gas emissions will decline over time (by imposing a tax on the burning of carbon-based fuels). Liberal economists generally argue that market outcomes are inadequate and require additional policies—for example, minimum-wage laws (to lower inequality) and stringent regulations on carbon emissions (because allowing the market to work through carbon taxes, or even cap-and-trade schemes, won’t achieve the necessary reductions to avoid global warming).*

That’s the way mainstream economists frame the issues for students—and, for that matter, for the general public. Markets or policies. Either rely on markets or implement new policies. Once someone learns the language, they see the world in a particular way, and they’re permitted to participate in the debate on those terms.

The problem is, something crucial is being left out of those languages, and thus the economic and political debate: institutions. The existing set of institutions are taken as given. Therefore, the possibility of changing existing institutions or creating new institutions to solve economic and social problems is simply taken off the table.

Among those institutions, perhaps the key one is the corporation. The presumption within mainstream economics is that privately owned, publicly traded corporations are simply there, allowed to operate freely within markets or nudged in a better direction by government policies. What mainstream economists never encourage students (or, again the general public) to consider is the possibility that institutions—especially the corporation—might be modified or radically transformed to create the foundation for a different kind of economy.

Consider how strange that is. Corporations are the central institution when it comes to the distribution of income and therefore the obscene, and still-growing, levels of inequality in the U.S. and world economies. It’s how most workers are paid (because that’s where jobs are available) and where the surplus is first appropriated (by the boards of directors) and then distributed (to shareholders and others). And as workers’ wages stagnate, and the surplus grows, economic inequality becomes worse and worse.

The same is true with climate change. The major institution involved in producing and using fossil fuels—and therefore creating the conditions for global warming—is the corporation. Especially gigantic multinational corporations. Some make profits by extracting fossil fuels; others use those fuels to produce commodities and to transport them around the world. They are the basis of the fossil-fuel-intensive Capitalocene.

Within the language of mainstream economists, the corporation is always-already there. They may allow for different kinds of markets and different kinds of policies but never for an alternative to the institution of the corporation —whether a different kind of corporation or a non-corporate way of organizing economic and social life.

If the goal of teaching economic is critical literacy, then we have to teach students the multiple languages of economics—including the possibilities that are foreclosed by some languages and opened up by other languages. One of our tasks, then, is to look beyond the language of markets and policy and to expose students to a language of changing institutions.

Now that I begin to look back on my decades of teaching economics, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing the entire time, exploring and promoting critical literacy. I’ve always taken as one of my responsibilities the teaching of the language of mainstream economists. But I haven’t stopped there. I’ve also always endeavored to expose students to other languages, other ways of making sense of the world around them.

Maybe, as a result, some of them have left knowing that it’s not just a question of markets or policy. Economic institutions are important, too.

Addendum

To complicate matters a bit further, the three elements I’ve focused on in this blog post—markets, policy, and institutions—are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, at least some conservative mainstream economists do understand that properly functioning markets do presume certain institutions (such as the rule of law and the protection of private property) and policies (especially not regulating markets), while liberals often advocate policies that allow markets to operate with better outcomes (I’m thinking, in particular, of antitrust legislation) and institutions to be safeguarded (especially when they might be threatened by grotesque levels of inequality and the effects of climate change). As for institutions, I can well imagine noncorporate enterprises—for example, worker cooperatives—operating within markets and relying on government policy. However, such enterprises imply the existence of markets and policies that differ markedly from those that prevail today, which are taken as given and immutable by mainstream economists.

 

*Dani Rodrik summarizes the terms of the debate well in a recent column: when a local factory closes because a firm has decided to outsource production,

Economists’ usual answer is to call for “greater labor market flexibility”: workers should simply leave depressed areas and seek jobs elsewhere. . .

Alternatively, economists might recommend compensating the losers from economic change, through social transfers and other benefits.

Once again, it’s a question of markets (in this case, the labor market) and policy (more generous social transfers to the “losers”).

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Everyone, it seems, is writing their version of the lessons to be learned after the crash of 2008. And most of them are getting it wrong.

Here, for the record, are some of the lessons I’ve taken from the crash:

  1. What has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?
  2. Mainstream economists got globalization wrong
  3. The policy consensus on economics has not fundamentally changed
  4. Mainstream economics has fallen in the eyes of the public—and for good reason
  5. Little has changed in terms of the teaching of economics
  6. Mainstream economists reject the new populism, which they helped to create
  7. The normal workings of capitalism created, together and over time, the conditions for the most severe set of crises since the first Great Depression
  8. Mainstream economists, for the most part, haven’t even attempted to make sense of the role inequality played in creating the Second Great Depression

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No matter how many stories I tell them about thought control in economics, students and colleagues in other disciplines simply don’t believe me.

They don’t understand the restrictions on the professors who are hired in many economics departments, the narrow range of methods and perspectives published in the leading economics journals, the limits on economics research projects that actually receive funding, and even the strict surveillance of what can be taught to students in basic undergraduate and graduate economics classes. It’s beyond their imagination that mainstream economists do all they can—within their departments and in the wider discipline—to make sure other approaches (often referred to as heterodox economics and, often, noneconomics) are displaced to (and, in many cases, beyond) the margins.

