Social Sciences / Education

Essay calls for a reform of the teaching of introductory economics

The teaching of introductory economics at the college level remains substantively unchanged from the college classroom of the 1950s, more than 60 years ago. The teaching of other introductory courses, from psychology to biology, has changed dramatically -- with new knowledge and, more importantly, new pedagogical techniques. Today's students are also very different, not accustomed to sitting through 50-minute lectures, taking detailed notes of material and techniques, the value of which has yet to be demonstrated to them.

Thus, it is little wonder that more students do not elect introductory economics or, following the course, do not take more economics. Grades tend to be lower in introductory economics, discouraging many students from taking additional courses. The concern is paramount. In today’s complicated world, the design of sound policy requires an understanding of economic principles. Yet, so many who are deciding on policy, particularly voters, as it is they who elect policymakers in democracies, are frequently ignorant of economic principles. Now many students do major in economics, but frequently for what is perceived to be enhanced employment practices in the business world. Love of the study of economics does not seem to be manifested by many students. If a school has an undergraduate business major, the number of economics majors fall precipitously. Fewer and fewer graduates of liberal arts colleges go on into economics Ph.D. programs that are increasingly populated by very able international students.

Also, our traditionally underrepresented groups are truly underrepresented as students of economics. Women, though more than a majority of today’s college students, still shy from economics, as shown by a recent study done by Professor Claudia Goldin of Harvard University. African Americans and Latinos also are not well-represented in college economics classrooms. Why? Different hypotheses, each of which probably has some significance, include a particular alienation from the teaching methods, lack of role models in the classroom, difficult material and low grades combined with the additional challenge of being a minority student or a first-generation student. Also, normative issues such as poverty and discrimination are frequently marginalized, reducing the relevance of the course to many students.

Recently I chaired a meeting that had faculty members from over 60 undergraduate economics programs to discuss both Advanced Placement economics and the future of the college introductory course. There was consensus that the course seemed to be structured and taught, consistent with the first edition of Paul Samuelson’s famous and dominating textbook, Economics: An Introductory Analysis in 1948 (to continue toward 20 editions!). Texts and the course seem to mirror the major theoretical components of basic microeconomics and macroeconomics. Much has been added (e.g., game theory and rational expectations) with little subtracted (maybe labor unions and Keynesian fixed price case). The result is a rather encyclopedic textbook with 30 or more chapters.

Faculty race through as much of this material as is possible. With such breadth of material, depth is frequently sacrificed. Students are more frequently memorizing and not as frequently learning. Grades tend to be among the lowest in introductory college courses and student satisfaction highly variable. Most distressingly, students are not necessarily learning to think like economists and understand the power of economics as an explanatory tool for human behavior.

Thus, there is momentum to address the deficiencies of this extraordinarily important introductory course. More faculty are aware of these problems and recognize some lack of student enthusiasm. The College Board has initiated the discussion that I mentioned with groups conveyed to look at both introductory microeconomics and introductory macroeconomics. Under the guidance of respected economist John Siegfried (of Vanderbilt University) and a blue-ribbon committee of university economists, the National Council for Economic Education has developed 20 standards for economic understanding and literacy, applicable to differing levels of education. Textbook companies are now offering customized books so that a faculty member need not present 30-plus chapters to a student, but rather can customize 10 or 20 that will form the basis of a streamlined course, one in which students can truly learn economic concepts.

With such positive momentum, will the worthy objective of a newly inspired and improved economics courses become a reality any time soon? Obstacles still exist. Tradition and lethargy can be powerful brakes on new methods and ideas. Also, a course with less breadth means the elimination of some topics. Which will they be? For some economics faculty, labor markets can be eliminated; for others, labor markets form the heart of both microeconomics, and certainly macroeconomics. Yet the payoff is potentially so high.

From my perspective, students who take introductory economics should complete the course with some understanding of 1) why income inequality exists and how to address it, 2) the means by which negative externalities like pollution should be addressed, 3) international economic exchanges can be mutually beneficial, 4) what were causes of our most recent Great Recession, 5) how to address long-term unemployment, and 6) the causes of global inequality. Such a course would be of greater interest to our students in 2014.

