Professors share their experience with teaching intro economics


In response to the walkout staged by students in the intro economics class at Harvard, the Institute launched the syllabus project, 30 Ways to Teach Economics.

We invited professors and students to send us syllabi, and share their experience with teaching and learning intro economics. Find responses and syllabi below:

Macroeconomics without the AS-AD model

Duncan Foley, Leo Model Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research, tells us that he stays away from the AS-AD model, which is present in nearly every textbook. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Macroeconomics and writes:

The syllabus deviates from the standard Introduction to Macroeconomics course primarily in framing the issues in terms of economic history and the history of economic thought, and emphasizing institutions complementary to theories. I personally find the widely-adopted “AD-AS” framework for teaching macroeconomics intellectually fallacious and ideologically loaded, so I try to stay away from it

Microeconomics with Mankiw’s textbook

Bruce Caldwell, Research Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, uses Greg Mankiw’s textbook for introductory micro. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Microeconomics and writes:

I used Mankiw for my introductory microeconomics text when I taught large enrollment courses at UNC-Greensboro a few years back. The text develops in a clear manner the basic tools of microeconomics: production possibilities curves, supply and demand curves, the notion of elasticity, the various diagrams associated with market structures. It is very difficult to get people to read much in large classes, and many UNCG students are first generation college students who in addition to carrying a full load work 25+ hours a week at jobs. But if they did the minimal reading I assigned for class they would have the basics under their belts and would be able to understand my lectures.

For lectures, I would go through the basics then illustrate them with case studies or applications. I would pitch the lectures at a higher level. I would also give occasional homeworks, uncollected and ungraded, that I would go over in class. Those who did them typically would do well in class. The others, not so well.
Part of what the class was about was to teach students to take responsibility for their education. On the first day I would go over study tips that, if they followed them, would enable them to succeed. The first was to come to class. Next was to review notes from the past week (I told them to recopy them) each weekend. This helps to cement the concepts in their minds, allows them to see if there are any gaps or areas where they are confused, and if so, to come to see me. Third was to quit their job and sell their car (or if this was not possible, to take fewer classes). A portion of students would not come to class (I did not take attendance - coming to class was up to them), would not do the reading, would not follow the study tips. They would not do well on the first test: typically about half of the class would get an F or D. When I went over the test I would tell them that if they were unsatisfied with their grades they should either change their behavior (by following the study tips) or drop the class. Note that the test option I provided was to replace the lowest test grade with whatever one gets on the final, so a change in behavior could lead to a much better grade. Some would change and improve, others would drop the class. Sadly, a certain portion would not change their behavior or drop the class. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.

Microeconomics using “The Grapes of Wrath”

Stephen Ziliak, Trustee and Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University-Chicago and a member of the INET Curriculum Committee Task Force, teaches introductory microeconomics using The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Here is the syllabus.

The Grapes of Wrath was published by its author, John Steinbeck, in 1939, during the worst economic crisis in American and world history. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of social and economic theory and analysis. It follows a family of homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma—the Joads—who’ve been forced on account of foreclosure to leave the farm and land which they labored and lived on for several generations.

Forced by a large bank and absentee owners to leave their home, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced workers on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was for many years censored and banned by governments and school boards made uncomfortable by the novel’s detailed portrayal of economic inequality, hardship, and oppression.

We asked Stephen Ziliak to share his experience teaching The Grapes of Wrath, which he has used since 1996 to form the basis of his intro economics course.


Q: Why, Professor Ziliak, way back in 1996, did you begin to teach to introductory economics students The Grapes of Wrath?

Stephen Ziliak: I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who had also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics, in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.


Q: Why teach The Grapes of Wrath and not some other novel?

SZ: Good question. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly moving novel that—I openly admit—continues to make me laugh and cry. Now laughing and crying are not necessary for good pedagogy. But it seems to me that if a fact-based story about economic history can make a grown man and professor of economics cry, it must have something important to say. The visible hand of class conflict needs to be aired and this novel does it.


Q: You said fact-based. What do you mean—it’s a novel, it’s fiction, yes?