So, it comes as no surprise to me—but it probably does to everyone outside of economics—that a senior lecture rat the University of Glasgow, Alberto Paloni [ht: sm], an expert in post-Keynesian theory, has been stopped from teaching a core degree module on macroeconomics.

This, after an essay in the Royal Economic Society newsletter specifically cited Paloni’s course as introducing a necessary pluralism into the teaching of economics:

Examples of courses that successfully incorporate pluralist approaches to teaching economics already exist. For instance, the second year macroeconomics course at Glasgow University acknowledges the existence of alternative perspectives within economics and gives students the tools to contrast the standard macroeconomic theory with post-Keynesian economics. Students are made aware of how different perspectives employ different approaches and reach different conclusions, and asks them to evaluate critically how well theories explain empirical evidence. . .In contrast to Glasgow, most macroeconomics courses teach from a single textbook and teach students to solve problems within models as opposed to comparing different types of models and seeing which generate more credible conclusions.

All Paloni did was teach students some Post Keynesian macroeconomics. Post Keynesian theory, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, focuses on elements of the economic approach inspired by John Maynard Keynes (such as time, radical uncertainty, financial fragility, and so on) that are often domesticated by or simply removed from modern mainstream macroeconomics. Nothing too radical, then—just one among many alternatives to the theory that prevails in economics and, as we now know, the set of approaches and policies got us into the current mess.

Fortunately, the students in the Glasgow University Real World Economics Society decided not to take the decision lying down. So, they initiated a petition that received over 150 signatures and was then passed on to the heads of the Department of Economics and the Adam Smith Business School, respectively, as well as to the Principal of the University of Glasgow.

Here are some excerpts from their petition:

It is with great dismay that we are writing this.

It has recently been decided by the Economics Department at our university to remove Dr Alberto Paloni from teaching the course Economics 2B. . .

Economics 2B is compulsory for undergraduate economists at the University of Glasgow and attended by around 400 students each year. Paloni’s part of the course introduces students to heterodox economics with a focus on post-Keynesian economics. This is often the first, if not only, time that economics students engage with heterodox economics in their academic life. The course receives extraordinary student feedback.

The content of the course will, for now at least, remain unchanged. The teaching of it will be resumed by mainstream economists. Next year, more specifically, it will be taught by Prof Tatiana Kirsanova.

With mainstream economists for half a semester teaching perspectives that are highly critical of what they do, we sincerely fear that the content will be completely removed from the course sooner rather than later. Furthermore, until a potential removal, we fear that the heterodox content will be taught with the attitude that it is irrelevant and/or outright wrong.

The removal of Paloni’s teaching has been decided in the name of promoting research-led teaching. The department wants to (A) have Professors teaching Level 1 and 2 and (B) have the Macroeconomics Research Cluster involved in the course. Paloni belongs to the Finance Research Cluster.

We find these reasons dubious. Firstly, we do not think that it is the case that a professorship leads to a higher teaching quality. Secondly, we do not think that it is necessary to hold a professorship in order to teach the fairly basic content in Economics Level 1 and 2. Thirdly, we think that removing the only post-Keynesian economist in the department from teaching post-Keynesian economics is antithetical to the aim of promoting research-led teaching.

This is another story about thought control in economics I’ll tell in the future—and students and colleagues outside of economics again probably won’t believe me.

 

My long-time friend Stephen T. Ziliak is doing great things with students at Roosevelt University, including teaching an introduction to economics based on the Grapes of Wrath and Theories of Justice, whence the video above.

Here is an excerpt from the lyrics:

Readin’ Greg Mankiw,
Queue the conservative man’s view
Supply, demand, invisible hand too
Following these Ten Commandments he hands to you
Hey kids, you understand what Econ really can do?
These ain’t the pearly gates, Mr. Mankiw
Just preachin’ on profit and Max U
But where’s the vertical mobility?
Masses are enslaved in poverty
Millions for your fat pockets see
This poverty of nations ain’t so efficient
Mainstream economists are mentally deficient
Monotonous lectures despite student resistance
What works on the Blackboard but not with existence
Your crackpot theories plot all the wrong axes
If you are the state we-Uber-killin’ all your taxis

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While we’re on the topic, I want to note three additional problems in Aaron Steelman’s recent essay on contemporary economics.

First, Steelman presumes that the goal of heterodox economists is to break into mainstream economics. While that may be the hope and goal of some heterodox economists, my sense from talking and working with many heterodox economists over the years is that is the furthest thing from their minds. They don’t want to break into the mainstream; what they want is to develop alternative approaches—in their research, teaching, service—without always having to be looking over their shoulders and worrying about being disciplined and punished by the mainstream economists who run the high-profile departments, journals, and funding sources in and around the discipline.

Which leads to my second point: why is it Steelman simply assumes that “significant differences in methodological approaches and fields of study” need to lead to a split of an economics department, at Notre Dame or elsewhere? Such differences exist in a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to zoology, and splits neither occur or are called for. In other words, what is it about mainstream economics that it simply can’t allow for or coexist with nonmainstream approaches? That’s a question I’d like to see the Steelmans of the world consider.