In a world full of excruciatingly complex and dangerous problems (from income inequality to environmental degradation), economics, as a discipline, must be a central player as orderly resolution is sought. As mentioned, students might actually study in an economics course the causes and consequence of the Great Economic Recession of 2008. Today, such a topic is often too esoteric and not part of the mainstream cannon of economics. A generation of students, from varying backgrounds and experiences, should be taught to appreciate and even admire the power and the logic of economic analysis. Parents, students, and voters, you all must help to ensure that this opportunity for important educational analysis is not lost.

Clark G. Ross is Johnston Professor of Economics and dean of faculty emeritus at Davidson College.

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Technology as a classroom distraction for students (essay)

Telltale fast clicks of laptop arrow keys gave away my distracted student from 30 feet off.

So engrossed was he in a 1980s role-playing game that he barely noticed when I leaned in to whisper how entirely inappropriate his behavior was during my digital humanities class at Dartmouth College. As a noted visiting technology and culture speaker held forth on participatory culture and Wikipedia — in which my students had expressed an avid interest — I was shocked as he and many others openly engaged with their Facebook pages.

Why would he play a game in a class he insisted he enjoyed? He had been playing the game before he went to bed, so when he opened his computer in class, "the game was just there, so I started playing," he explained to me during office hours. He didn't intend to check out from a class he likes. 

But he did.

This incident is particularly ironic as we had discussed in the previous class the myth of multitasking and dialogued about the Stanford University professor Clifford Nass. Now, some class members can handle themselves with their technology; about a third cannot. Multitasking makes us poor learners, studies show. It not only hurts the perpetrator by splitting their focus and attention, but it hurts those sitting around the multitasker and lowers everyone’s overall performance on each task. While millennials may think they have better multitasking chops than older generations, data show this assumption to be false. Unfortunately, science tells us the human brain is not meant to multitask and succeed — even if people truly believe they are good at it. 

As a digital humanities professor, I spend many waking hours communicating and creating on a computer. I deeply understand the exciting possibilities offered by digital tools because I spend a great deal of time designing them: in fact, I’ve designed a class that minimizes lecture time to create engaging activities involving mapping, making diagrams and hosting debates on virtual experiences. I also know there's a time and place to engage with actual people. There is a rising concern among faculty members across the country on the need to investigate classroom culture regarding technology so students might actually benefit. 

Clearly, the lure of the laptop is too compelling to resist. 

Some people might say we should use technology for activities that “flip” the traditional lecture class. In line with this thinking, I have run hands-on activities one to two times a week with great success. During those activities, students are focused and use technology to further learning.

But most days, there will come a time where faculty or guest speakers actually speak, or dialogue happens or provocative points are raised. It is then that students with technology-control issues immediately check out and check into Facebook or online games or shoe shopping. Unless they are directly involved in a hands-on activity for which they will be accountable in public by the end of class, it is much easier to give in to the presence of technology and lose the experience of direct engagement. 

Is this chronic narcissism? Or is this phenomenon a desire to escape the confines and taxing nature of concentration? Does this "checking out to check in" represent an insatiable need for immediate news in the "fear of missing out"? In 2013, an international team of researchers designed a way to measure fear of missing out and found people under age 30 were more affected, as were those who reported low levels of connectedness, competence and self-autonomy. This research supports earlier findings that the lonely and bored were more apt to rely on social media and feel left out if they miss out. 

Yet students also miss out if they cannot listen and engage with the world in front of them. The presence of technology in a class may not work unless the active learning is active all of the time or, I would suggest, our culture changes such that the live, in-person exchange is more valuable than whatever the student is doing with his or her own technologies.

In higher education, themes of dialogue, listening and presence are a core part of the college experience. We know from research that employing "embodied cognition" -- that is, learning from all of the senses-- is a more holistic and effective way to learn. There is so much to the human experience that is reflected in a face to face meeting, where body language, expression, tone of voice, and others around create a whole-body experience. If higher education continues its mission to support experiential learning, this may mean we must reestablish  forms of learning centered back in bodily experience, and lean a little less on technology to transform ourselves.

