Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

On (Not) Saying No

I have to apologise for neglecting the blog a bit the past couple of weeks: I’ve somehow found myself in the position of assisting with a grant application, writing a conference paper, preparing to teach three courses – and, oh yes, there’s still that pesky matter of field research… We won’t mention small things like deciding that I really needed to put together a reading group on analytic and continental philosophy, or assisting with the recruitment of another PhD student for our project (know any good transport planners anyone)…

Things will calm down slightly in early August, when at least the grant application and the conference paper will be off my plate, and my very small part in the PhD recruitment process will have concluded. My field research will continue to be quite intense for the next several months, and the teaching load is quite heavy this term – although I will only be teaching into, rather than coordinating or designing, these courses, so in that respect the demands will be lower than normal.

My courses for the coming term are: an undergraduate “common course architecture” course called “Economics for the Social Sciences”, which is designed to introduce first-year undergraduates to basic economic concepts, as well as provide a general socialisation to academic work; the Research Strategies course that I also covered last term; and a postgraduate edition of the History and Theory of planning course that I taught to fourth-year undergraduates last term – although, this time around, I’ll be teaching someone else’s version of the course, rather than the version I designed.

I’m looking forward to teaching the Economics for the Social Sciences course. It’s the first time I’ve been offered an opportunity to work with first-year students, and I like the basic concept of the “common course architecture” – the liberal-arts notion that there are certain core concepts and competencies to which all university students should be introduced, regardless of their ultimate professional specialisation. While this concept is fairly standard in many undergraduate programs in the US, it’s a bit more unusual here, and my understanding is that the “common course architecture” programs are still relatively new at this university. I like the opportunity to work with a team of colleagues to hash out pedagogical techniques and decide the relative importance of particular elements of course content – I tend to think that the process of having to reflect collectively on what and how we are teaching leads to better educational results, regardless of the techniques and content we ultimately choose.

The flip side of the collective nature of the course, however, is that the choice of concepts is never quite the same as any individual academic would choose to teach in a traditional individually-designed course. Personal case in point: one of the early assessment tasks involves asking students to visit an auction and compare their observations of the auction process, to the description of markets provided in some assigned readings. I think this is quite a good assessment for a first-year course, but was confused by what struck me as a peculiar prohibition: the assessment guide stipulates that students may not observe and write about an online auction.

I asked about the reasoning behind this prohibition. The initial answer was that, in an online auction, it wasn’t clear enough to students “what was really going on”. This puzzled me, as a veteran Ebayer: it is, in fact, very easy to decipher what goes on in an online auction, since you can scroll back through the record of transactions and, in a sense, replay the action. Online auctions also potentially offer a small enough scale for direct student participation in the auction process – either offering something of their own for sale, or bidding on someone else’s item – a level of participation that is unlikely if a student observes, say, the auction of a home or some other big-ticket item.

I thought initially that there might be some confusion stemming from lack of familiarity with the online auction process. It turns out, though, that I was the person who was confused: what the assessment task was apparently designed to demonstrate was the emotional behaviour associated with the auction process – with the not-always-so-rational actions that people take, when trying to win their bid. While these emotions no doubt occur in an online auction, there is no direct way to observe them, since you see only the record of bids and the final bottom line. (Personally, I think there actually is a way to infer emotional behaviour – or, at least, incompletely rational behaviour – from an online auction: compare the final prices of a series of auctions – if someone bids wildly out of proportion to the norm, then you can infer that incomplete information, ego, or some other factor pushed someone to bid more than they should… But this may be a bit much to expect from a first-year student…)

So the assessment task seems to have been designed to get students to reflect on the contrast between the sort of “person” who seems to be posited by some economic theory – the rational, calculating, maximising sort of person – and the sorts of imperfect, non-standardised, real people who actually rock up to this one kind of market and place bids – bids that are sometimes ill-advised, sometimes driven by ego and the desire to win, sometimes mistakes, etc.

I think this can be a valuable exercise – but the pedagogic task then becomes keeping the students from drawing oversimplistic conclusions that it is easy to rubbish liberal economic theory, because, e.g., “anyone can see” that the “real world” doesn’t work in a hyper-rational, calculating sort of way. Economics at its best – very much like sociology at its best – is very well aware that individual people are irrational, emotional, make foolish choices, have unevenly distributed talents, are lucky or unlucky, etc. This very human imperfection, however, creates a dilemma: if we humans aren’t rational, and aren’t consciously setting out to generate any macrosociological patterns through our social interactions, how is it that a kind of pattern, a kind of order, nevertheless manages to be generated?

