Teaching as Modelling Disciplinary Practice

I believe that one of the highest forms of teaching occurs through modelling disciplinary practice, ideally when students forget that you are teaching.  This is the first week for our Spring semester and I am teaching my senior seminar in international finance.  The seminar began life as a more traditional seminar covering the traditional topics in the field, but over the last decade (I only get to teach this every three years), it has morphed into something more interesting, both for the students and me.

The something is a collaborative research project in which I model doing research in economics.  The project isn’t part of the course—it is the course.  We start with a question:  This year it will be “Is the European Monetary System (e.g. the Euro) sustainable in its current configuration?”  Then I ask: “What do we need to know to answer that question?”  The result is a list of questions.  E.g. What is the Euro?  What do we mean by sustainable?  What is the Eurozone?  What are the pros and cons of membership? What are the political dimensions involved?

We work recursively backwards developing a nested set of questions, which will form the syllabus for the course.   For each set of questions, we divide up the work, go out and research each part, reporting back online before discussing what we’ve found in class.  Through the process, we develop an understanding of the issues which hopefully leads us to an answer to the initial research question.

We will spend this first week, developing an initial plan for the research.  I don’t intend to mention grades until the students bring them up.  We will collaboratively determine how grades will be determined, though I have some ideas in mind for part of what I would like to see.  For example, I want each student to write their own answer to the research question at least several weeks before the end of term; then we will collaboratively develop a group response to publish.

This is pretty much the most “unschooled” course I teach.  The success or failure of a course like this depends on several things:  The question needs to be one for which there is no established answer.  Students need to believe that I don’t have the answer, and that it’s up to all of us to develop one.  For a project like this to work, the group of students and their commitment to the process is critical.  Ideally, every student needs to buy in to the premise.  In practice I’ve found that it only takes a few students who take it as a regular course for credit and a grade, to ruin the seminar.  More than any other course I teach, I actively recruit for this one, ideally one third economics majors, one third international affairs majors and one third business administration majors.  For the first day, I asked students to introduce themselves and discuss what they bring to the group that could help us in our research.

The most successful incarnation of the seminar was Spring 2009 when we analyzed the Global Financial Crisis as it was occurring.  The course outcome was this website.  I think I may have as good a group this year.  Wish me luck!

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