Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The textbook commentary project

For a couple of years now the World Economics Association has had a Textbook Commentary Project led by Stuart Birks of Massey University in New Zealand. Directed at students, it offers brief chapter by chapter commentaries on the seventh edition of Mankiw's Principles of Economics. While this is an American edition, the commentaries will be useful for users of that text that have been adapted for other markets (such as the Canadian one) as well as for students using other standard introductory texts.

I hope to begin contributing to this in the near future with commentaries based on themes raised in our Anti-Textbook.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dealing with dissent in the classroom

Recently, an undergraduate student wrote to me with some advice about what to put in the new edition of The Economics Anti-Textbook. He wrote:

"One piece of advice I can offer for the next edition, though, is that you be explicit in noting that if the student asks all, or even some large nonzero amount, of the suggested questions in your book during class, the prof is likely to get quite cross at them. :-)
"Seriously. There was this young kid in intro micro, he obviously read Graeber's "Debt" if not your book, and he brought up the myth of barter. Wow, the contingent sessional lecturer shot him down rather fast. I don't think he felt encouraged to continue in the field."

He has a point. I have to admit that we put the "Questions for Your Professor" in the book without thinking about the consequences for students who might dare to ask such impertinent questions.

Here is another account, this one from a graduate student at a North American university, which describes what happened when she showed her tutorial students how to think critically about the material they were learning in introductory microeconomics.

As a new teaching assistant during the first semester of my Master’s degree, I was excited to learn that I would be running tutorials for an Introduction to Microeconomics course. These tutorials were meant to provide a space to review lecture material, complete practice questions, and, of course, allow students to ask questions. While I wanted to ensure that I covered all of the material necessary for my students to do well in the course, I also thought the tutorials were an excellent opportunity to employ a critical lens and examine some of the course material. I encouraged my students to question some of the basic assumptions underlying simplistic supply and demand models, and to consider why we use assumptions at all and how they are limiting. We had wonderfully insightful discussions about political power – and why it wasn’t discussed in the course or the textbook. We considered how things like friendship, community, and kindness fit into the (admittedly basic) theories they were learning. These discussions were always fruitful and exciting, and oftentimes students lingered beyond the tutorial time to continue these investigations.

The semester finished, and my students generally did well. In fact, my students did slightly better on average than the students in the other tutorial groups from the same class (there were 11 tutorial groups for this class in total, taught by 5 teaching assistants). I had enjoyed my experience, and was hoping to be assigned to the same class for the second part of the course, Introduction to Macroeconomics, so as to continue working with my students. However, at the end of December, I received an email from the administrator who was in charge of the TA assignments: I was being moved to another department entirely! It was felt that my ‘radical teaching methods’ were not a good fit for the economics department and would be ‘better suited’ to another discipline.

While I was never told how it was discovered or determined that my methods were too radical, I had been told by some of my students that when they tried to raise questions in class, they were often shot down if the questions were ‘beyond the scope of economics.’ I recall one instance where I was actually sitting in on a lecture, and a student of mine asked about the ‘antagonistic’ relationship between equity and efficiency. In particular, he wanted to know why, in the textbook and class, equity and efficiency were always seen in a negative relation, where more equity meant less efficiency. Wasn’t it possible that improving equity may also improve efficiency? Unfortunately, no answer was provided, and no discussion was encouraged. The professor quickly said this was not something to be debated in the course and moved on. I can only assume, then, that my unorthodox teaching became apparent through my students’ willingness to think critically about the material.

That January, I began my work as a TA in a discipline that I had no background in whatsoever. On the one hand, I was partly shocked – because while I did encourage the students to think critically, I really did not consider my teaching to be ‘radical’ – while on the other, it really wasn’t surprising to me at all: far too often, and especially at the undergraduate level, economics is taught without consideration for what is omitted and unsupported. Space to move beyond this, unfortunately, remains difficult to carve out, and it seems that it was preferable to have me assist in teaching a discipline I knew little about than to have me encourage undergraduate economics students to engage critically and thoughtfully with their course material.

Perhaps these attempts to stifle dissent in an ideological subject like economics should not be surprising. Still, it remains disappointing.

This post is not meant to discourage students, whether undergraduate or graduate, from challenging the content of their courses. One of the primary objectives of The Economics Anti-Textbook is to provide students with enough information and evidence to give them the confidence that such challenges are legitimate. Push back by students will be an important component in eventually changing the nature of economics instruction and the contents of the textbooks.

PS. The equity-efficiency trade-off is discussed in The Economics Anti-Textbook in chapter 9, pages 202-203 (the textbook view) and pages 208-213 (the anti-textbook critique).

Monday, December 29, 2014

A new edition of The Economics Anti-Textbook?

I  have added an update  on December 31, 2015 at the end of  to this earlier post.

The earlier post read...

One of the things I look forward to in 2015 is revising The Economics Anti-Textbook. We have submitted a proposal for the revision to Zed Books. If all goes well, a new edition should be ready about a year from now.

In the meantime, Tony Myatt and Brian MacLean are working on the first draft of The Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook. We're hoping that both books can be launched at the same time. Stay tuned.


 Update:  due to a serious spinal cord injury earlier this year, I will be unable to begin work on the new edition  until the summer of 2016. I hope that the revised edition can appear  in early 2017.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker's Guide

Yes, it's official! Brian MacLean (of Laurentian University) and Tony Myatt (University of New Brunswick) have signed a contract with Zed Books for The Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker's Guide. The manuscript for the book should be finished next summer. It seems very likely that Tony and I will also be revising and updating The Economics Anti-Textbook, which will appear in a new edition.

When he heard the news, Robert Lucas scratched his head and muttered:
"The Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook?! What would that be about?!"


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A new review of The Economics Anti-Textbook

A nice review of The Economics Anti-Textbook by economist Mary Manning Cleveland in The Huffington Post, and reprinted widely on the web, it seems. Her blog is well worth a look.

I confess that I'm disappointed, but not too surprised, that no economics journal has reviewed the Anti-Textbook. Self-reflection is not our strong suit, it seems.

I find it a bit strange that most academic economists spend so much time on the teaching side of things, but so little time reflecting on it and discussing what we are doing with each other. Yes, quite a lot of time is spent collectively reviewing and 'fact-checking' the content of the textbooks, but (from my experience) almost all of that is done within the parameters that define what the conventional mainstream book will consist of. As well, the discussion that takes place is largely between the editors of large textbook companies and individual academics, not between academics themselves. It's not unusual or surprising to see large general conferences of academic economists without a single session devoted to what we are doing in the classroom or to the content of the texts the companies are producing.