This question, I think, becomes one of the most important pedagogical points in an introductory economics course. And it requires steering students away from a naive contrast of small-scale empirical evidence with theories meant to apply only to aggregate populations. It requires getting students to grasp that it might be valid – for methodological purposes – to model economic behaviour as though people are rational maximisers, because this model captures some of the contours of aggregate behaviour, even though we can easily observe the irrationality of individual behaviour.

By the same token, it becomes important to communicate that anyone who tries to extrapolate from economic theory to individual psychology – by claiming that individual people (or corporations) make rational decisions, or by claiming that an individual’s poverty or wealth can be understood solely with reference to their individual choices, or similar – is making a false extrapolation from a theory of aggregate bahviour, to an individual or small group level to which this theory does not directly speak.

The auction exercise holds potentials and dangers, when it comes to communicating these sorts of concepts. I worry that the easiest jump for a first-year student to make, when confronted with this assessment task, would be to the conclusion that economic theory falsely describes individual behaviour, and can therefore be rejected in a simple and straight-forward way. On another level, I worry that the assessment task reinforces a tendency to think about “capitalism” and “markets” in terms of these face-to-face, local markets – a tendency that I think can be very misleading, as these sorts of local markets have a much longer history than the sort of “market” that characterises the capitalist era.

And yet, the assessment task also really appeals to me – for precisely the reasons it makes me nervous: it provides a wonderful reservoir of direct experience against which students can play off rather abstract theoretical concepts, which they will probably be encountering for the first time. I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me to send students off to a market; I’m reasonably sure that, if it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have followed through on the idea, because I’m always very cautious to differentiate capitalist “markets” from other types of markets that have existed on a much longer timescale, and I would have been worried about sending the “wrong” historical message. And that reluctance to use this kind of assessment task would have been misplaced.

It takes something like the common course architecture format – which pushes instructors to move beyond their personal assessment concepts, and to seriously consider: if I *had* to assess students using this task, how would I do it? The result, almost inevitably, is a level of teaching and of assessment that is markedly more reflective (and, hopefully, also more effective) than in courses where the content and assessment tasks can follow the comfortable and familiar groove into which we individually tend to settle…

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5 responses to “On (Not) Saying No

  1. Russ July 30, 2006 at 3:20 pm

    The irony here, if you’ll excuse my belated comment, is that my experience with house auctions is that they are probably the most rational of markets. People go to multiple auctions beforehand to assess prices and observe the process, set strict (and obvious) limits on themselves, get people who aren’t emotionally invested to bid for them (hired help or parents), and strategise for weeks in advance. The unven pricing of housing has as much to do with uneven competition and unduplicated goods as irrationality.

    Whereas even a rational consumer with an economics bent, like myself, is easily suckered by a little pink JB sticker saying “I’m cheap, buy me now!”.

  2. N Pepperell July 30, 2006 at 3:42 pm

    My main worry is over-extrapolation from things like “methodological individualism” down to theories of individual psychology – so, students assuming that, because they can prove that we’re humans, rather than, say, Borg, economic theory has no basis… ;-P But, as I said, the assignment actually does provide a good basis for tackling these sorts of issues head-on…

    Apparently, one major thing that went wrong last time around, was students planning to write on house auctions, and then choosing an auction where no one showed up… I’ll have to warn folks to attend early and often, if they’re planning on doing a house auction…

    By the way, did you happen to take this course? Or was it introduced after your time?

  3. Russ July 30, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    It was introduced after my time. I thought of doing it as an elective, but realised I wouldn’t learn anything new, so I did something else.

  4. N Pepperell July 30, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    Since these courses have a sort of dual intent – half oriented to their content, and half to providing a general socialisation to university life – you made the right call: advanced students would find the course, at best, slow-paced…

    I am curious, though, what students who have been through the course think of it – what worked, and what didn’t, in their experience…

  5. Admin August 2, 2006 at 9:15 am

    I’ll leave a quick note here, as I know traffic is being directed to this post from elsewhere, and the home page may not be visible for a few hours: my web host is experiencing some… technical difficulties, which they are working valiantly to correct. Apologies to anyone who tried to access the site earlier today, and received 404 or other errors…

    As of this posting, the site’s database is now up and running again, and most links should therefore work properly. The home page, however, is not yet showing correctly. This problem should be corrected soon. Many thanks for your patience!

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