We need a culture change to manage our use of technology, to connect when we want to and not because we psychologically depend on it. Enough is enough. We need strategies for unplugging when appropriate to create a culture of listening and of dialogue. Otherwise, $20,000 to $60,000 a year is a hefty entrance fee to an arcade.

Mary Flanagan is a distinguished professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College and a fellow of The OpEd Project.

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Essay on what it's like to be a spousal hire in a faculty job

The author never thought much about her career being connected to her partner's until it was -- and she writes about the numerous challenges of the situation.

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Professor says Charleston Southern fired him over beer can image

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Popular professor says he was fired by Charleston Southern U. over appearance of his image -- famous for his mustache and beard -- on a beer can used to raise money for women with ovarian cancer.

Essay on when grad students should challenge graduate advisers

Sometimes, graduate students looking for their first jobs need to ignore what their faculty advisers think is best, writes Eric Anthony Grollman.

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Coping when your mentors move on (essay)

Ulf Kirchdorfer offers a paean to the retired professors who mentored him -- and wonders if other people miss their senior colleagues as much as he does.

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Essay on the way faculty members view research and teaching

When I began my career as a faculty member many decades ago, I had the good fortune to find myself in an especially distinguished department at an especially eminent research university. It was the custom of this department to gather for a faculty luncheon once a week and then to proceed to a departmental seminar in which we heard either from a visiting colleague or one of our own members. In the discussion period following the talk, questions generally had more to do with the ongoing research of the interlocutor than with the research of the speaker. Since all members of the department tended to be engaged in consequential research, the overall quality of the discussion was high -- although proceedings tended to take on a somewhat predictable, ritualized character

To be sure, department members were sincerely interested not only in their own research, but also in the research of their colleagues, and would often engage in conversation on these matters. This was known as discussing one’s “work.” Teaching was not considered a part of such “work,” even though many members of the department were dedicated, effective teachers. Teaching was basically a private matter between a faculty member and his or her students. I had the distinct sense that it would not be to my professional advantage to engage in discussion about my teaching; indeed, I sensed that it might be the conversational equivalent of a burp.


Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner did some interesting work about the culture of faculty members and academic administrators at a liberal arts college. He was following up on Robert Merton’s general idea about the social significance of “latent,” as opposed to “manifest” roles – that is, how roles not recognized explicitly, and not carrying official titles, might be of central importance in social life.  In the academic context, manifest roles would include those of “dean,” “faculty member,” “student,” etc. The latent roles that Gouldner found especially important were those of “cosmopolitan” and “local”: roles that were not consciously recognized by overt labels, but which were consequential to the actual culture and social organization of the institution.

Cosmopolitans were those whose primary focus was their profession, as opposed to the institution where they were employed. Thus, a faculty member in this category would, for example, take a job at a more prestigious university that was stronger in his or her own field, even if it meant a lower salary. (Gouldner’s research was carried out at a time when it was apparently conceivable for a liberal arts college to offer a larger salary than a research university). Locals, on the other hand, were loyal first and foremost to the institution; they were usually not productive as scholars. At the time of Gouldner’s study, administrators generally fell into the category of locals.

Much has changed since that time. There has been, with a general move toward cosmopolitanism on the part of administrators, who have developed professional associations of their own and are more likely to go from one institution to another. As for faculty, their world has seen a widening gap between elite cosmopolitans and indentured locals -- adjuncts tied to low-paying jobs only relatively close to home, not the kind of locals who have been given any reason to develop institutional loyalty.

A question, then, for faculty members today is how best to balance concern for their profession with concern for their institution. A likely way is to care seriously and deeply for one’s students – since they are, after all, a major part of one’s vocation, in addition to paying most of the bills. And this means taking a more intentional, sophisticated approach to teaching.