Finally, Steelman notes that not all departments that have encouraged the existence of nonmainstream or heterodox approaches are on the Left. He mentions the free-market or Austrian approaches that predominate in the economics departments at Florida State, Clemson, and George Mason. What he doesn’t mention is that those departments and universities have received significant funding from the Koch brothers, as documented by Inside Higher Ed and the Washington Post.

Economists at those institutions may teach the magic of the free market but there’s nothing magical about how they have grown in prominence in recent years or how other heterodox economists, many of whom have broken from mainstream economics, have been pushed to or beyond the margins of the discipline.

As many heterodox economists well understand, but Steelman apparently does not, the marketplace of ideas in economics is embedded within and structured by power, interests, and ideology. Which is what many students of economics today want to see transformed, so that they are finally able to study theories and approaches other than those of mainstream economics.

 

After the crash of 2008, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, students around the world have been calling for radical changes in the way economics is taught. They know that the discipline of economics, today as in the past, includes more than neoclassical economics—but, for the most part, students are not being exposed to concepts and methods other than those of neoclassical economic theory.

There are, of course, a handful of departments where non-mainstream theories have been developed and taught, alongside and in addition to neoclassical (and, for that matter, traditional Keynesian) economics. In the United States, in terms of Ph.D.-granting institutions, they include the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where I received my degree), American University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Utah, and New School University.

As Aaron Steelman recognizes, that handful also once included the University of Notre Dame. But that is no longer the case, since the current Department of Economics advertises itself as as purely neoclassical department.

Unfortunately, Steelman gets the history wrong.

In 2003, administrators at the University of Notre Dame decided to split the Department of Economics into two: the Department of Economics and Policy Studies (DEPS) and the Department of Economics and Econometrics (DEE). Why the divide? In large part because there were significant differences in methodological approaches and fields of study within the department.

Those who considered themselves within the “mainstream” of the profession, generally using a neoclassical framework to examine issues such as economic growth and industrial organization, tended to move to the DEE. Those whose work was generally considered more “heterodox” or “pluralistic,” employing a variety of methodological approaches to address questions regarding race and gender, inequality, and the development of economic thought, among others, tended to form the nucleus of the DEPS. Less than a decade later, the DEPS was closed by university administrators and what was simply called the Department of Economics emerged again.

Faculty within the DEE tended to neatly fit into the new department, while many faculty members within the DEPS moved to various departments throughout the university.

First, the university administration decided to split the existing department of economics into two not because there were “significant differences in methodological approaches and fields of study within the department.” Those differences had existed for decades, which was precisely one of the strengths of the department. Graduate and undergraduate students, within and across courses, were regularly exposed to and encouraged to think critically about both mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) and heterodox (Post Keynesian, radical, Marxian, and institutionalist) approaches to economics. No, the decision was made in order to eliminate the heterodox component of the economics program: by splitting the department in 2003 (and giving all new hires and control over the Ph.D. program to a new department, Economics and Econometrics) and then dissolving the original renamed department (Economics and Policy Studies) in 2010.

Second, there were no particular differences, then or now, in terms of areas of study. Faculty members in the original (pre-2003) department of economics conducted research and taught courses on a wide range of subjects: microeconomics, macroeconomics, labor, development, public policy, industrial organization, and so on. Just as faculty members do now, in the new (post-2010) department of economics. The only difference was students who took courses in the original department were exposed to many different methods and approaches; students today only learn one approach.

Finally, faculty members were not assigned to the two departments in 2003 according to their different methodological approaches. There were plenty of neoclassical economists in Economics and Policy Studies. The sole criterion was how faculty members voted: the 16 members of the original Department of Economics who voted against splitting the department were assigned to Economics and Policy Studies, while the 5 members who voted in favor of splitting the department comprised the nucleus of Economics and Econometrics. In other words, the decision was political not methodological.

That’s how the long tradition of the eclectic, pluralist Notre Dame approach to economics was brought to an end—exactly when students around the world are calling for a new approach to economics education, one that includes a wide range of methods and theories. Students today correctly understand that the neoclassical economics they’re being taught as the only viable approach is both responsible for the crises that broke out in 2007-08 and has had little to offer once the crises broadened and deepened across the world. They want to see what else economics has to offer.

The problem, of course, is that many of their professors either don’t know about those alternative theories and approaches (because they themselves were never exposed to them in graduate school) or simply dismiss them (with the excuse that neoclassical economics is the only game in town if students want to be successful). That’s because most departments don’t offer anything other than neoclassical economics and, as Steelman correctly observes, students from programs that do offer heterodox economics are not hired “into departments at highly ranked research universities.”

All the more reason, then, for economics education to be transformed.

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen JNS.FoodGiveaway2

Our course, A Tale of Two Depressions, is now over (except, of course, for the final exam).

Here’s a link to the additional materials (songs, news stories, cultural responses, etc.) we made available to the students.

Here’s a link [pdf] to some of the charts we compiled to compare the first and second Great Depressions.

And, finally: maybe someday we’ll be able to offer this as a history course instead of current events.