Econ As Social ScienceLocation: BU C 212 (BU C 212)
My teaching philosophy is inseparable from my conviction that education, most specifically in the field of economics, is crucial in the lives of young people. Not because education in other fields is less important, but because I find that students signing on to lower-division, general education economics courses often come into class completely unaware that, in a modern, market-based democracy, the presumed “dry” subject of economics will have an enormous impact on their lives. With less and less long term secure employment, today’s students are often encouraged to focus on “practical” education geared toward employability. However, it is at least as important in today’s world to acquire skills for understanding and evaluating the problems and possibilities of a market economy, the policy frameworks that guide it, and how those policies might affect their own futures. So, while my initial tendency was to earnestly feed as much information as possible through lectures and power point presentations, I found that instilling the depth of interest required to help students understand the relevance of this subject in their own lives required involving them in the learning process. To better foster that interest, my teaching philosophy has come to embody the following central ideas:
1 Encouragement of critical thinking and evaluation
When I began teaching, I not only wanted to “feed” students as much information as possible, I was terrified of their questions. As growing confidence increased my ability to respond to student inquiries, I learned to use those inquiries as the basis for encouraging critical thinking. In teaching US Economic History, for example, it is important that students understand that many of the controversies that plagued the US economy in the past remain relevant today. In discussions of the Depression-era controversy over Keynesian-type unemployment policies vs. the non-interventionist “Say’s Law” solution, students are asked to evaluate the relevance of those ideas—both the problems and potential solutions—to our current state of employment/unemployment, and how different policy approaches might affect their own prospects for employment. Understanding the historical settings and the differing approaches to economic problems helps them to see the problem more clearly, and to understand that there are always alternative solutions.
2 Establishment of an active, student-centered learning environment
My US Economic History classes have generally been quite large—often with 60 to 70 students. When first faced with so many students in one setting, I refrained from the group activities I had used in smaller classes; it seemed impossible with such a large group. However, I found that returning to the mostly lecture, power point mode resulted in a comparatively stifled learning environment with little class contribution. To get them talking, I one morning requested that the students divide themselves into groups of about six in order to complete a joint assignment. I was met, momentarily, with blank stares. Reiterating the request, I began circling the classroom to divide them into groups. (The assignment was to recommend the best of alternative solutions to a particular problem.) It began slowly, but within only a few minutes the room was filled with about a dozen different conversations. Because the practice was always a little time-consuming in such a large class, we didn’t do this every session, but it was surprising how quickly it made a difference in the whole learning atmosphere; as students became more comfortable with each other, they became more willing to ask questions and contribute comments, fostering a give and take that had been missing.
As students today are very tuned into electronic media, I have found it helpful to draw them in with music or short videos that speak to the ideas or events being covered, either to provide a short, but relevant, break in an 80-minute class, or to provide additional background. To put emphasis on the importance of institutions, for example, I use a music video of Kris Kristofferson’s “Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame” to reiterate the notion of “rules of the game” that make a difference in economic outcomes.
3 Introduction of current and relevant content
As stated above, my central teaching goal is to lead students to an understanding of the relevance of economics and economic policy in their own lives. One method I have found especially useful for bringing in “real world” applications is to assign short-paper “Film Responses.” For example, in US Economic History, a “response” to the documentary film The Triangle Fire requires students to evaluate the economic policy backdrop that contributed to the tragedy as well as policy changes, if any, that resulted from it. (Other films were used in my classes on Economics as a Social Science and Gender and Development.) Because the assignment requires connecting specific policies with specific outcomes as shown in the film, it helps students to make the leap between the abstract idea of “economics” and their own observations about the world.
4 Establishment of clear and effective evaluative expectations
Evaluative methods necessarily differ by class material and class size. In classes with sometimes 70 students, I use frequent on-line quizzes and (mainly) multiple choice exams, but also assign short papers (such as the “Film Responses” mentioned above) in order to ascertain whether or not students are grasping the central relevance of “economics” to everyday life, and to evaluate their ability to discuss economic policy. At the other end of the spectrum, in teaching a small “Gender and Development” course for economics majors and Masters students, course evaluation was based on active participation and a variety of student presentations. The important thing is that students are clear about class expectations and methods of evaluation.
5 Emphasis on an inclusive, diverse environment
I strive to make all students feel welcome and to encourage them to participate in the learning opportunities provided in class. While students with unusual backgrounds are sometimes difficult to identity, I believe that every effort should be made to determine which students might need extra help or encouragement due to language barriers, extensive work or family responsibilities, or other difficulties.
Every class includes students who are anxious to participate and, often, students who not only contribute but tend to dominate the conversation, so it is important to find ways to engage those who are more reluctant. This can often be accomplished by addressing them directly with an open-ended question that doesn’t put them on the spot for a “right or wrong” response. Emphasizing in the beginning that “no question is a dumb question,” and “no response is a dumb response” fosters an inclusive setting. The more questions asked, the better.
I have also found that disallowing electronics in class fosters inclusivity. Based on studies showing that the presence of communication devices results in a deteriorated learning environment, I began this policy simply to avoid the distraction to myself and students sitting in the vicinity of in-use screens. The policy did work to eliminate these distractions. More significantly, however, banning all screens appeared to create a sort of leveling among the students, fostering a more congenial atmosphere and easier student interactions when it came to group activities.
 See, for example, Dynarski, Susan. 2017. “For note taking, low-tech is often best,” published August 21 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Available at: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/08/note-taking-low-tech-often-best
economics as a social science
A look at the interconnectedness between the well-being of society and economic theory and economic policy. We will begin with a very brief introduction of how we came to be where and who we are today—agents acting within an essentially globalized capitalist system—and then focus on depth and breadth of the interconnections between the social and economic features and outcomes of that world-wide system. Class discussion and current media source material are integral class attributes. It is intended that our brief overview of the current social and economic outcomes engendered by today’s governing capitalist institutions will provide students with a solid background for critically thinking about our economic system and its future.