To be sure, different institutions have different missions. Research universities, in particular, are crucial to the advancement of knowledge and must thus concern themselves with leading-edge science and scholarship. Even here, however, not all graduate students are themselves headed for major research universities -- far from it. Thus, graduate faculties in research universities are coming to feel responsible for preparing students for the future careers they will actually have.  In part, this will mean exploring possibilities beyond the academy. It will also mean creating effective programs for preparing graduate students as teachers for a wide range of students.

The development of such programs has been a focus for the Teagle Foundation in recent years. This has involved supporting universities in their efforts to expose graduate students to what cognitive psychology has taught us about learning; to the pedagogical approaches and styles that have proven most effective; and to which forms of assessment are most relevant to the improvement of teaching. More generally, it means leading faculty to feel that they are not only a community of scholars, but also a community of teachers.

It has been suggested that the preparation of graduate students for teaching would be well-served if there were different faculty “tracks,” with some department members being primarily responsible for preparing researchers while others are primarily responsible for preparing teachers. While it is certainly true that not all members of a department have to make the same kind of contribution to the overall success of the program, formalizing such a separation between research and teaching would simply reinforce the caste system already in place -- not to mention the fact that many distinguished researchers are also exceptional teachers and that student engagement in research is an important teaching strategy.  So, while there might be some value in having a pedagogical specialist (or more) on the roster, it is not desirable to have a tracking system that segregates teaching from research.

Here, then, is the general goal: just as faculty members would never think of being unaware of what peers are doing in the same field of research, so they should feel a comparable impulse to be aware of what their colleagues are doing in their areas of teaching. And thus, the world of higher education can become even more a true community.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.

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SUNY Buffalo

Essay on what hiring of Paul Krugman says about the values of public higher education

Earlier this year the City University of New York Graduate Center’s interim president, Chase Robinson, pulled off what amounts to an academic coup by snatching world-renowned economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman from the ivy clutches of Princeton University, where he had been employed for the last 14 years. Krugman’s appointment as Distinguished Professor of Economics was a huge boon for the Luxembourg Inequality Study, which is housed at the Graduate Center, as well as the general reputation of the university at large. Though most members of the CUNY community were thrilled to hear of his employment, the recent release of Krugman’s appointment letter has caused controversy both within and outside CUNY, and raises some serious questions about academic competition and the role of the public university.

Thanks to the intrepid reporters at Gawker — which, shamefully, seems to be one of the only new media outlets that still knows how to successfully write a FOIA request — we now have the full timeline and details of Krugman’s negotiation and acceptance letter. The most controversial bit of information by far is the amount Krugman was offered. CUNY’s initial and final overture was a whopping $225,000 per year, to which Krugman responded with incredulity, declaring that the terms of the offer were “remarkably generous.” Krugman even said he had to read the letter “several times to be clear.” Indeed, the amount offered to Krugman was quite generous as it exceeds that of any other distinguished professor at the Graduate Center by at least $5,000, and in many cases upwards of $75,000.

Whether or not Krugman’s scholarship and teaching ability warrant such a superior salary is certainly worthy of debate, but the real issue for most commentators is not how much CUNY will pay Krugman, but how little they are asking him to do. CUNY is essentially offering him what used to be called a sinecure. Like ecclesiastical appointments “without the care of souls,” the terms of Krugman’s contract require him to do almost nothing his first year and then teach just one graduate seminar each year for as long as he would like to stay at CUNY. This required teaching in the second year is less than half of the usual course load for most distinguished professors at the Graduate Center, some of whom teach three classes per year and advise several dissertations at a time. Whether Krugman will advise or sit on any dissertation committees remains to be seen.

It is clear from his acceptance email however, that he is interested in doing as little work as possible: “My biggest concern is time, not money — and your description of the time commitment, one seminar per year plus public events and commitments to LIS [Luxembourg Inequality Study] (which I would want to do in any case) sounds as if it’s within the parameters I had in mind.”

So, in essence, for the first two years CUNY is paying Krugman $450,000 (plus $10,000 in travel and research costs each year, and a one-time relocations cost of $10,000) to teach one seminar and to participate in public events.

