March 12, 2009

Recession Prompts Economics Profs to Adjust Coursework

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As the current economic crisis reaches historic lows, professors are working hard to find unique and creative ways to bring the crisis into classrooms and relate textbook principles to the real world.
Many economics professors have attempted to discuss certain principles, models and theorems in light of how those same tactics are being used by the U.S. government to combat the economic downturn.
“While the standard course content relates to the economic and financial situation, I’ve tried to explain it more in the context of what is going on right now.” explained Prof. David Lee, applied economics and management. “For example, I’ll talk about a bunch of Obama’s administrations initiatives in terms of the concepts that we are learning about.”
Prof. Rich Curtis, applied economics and management, who teaches a Finance 3240, agreed with this sentiment. Curtis spends the first few minutes of each class discussing the latest developments within the economy and has incorporated a “week in review” segment at the end of most weeks that recaps these changes.
Other professors have found themselves emphasizing certain aspects of their course more than usual. Prof. Karel Mertens, economics, teaches Macroeconomics 3020, which has focused on two historical events in particular to help explain the crisis.
“I emphasize certain things more,” he said, “such as the Great Depression and the economic situation that the Japanese faced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In both events, the government took similar action to today.”
Professors have also experimented with less conventional lessons and homeworks that help illuminate some of the failures that caused the crisis.
Mertens created a 52-slide PowerPoint presentation about the reasons for the downturn, posted an article that elucidated the so-called “credit crunch” and compiled a list of blogs and articles by famous economists, such as Paul Krugman, for the students to read.
In a behavioral economics class, Prof. William Schulze, applied economics and management, required students to simulate the stock market.  Each Thursday, students would buy and sell virtual stocks, competing to earn the most money. Schulze discussed the mistakes that the students made in the following class.
“The students produce a stock market in the lab and every experiment produces a bubble and a crash, not unlike what happened in real life.” Schulze stated, “All of these experiments are designed to demonstrate decisions where people make systematic errors.”
In the same class, Schulze had his students write a research paper on the financial crisis. Through this assignment, students were able to reflect on the theoretical principles that they learned in class and use them to explain real life issues.
Schulze also believes in learning across disciplines in order to develop a fuller understanding for an issue. In an introductory macroeconomics class that he is currently teaching, Schulze has taught his students psychology, as he believes it relates to the crisis.
“I’m teaching a lot about psychology — a dual process model about the rational part of the brain versus the emotional part of the brain,” he explained, “The source of the problem is really a question of fear for the consumer and the businesses.”
Most students seem to appreciate the efforts that professors have made to incorporate aspects of the financial crisis into their classes. Rob Whitehead ’12 explained that students are interested in learning about the economic downturn because they know that it will soon directly affect them.
“People are interested in this because it’s about their own futures,” Whitehead stated.
Some students, however, express doubts about the way that the University as a whole is handling the instruction of the crisis. Some students would like a more comprehensive understanding of its causes.
“Each student provides different perspectives on the crisis,” Steve Feit ’12 pointed out, “one kid might discuss it from a sociological angle that he learned from his sociology class, another from a psychological perspective, another from an economics perspective. I feel like the University should provide comprehensive lectures about the issue.”
In the end, professors will need to stay current on the crisis to be accurate.
“I need to constantly read the news…,” Mertens said, “This is so dynamic, every month there is something new, even the newly released textbook will soon have useless information that I will need to adjust for.”