Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Here I Come to Lecture in SA

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, February 19, 2010 | Category: , , , | I wish I could substitute "Lecture" with "Save the day", I'm not mighty mouse. I will be lecturing Intermediate Microeconomics at the University of Cape Town during April and May. We are using Perloff's Microeconomics: Theory and Applications with Calculus which is a demon of a book technically (mathematically rigorous) and will be a challenge to teach with, but still good because of its comprehensiveness and the mathematical preparation the students will have received at the end. I am lecturing on Monopoly, The Discriminating Monopolist and Oligopoly. I hope to throw in some other theory of the firm and behavioral economics. The challenge, I think, when teaching a course like this is to find additional orthodox and heterodox readings to make the course more interesting intuitively and historically for the students. So far I've been thinking of articles on the following list:
Now the list is far too long, far too various, and far too historical (and thus not contemporary). Some of the articles are too radical and just show my wish to present the other side. But I do want to show the students several things:
Economics is Contested: that is, economics admits orthodx and heterodox views on things, but that one set of views often gets taught because of the success of particular schools (Chicago, MIT, Harvard). The problem, however, is that the recent crisis, and economic history and philosophy of economics generally, have shown that this one view is problematic and should probably be taught within a pluralistic framework. Now here I want to show the coherent debate between people about the methods, empirics, history and philosophy of economics as it pertains to what they're studying: monopoly, oligopoly, property rights, the 'rational' firm, the 'profit-maximising firm', etc. It pays to be sceptical and think about flaws as well as to show what economist agree upon.
Economics is Historical: see above, but so many students seem to believe that reading anything that's more than 10 years old is silly. No, no, no. Coase, Hayek, Simon, are as readable today as then and as relevant (I'd add Smith, Marx, and several others, but I can't think too much of prescribing them in 'Intermediate Microeconomics'). Moreover, so many recent articles are highly technical, especially articles in Industrial Organization. I can't prescribe Tirole to my second year students who cross the gamut of faculties: engineering, sciences, humanities, commerce, law. What to do? Go back in time to the classics. is Radical: as was shown recently in an interview with Sam Bowles, neoclassical theory can produce some rather radical results, results that are consistent from Friedman to Bowles - give everyone some money (implement a negative income tax) when they reach a certain age, stop other social welfare if that troubles you. Experiment.
Economics is Conversational: playing into the ideas of economics as contested, historical and radical, is the idea, argued by people like Arjo Klamer, Deirdre McCloskey, Steve Zilliak and others, of economics as a conversation or an ongoing debate. When all students see are the symbolic representations of profit maximisation, they often lose touch with the intuitions. Robert Frank's book The Economic Naturalist captures the idea well as does Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist - think economically, enter the economic conversation, and you can apply the ideas to a host of examples in the real world. Converse about it, create dialogue and you will edify yourself and, we hope, others too.

Anyway, if you hapen about theory of the firm, about teaching Monopoly and Oligopoly and can think of fun(!) and interesting articles, then let me know. I've lectured the course several times since 2005, the syllabus has changed regularly and I've lectured everything in the syllabus, but I wanted, this time, to try to make a wider appeal before getting in there. I look forward to your comments.

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. I think that reading list looks really interesting. If you can get people to read the papers I will be most impressed! I remember doing 203 and basically just using lecture notes. Then again, I only just passed that course so perhaps it wasn't the best strategy :D

  2. As someone who's been lecturing for 9 years, I can say you've to be really careful here Simon--the audience makeup (their expectations, their prior training) is actually more important than the content you want to teach them, which looks really interesting. It looks like you're going for rigour, which, to do well, takes loads of class time. If you've 2-4 hours a week plus a few tutorials, you won't get enough covered, and the students will wonder what was that all about when they finish the course.

    Set your examinable material up in rough form now--what are you going to ask them? How will you assess? Answering these questions, in addition to the previous knowledge the students have, and the time you've got allotted, will allow you to cut your pedagogical cloth properly, and the students will be delighted--you'll have delivered a well built, focused, and interesting sub set of the ideas and tools you want to teach them, and they will get what you want to show them is a part of a larger web of ideas, and some of them might just take a look at those ideas. You can't do much more I don't think!

  3. Dave - definitely, take a look at the papers as they're all worth reading.

    Stephen - I agree completely. I have to get exam questions to the course convenor and tutorial question up on the web relatively soon and I'm currently working on sprucing up my not quite finished notes (I start lecturing early April). That said, I've lectured the course before and I've received good responses from the students about content and pace. I think that the most likely outcome is that I will have 3-4 readings in addition to the textbook, which translates to a bit under one reading for each week I'm lecturing. I will be giving 4 lectures a week for 4 1/2 weeks. Previously, I've had time to cover one or two additional things as long as I didn't get too mathematical, otherwise the students often get confused (especially when they haven't done too much rigorous calculus or real analysis). The difficult lies in the class size - just over 1000 students normally, for which I have to lecture 3 times a day. So yes, great variation which means that additional stuff often gets dropped. But my pluralist proclivities suffer as a consequence.

  4. I strongly doubt that students will read more broadly in Micro - the pressures of work and play at uni are just too great to permit time, and students generally will also lack the confidence.

    However, I think you could really reach the students by identifying current SA political economy issues and presenting an opinion to the class, with opportunities for students to criticise you or ask for more info. The material need not be Micro-related: just presenting an economist's perspective on issues relevant to everyone will get students more interested in economics.

    I'm sure you'll do a great job! I really like your number 1 priority: Economics is Contested. I wish someone had told me this (with a real life example) in undergrad.