On the surface this seems like an outrageous expenditure, but there is an obvious market logic at work here. It is clear that CUNY and the Graduate Center are banking on the brand recognition that a figure like Krugman bestows upon a university. As a Facebook friend of mine succinctly put it, Krugman is essentially “stuntcasting for cash,” and one has to wonder how long before his name is plastered on subway ads promoting CUNY’s “best and brightest.”

Of course, such anger is only partially well-placed, since appointments like this are not unusual and there is a strong case to be made for the intellectual and social value of such positions. After all, the public should support scholars and research. Krugman’s presence will no doubt be of great benefit to the Luxembourg Inequality Study, and his talks are a valuable tool for educating the general public on questions of economic inequality, precarity, and privatization. But Krugman is not a young unaffiliated researcher and his work requires no special laboratories or equipment to perform. In other words, Krugman does not need a university affiliation to do the work he is already doing. In fact, Krugman, who has a current net worth of $2.5 million, whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands, and who is paid quite well by The New York Times, has no need for money to fund his continued research and public advocacy.

And herein lies the contradiction through which the problem is revealed. A longtime champion of public institutions as drivers of economic equality, Krugman is now essentially colluding with administrators to take on private academic institutions in what has become a vicious cycle of competition for academic prestige and the elusive donor dollars that may or may not come with it. The more that public institutions like CUNY try to keep up with the likes of Princeton and Harvard, the more they become victims of their own ambitions, forced as they are to keep throwing money away on projects that are designed almost exclusively to draw in more donors and tuition-paying students and that provide little in the way of value to university stakeholders.

Such wasteful and ill-conceived competition is a clear abandonment of CUNY’s founding mission to educate the children of the poor and working classes of New York City and represents a serious misapplication of priorities. At a time when tuition costs are skyrocketing and public higher education relies increasingly on underpaid adjuncts — teaching full course loads for near minimum wages without health insurance or job security — spending such huge amounts for celebrity appointments is not only fiscally unsound, but morally untenable.

Krugman is a remarkable intellect and an important voice for economic equality — and most of us at CUNY are glad to have him on board — but to take from a public institution on its knees when you already have so much is ungenerous and unkind. As he wrote about his appointment to CUNY in his New York Times blog, “[I] like the idea of being associated with a great public university.” If this is true, I’d urge Krugman to quantify that esteem for CUNY by donating a significant portion of his earnings, say $100,000 a year, to a scholarship fund for students or the Professional Staff Congress welfare fund, which provides much-needed health care benefits and emergency assistance for CUNY adjuncts.


James Hoff teaches writing and literature in New York City. He received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2012.

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Paul Krugman

review of Romain D. Huret, 'American Tax Resisters'

I do not know if he was an ancestor of the talk-show host, but one Jean-Baptiste Colbert served as minister of finance for Louis XIV. A page on the tourism-boosting website for Versailles notes that his name lived on "in the concept of colbertism, an economic theory involving strict state control and protectionism."

An apt phrase can echo down through the ages, and the 17th-century Colbert turned at least a couple of them. The idea that each nation has a "balance of trade" was his, for one. And in a piece of wit that surely went over well at court, Colbert explained that "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing."

Procrastination makes tax resisters of us all, at one time or another. But mostly we submit, just to get it over with, and we keep the hissing to a prudent minimum. Not so the politicians, ideologues, and organizations chronicled by Romain D. Huret in American Tax Resisters (Harvard University Press). Relatively few of them carried rebellion so far as to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy in defense of their principles by outright refusing to pay up. But they were unrelentingly vocal about their fear that the state was hell-bent on reducing them to peonage.

American Tax Resisters proves a little more narrowly focused than its title would suggest; its central concern is with opposition to the income tax, though Huret's interest also extends to protest against any form of progressive taxation. The author is an associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France, and writes that he’s now spent two decades pondering "why Americans had such a complex relationship with their federal government."

