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).