Answering Critics

Most students love this course, even when they don't do as well as they'd hoped. Still, year in, year out, there are a dozen students or so who just hate the darn thing, and they seem
to say the same things on their course comments every year.  

What I'd like to do here is respond to these comments. My goal isn't so much to defend what I'm doing, but to try to help other future students come to an early decision on whether or not they
should stay in the course. I'm not interested in torturing people, but I've come to an equilibrium in the presentation of material, and I'm not about to change either.

1. The Course is Too Hard.

"Very, very, very, very ... very hard exams"
"Exams were super hard."
"Tests are very difficult, and don't relate to problems or course"
"what I learned in class was totally different from exams and assignments"
"Why so hard?"

This is far and away the most common complaint about this course.

a.  In my opinion, many students reach university mostly by memorization. They read a chapter, make notes, boil them down to study cards, and memorize the formulas, techniques, and answers. They then pray that they will be asked to list these things on an exam. I have always called this the "vomit" method of learning.  In the end, students demonstrate little more than an ability to cram stuff into their heads for a few hours.  I'm a firm believer in memorizing - I think it is a critical component of critical thinking - but I don't believe this is a sufficient skill to pass a course, it is only necessary.  As Richard Feynman once said "
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."  Too often in university all we do is ask you to learn names.

This is the number one  reason why some students find Economics 103 so difficult. I ask you to think about the ideas, not just memorize them.  For me, a great exam question is a quote from a newspaper or magazine in which the speaker is making some type of economic mistake. I ask the student to find it and comment on it. This requires the student to not only know the concept involved, but to understand it in a way that it is recognized in a real context.

b.  This is also the reason why some students find a disconnect between the questions in the book and the exams ... even though the questions in the book are old exam questions!  In 2012 I did a little experiment. I posted the midterm and final from the previous year. I had dozens of comments saying "last year's tests were so much easier."  What was, in fact,  going on was that students were  memorizing the 2012 answers, and after enough effort they'd memorized the answers to the exams. However, when confronted with a new exam, the old answers didn't fit, and they found the new exam "harder".

It is a tough habit to break. Student's love to memorize answers and hope that the same old question will pop up again. Never in my course. Every exam is new, which means old answers don't work. Rather, you need to understand the economics behind the old exam questions, and apply the same ideas to the new questions.

In the end, this is a much easier way of studying. I recall one student's "eurika" moment. We'd been going over several questions in a chapter when he looked up and said "Hey, all these different questions have the same answer!"  That's right.  The hard part is just to recognize that. Once you've done that, you've started to think like an economist. You see the manifestation of a few ideas all around you.

c. When I was a student, if I didn't learn something new each class I always felt I was being ripped off. I've had three children go through university and some of the stories they've told me about professors who cancel classes, show random movies in class, drag things out, and generally provide no content, make me quite angry.  This is university!  I want to push you and challenge you a long way. That's another reason why the course is hard. I'm giving you your money's worth!

So, if you don't like to think about things, if you like to memorize only, and you want a cushy "basket weaving" course,  then you shouldn't take this course from me.

2. "He thinks everything is economics ... it is not"

"He takes the material too far"
"students were not given alternative perspectives"
"the course is a very neoclassical view of economics"

In the very first class I say a few things that seem to get forgotten over the course of the semester.

a. Economics 103 is a course in neoclassical thinking.  It is not a course in feminist, Marxist, Keynsian, or classical economics. It is not a course that entertains arguments from political science, sociology, or psychology. All of these world views and disciplines are neoclassical competitors.  Our job is to understand one view of the world, and to understand it well. If, in the end, you disagree with it, fine. At least you'll know what you're disagreeing with. The last thing I want to do is to misrepresent this theory and include other ideas that do not belong there.

b. As students should learn throughout the course, the neoclassical model can be applied to just about anything. Any time there is a decision to be made, and any time that decision has anything to do with "quantities" or "terms of trade", then the neoclassical model is there.  It is true that many students find it more comfortable to use the model to discuss why apples are cheaper in the fall, but the truth of the matter is that the same ideas apply to prostitution or religion.

When students make comments like this, it is because economic theory has bumped up against their own religious views of the world. They want to pigeon hole economics to only talk about business. It bothers them when this theory is used to address something like same sex marriage because they often don't like the implications for their own religious views.

Well, my response here is ... get over that. Everyone wants to have a monopoly over opinions and world views. However, a university is a place where many ideas get expressed, and it is hoped that out of the competition for ideas that the truth can be found. There are many places on campus where other views are expressed, so it is of no concern that they are not expressed here.

It might come as a surprise to many students that I am NOT a neoclassical economist. I just feel that if I'm teaching a course on that subject, then that's all I should teach and I should teach it to the limit.