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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trying not to re-invent the wheel

One of my teaching mantras is: "teaching is an iterative process". I repeat this to myself whenever things go badly in a class (or entire course), reminding myself that at least I can fix it (or try to fix it) the next time around. While this helps to keep me from feeling too terrible when things go wrong, it would obviously be nice to avoid things going badly in the first place. This is one of the many reasons why it's so nice to have a community to turn to when trying out new things - it's way less stressful to learn from other people's mistakes than your own.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because my big project for this winter break is getting things put together for a writing-intensive class for econ majors that I'll be teaching in the spring semester. As with the Economics for Teachers course that I taught in the fall, this is an entirely new course for my department and, since I can't seem to do anything the easy way, it isn't quite like any other course I've been able to find at other schools. But unlike the Econ for Teachers course, which (as far as I can tell) is entirely unique, there are at least a few articles and course syllabi out there to give me some guidance for the writing course.

By far the most helpful thing I've done to prepare for the course is have a long conversation with David Lindauer. Lindauer teaches a course on Economic Journalism at Wellesley. Here's the course description:
Students will combine their knowledge of economics, including macro, micro and econometrics, with their skills at exposition, in order to address current economic issues in a journalistic format. Students will conduct independent research to produce weekly articles. Assignments may include coverage of economic addresses, book reviews, recent journal articles, and interviews with academic economists. Class sessions will be organized as workshops devote to critiquing the economic content of student work.
(Lindauer also wrote an article about the course that's in the Summer 1986 volume of the Journal of Economic Education, though the course has changed some since then).

Although the assignments for my course will be slightly different, I plan to structure things in a way that is quite similar to Lindauer's class and talking with him was invaluable, simply for the insights he has from having taught this sort of class several times. For example, one of the first assignments will be for students to read the most recent BLS employment report and then write a 300-word summary (with accompanying chart or graph) on one of the variables. This is almost identical to one of David's assignments and he mentioned that students always focus in on different aspects of the report - for example, some students focus on the labor market participation numbers while others note the differences across races or gender. This insight helped me decide how to lead into the assignment with my own students, and gives me a better idea what to expect in the class discussion. In general, talking with David made me feel much more prepared and less like I was starting from scratch. Here's to not re-inventing the wheel!

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