Making Macro Relevant

I’ve never bought the notion of the syllabus as a contract between instructor and student, though I know it’s commonly accepted. Rather, I think of a syllabus more as a travel plan–it’s an outline of where you plan to go, but it doesn’t preclude taking interesting side trips, or even more substantial ones. That said, I’m regularly surprised by how difficult it is to make substantial changes to the way one has always taught a course, especially for standard courses.

My colleague at SUNY-Oswego, Bill Goffe, wrote a fascinating paper last Fall, which sketched out a fairly radical departure from the standard principles of macroeconomics course. One thing that struck me was how different the major course topics were ordered, and how at least a few of the topics I’ve always had in my course were omitted. My gut reaction was I couldn’t teach a course like that.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a note to myself, asking if I couldn’t exploit the fact that this is an election year in teaching my macro principles course this semester. Couldn’t I use the election as a lever to make macro more relevant to my students? A week ago Sunday, that is, the day before classes started, an idea popped into my head: What if I reorganized the macro course around the economic policy positions of Senators McCain and Obama? Ironically, Jennifer Imazeki, an economist at UC-San Diego was thinking about a similar thing for her principles of microeconomics course. Since some of the policy proposals are macro in orientation and some are micro, there’s room for both.

I didn’t know what such an approach would involve, but I pitched it to the class the first day. They seemed receptive to the idea, so I told them not to print the syllabus yet, while I mulled the idea over. The main problem is that we would have to reorganize the course outline to explore the topics normally done at the end of the semester, before November 4. What about all the prerequisite material? Would we have time to study enough of that to make the policy analysis viable? And what would we do in the course after the election?

I’ve decided to tentatively proceed on this path, taking it one step at a time. Last week, I asked students to work in small groups to research the economic positions of the two candidates, and to write a one page summary of each. I took their submissions and condensed them to a single concise statement of each candidate’s position. [These are posted on the right sidebar of the course website. Suggested improvements to the language are welcome!]

Next I asked the students to take one specific policy position and to identify the questions we would need to answer to evaluate that policy. For example, one of John McCain’s positions is that American families need immediate relief from the high gasoline prices. Two questions that we would need to answer to evaluate this position are:

* How are gasoline prices determined?

* What is the role of government in determining gas prices?

I’m going to use those questions in class today to segue into a discussion of the role of theories and models in economic analysis. I’m hoping to get the students to realize that the questions they are bringing to class provide the basis for thinking in terms of models. Since a model is fundamentally a hypothesis, and since a hypothesis is a proposed answer to an interesting question, I plan to tease out from the students a list of foundational questions (such as the two examples above), from which I hope they will see that economic models can provide answers to the questions.

The next step will be to use the list of models we come up with to create an outline for the rest of the course. I suspect this outline will consist of many of the topics we typically explore in macro principles, if organized in an atypical order.

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