SZ: Yes, but it’s historical fiction—meaning that Steinbeck, like Hugo, Zola, and others before him, was deliberately depicting real and felt experiences. There are exaggerations and omissions of fact, true—as economic historians and English professors know full well. But in fact, Steinbeck himself spent a year or more working and studying inside of the same temporary labor camps that the fictional Joad family experienced in California.


Q: How do students react? Can you share some insights from the teacher perspective?

SZ: Really well, eventually. Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.


Q: What about the “quants”? Do quants survive the course?

SZ: Again, it’s not for everyone. But yes, absolutely. An example is a student who studied with me at Roosevelt University. He came to Roosevelt as a freshman from Puerto Rico on a violin scholarship. He was preparing for a career in violin at our conservatory and, at the same time, he had a passion for advanced mathematics. On a lark he enrolled in my Grapes of Wrath course. Half-way through the term he told me that something was happening to him. The evolution of the protagonist, Tom Joad, from self-interested ex-con to benevolent labor leader, he found fascinating. He thought that he might have to switch from violin and math to economics. I told him no, if he really wanted to switch he could study math and economics—he wouldn’t have to give up the math. By the time he was a junior (a third year student) he landed a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At graduation he was promoted to Associate Research Economist. Now he’s a master’s student in economics and statistics at Duke University but he is not at all bamboozled by the utility maximization-only school.


Q: Do you supplement the novel with other literature or media?

SZ: Yeah. For example, a particularly fun day of class is when we play music by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine—who’ve recorded songs about Tom Joad. Springsteen himself recorded an entire CD on the central themes.

Focus on the process of critical thinking

Dennis Leyden, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, focuses on critical thinking, rather than working through a textbook. Here is the syllabus.

A few years ago, I began teaching my macro principles course in what, at least for me, was a radically different way. Rather than simply working through a given textbook, I decided to focus on the process of critical thinking and use that to frame the course material. I wrote a little textbook Critical Thinking in Economics to provide that framing material, and then divided the course into four units using the text Macroeconomics in Context by Goodwin et al.. The first unit centers around defining the questions that are the focus of macroeconomics, the second unit on taking stock of methods of analysis that my students should already have some exposure to (marginal thinking, supply and demand analysis, production possibility diagrams, and the like) and alternative normative perspectives (which they typically don’t get much exposure to. The third unit then works through alternative models of the macro economy (Phillips Curve, Classical, Keynesian, Quantity Theory, Growth Theory). And then the fourth unit focuses on answering the questions posed at the beginning of the course by synthesizing the alternative perspectives into a (more or less) coherent story.

The value of this approach are several. Students get explicit instruction on how to do critical thinking (which is much more than just analysis of a diagram). Students learn that (macro)economics is not a body of received wisdom, but are the result of an on going debate about the nature of the macroeconomy in which perspectives depend on such things as the historical circumstances at the time the theories were developed and the normative perspectives of the authors. And students see that the process of critical thinking can lead to improved understanding. In all this, I encourage students to find their own voice with regard to the subject matter and learn the tools that will allow them to more effectively think things out and communicate their thoughts to others.

Economics in context

Julie Nelson, Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, tells us that students have reacted quite positively to her intro micro and macro courses. She writes:

Introduction to Microeconomics: This course expands upon the usual definition of economics by considering economics to be about the broader topic of provisioning, rather than only about choice or markets. Neoclassical models of consumers, firms, and markets are presented as potentially useful (but also sometimes misleading) thought experiments, rather than as the way the world works. Topics such as externalities, public goods, behavioral choice, consumerism, income distribution, real-world market institutions receive more emphasis than in a standard course. Students have reacted positively to the emphasis on the variety and complexity of real world economic behavior.

Introduction to Macroeconomics: This course introduces students to macroeconomics while taking social and environmental issues seriously. The goals of the macroeconomy are identified as providing good living standards, stability, and sustainability. The activity of “resource maintenance” is given equal stature with production, distribution, and consumption, and we cover the question of expanding of national accounts to include environmental factors and unpaid labor. A model of inflation and output is presented which avoids the assumption of long-run equilibrium. Issues of GDP growth, the environment, the composition of output and labor hours are discussed. Students have told me that they are quite shocked, after taking this course, that sustainability is not discussed in other macroeconomics courses.

Share your perspective