In selecting one aspect of that complex relationship to study, he makes some surprising though defensible choices. He says very little about the Boston Tea Party or Shay's rebellion, for example. Instead, he takes the Civil War as the moment when anti-tax sentiments began to be expressed in terms that have persisted, with relatively little variation, ever since. The book is weighted more heavily toward narrative than analysis, but the role of major U.S. military commitments in generating and consolidating the country’s tax system does seem to be a recurrent theme.

Before taking office, Lincoln held that government funds ought to be raised solely through tariffs collected, he said, "in large parcels at a few commercial points.” Doing so would require "comparatively few officers in their collection.” In the early months of the war, his administration tried to supplement revenue through an income tax that largely went uncollected. With most of the country’s wealth concentrated in the Northeast, most of the burden would have fallen on a few states.

Instead, revenue came in through the sale of war bonds as well as the increased taxation of goods of all kinds, which meant driving up the prices of household commodities. By 1863, a Congressman from the North was warning of "the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes and arbitrary power.” The link between anti-tax sentiment and racial politics only strengthened after the Confederacy’s defeat.

The need to pay off war debts, including interest on bonds, kept many of the new taxes imposed by the Lincoln administration in place into the 1880s. Businessmen who prospered during the conflict, as well as tycoons making new fortunes, resented any taxation of their incomes -- let alone the progressive sort, in which the rate increased as the amount of income did. Anti-tax writers insisted that progressive taxation was a policy of European origin, and “communistic,” and even a threat to the nation’s manhood, since it might (through some unspecified means) encourage women to assert themselves in public.

Another current of anti-tax sentiment reflected the anxiety of whites in Dixie, faced with the menace of African-American equality, backed up by the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other Reconstruction-era government agencies. Huret reprints an anti-tax poster from 1866 in which hard-working white men produce the riches taxed to keep a caricatural ex-slave in happy idleness.

The rhetoric and imagery of anti-tax protests from the late 19th century have shown themselves to be exceptionally durable (only the typography makes that poster seem old-fashioned) and they recur throughout Huret’s account of American tax resistance in the 20th century and beyond. With each new chapter, there is at least one moment when it feels as if the names of the anti-tax leaders and organizations have changed, but not much else. Certainly not the complaints.

Yet that’s not quite true. Something else does emerge in American Tax Resisters, particularly in the chapters covering more recent decades: people's increasingly frustrated and angry sense of the government encroaching on their lives.

By no means does the right wing have a monopoly on the sentiment. But every activist or group Huret writes about is politically conservative, as was also the case in Isaac William Martin's book Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent, published last year by Oxford University Press and discussed in this column.

Neither author mentions Edmund Wilson’s book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1962), which criticizes “the Infernal Revenue Service,” as some resisters call it, in terms more intelligent and less hysterical than, say, this piece of anti-government rhetoric from 1968 that Hulet quotes: “The federal bureaucracy has among its principle objectives the destruction of the family, the elimination of the middle class, and the creation of a vast mass of people who can be completely controlled.”

Wilson wrote his book after a prolonged conflict with the IRS, which had eventually noticed the author’s failure to file any returns between 1946 and 1955. Wilson explained that as a literary critic he didn’t make much money and figured he was under the threshold of taxable income. Plus which, his lawyer had died. The agents handling his case were unsympathetic, and Wilson’s encounter with the bureaucracy turned into a Kafkaesque farce that eventually drove him from excuses to rationalization: his growing hostility led Wilson to decide that failure to pay taxes was almost an ethical obligation, given that the military-industrial complex was out of control. He vowed never again to earn enough to owe another cent in income tax, though he and the IRS continued to fight it out until his death 10 years later.

I don’t offer this as an example of tax resistance at its most lucid and well-argued. On the contrary, there’s a reason it’s one of Wilson’s few books that fell out of print and stayed there.

But it is a lesson in how the confluence of personal financial strains and the cold indifference of a bureaucratic juggernaut can animate fiery statements about political principle. It’s something to consider, along with the implications of Socrates's definition of man as a featherless biped.

Essay on being an unemployed young scholar in social sciences

Todd K. Platts finished his Ph.D., started publishing and earned good teaching reviews. Why is a job impossible to find?

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