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).


  1. Yo. I'm a high school CS student dabbling in economics, and I love your book. I'm starting this fall at Cornell University, and in large part thanks to the Anti-Textbook, I'm excited to take upper-level econ courses at my college (namely, Development Economics), but at the same time, I'm terrified about what my intro professors will do to me if I question them the way that this TA taught those students to do. I hope that a professor who's involved in economics research will be more sympathetic to my nagging. ;)

    By the way, what's going on with the Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook? I'd love to read it when it comes out.

    1. I'm the guy who wrote Rod & Tony the email above about the student questioning the myth of barter.

      I took my university's development class this winter, and all we learned was permutations of the Solow equation (seems that's all you'll get if you use the David Weil textbook). We actually had an assignment question that really, truly, I kid you not, seemed to suggest that maximum agricultural productivity is reached when you enslave the workers. And in this third year development class I could only really raise my hand once or twice per class - which I guess is all I should expect, since I'm only one student among many, right?

      But I looked through Michael Todaro's really good development textbook on my own time. And I also also read a bit of Douglass North on my own time. And popular books by Stiglitz, Acemoglu and Rodrik on development. So I feel my A+ in that class was earned. My transcript's A+ really only means I learned the Solow equation, but I know I learned more.

      So really, I guess I'm suggesting that you create your own parallel curriculum. That can keep you sane all thru university.

      The nice thing is that it seems fairly easy in this discipline to find the real leading lights in economic thought. They all tend to write books and blogs, or get mentioned in them at least.

      Hey, Rod & Tony: that'd be useful, wouldn't it, if you designed a broad-strokes open-ended "parallel curriculum" for each typical undergrad economics class? Plus it's sort of Gandhian, saying "we'll just ignore their economics and study our own, and eventually their economics will go away".

    2. It's a very good idea to do as you did and browse around and dip into other books on the same subject that might have a different perspective. A good lecturer should be able to come up with suggestions as well, if he or she knows the subject well.
      There are already some parallel reading lists or suggestions for reading out there on the web, depending on the type of economics you are interested in – for example, heterodox, radical, post-Keynesian, feminist, behavioural and so on. Here are a few examples:

      I do like your idea of a "parallel curriculum" for each of the standard undergraduate courses. Tony and I should give it some thought.


  2. I'm very glad to hear that the Anti-Textbook encouraged you to study economics! Don't be too scared about how professors might react. In part, it might depend on how the questions are raised. An aggressive question in a large lecture theatre could meet quite a hostile reception, especially if the professor doesn't know the answer! I can say from my own experience that it is very rare for a tough question to be asked in the classroom.

    However, a question raised privately during the professor's office hours, especially when you indicate that the question comes from background reading that you have done, is a different matter entirely. The professor is likely to be very impressed that you've been doing some extra reading. If he or she learns something from your question all the better.

    I hope you will have a great experience at Cornell, a place with a very good reputation!

    As for the Macroeconomics Anti-Textbook, after long delays the authors are getting to work on it. I hope it will be ready next year.

    R H