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Monday, July 26, 2010

Why doesn't anyone tell me these things?

One of the frustrating things about getting my degree at a big research school, and now being in a department of people who are (mostly) more interested in research than teaching, is that I often feel like I'm on my own when it comes to finding resources that would be helpful for teaching economics. Because my institution is relatively teaching-oriented (just not really my department), I do feel like there are people around I can turn to for help with certain pedagogy-related issues in general (SDSU has a particularly awesome ITS crew!) but when it comes to teaching economics, not so much. I do pester the tch-econ list-serv when I have a specific question (and if any economists reading this are not subscribers, go sign up NOW), and there are the obvious sources like the Journal of Economic Education and the RFE teaching resources, and now Starting Point too, but I've also had to find a lot of resources on my own (and of course, one of the reasons I started this blog was to share what I find with others so we don't all have to re-invent the wheel!).

Occasionally, I come across something that just makes me feel dumb for not having known about it before. That happened this weekend, when I discovered the "Recommendations for Further Reading" section in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Technically, I guess I 're'-discovered it, since I think that at one point in time, I did know what this section was about but I stopped getting a hard copy of the JEP years ago, and just never thought about how useful this would be for teaching. In case I'm not the only clueless one, this section specifically "will list readings that may be especially useful to teachers of undergraduate economics, as well as other articles that are of broader cultural interest. In general, the articles chosen will be expository or integrative and not focus on original research." Looking at the last several issues, many of the readings are reports or policy briefs from think tanks or government agencies (like the CBO, regional Feds, World Bank, etc.). Since I've been looking for "non-technical but still quantitative" articles to assign in my data class, and for "non-technical but still written by economists" articles to assign in my writing class, this is a godsend. There are also suggestions for more mainstream news articles, as well as interviews and conversations with prominent economists. 
Just wish someone had told me sooner...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Economists are such positive people...

As I have been developing this data course, I have been trying to keep in mind that this is an economics course, and the focus is supposed to be (as the title of the course states) the Collection and Use of Data in Economics. From a data standpoint, that means exposing students to the types of data that economists use (which is not quite the same thing as 'economic data' but that's a topic for another post). From an analysis standpoint, that means that we have to talk about inference from observational data, issues with identifying causation vs. just correlation, multiple regression, etc.

But I think it also means that we need to talk about the larger issue of what types of empirical questions do economists use data for? I'm planning to start the semester with a discussion of what is, and what isn't, an empirical question, and get the students thinking about what kinds of questions can and can't be answered with data. In economics, we talk about this in terms of positive and normative questions; most economists try to stay in the realm of positive analysis when we are doing data work but usually, our empirical analysis is still driven by normative questions (I usually refer to this as the 'why do we care' part of any research project). My plan is to have students first consider how values affect the trade-offs we are willing to make, and then we'll look at how data can inform those normative decisions. I think this will lead pretty naturally into a discussion of bias and how our normative values affect what data we are willing to believe, but I want students to think about how that goes both ways (i.e., prior beliefs may affect whether you accept some new piece of data but beliefs can also be affected by new data, and that's where a lot of social research comes in).

All of my students will have already taken two Principles courses in which they should have at least been exposed to the concepts of positive and normative analysis; however, most intro classes do little more than define positive as "what is" and normative as "what should be", which sort of drives me nuts because that seems so simplistic as to be pretty useless. I'm trying to find a simple paper or chapter that discusses these concepts more in the context of what economists do but haven't had any luck. If anyone out there knows of something that I could use, please let me know!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Choosing a textbook

I always think it's a bit odd when textbook reps come by my office in the middle of the semester - I listen politely and then tell them (every single time), "I won't be thinking about this until the summer." It puzzles me because they never seem to come at a time of year that actually makes sense; I mean, does anyone ever decide to adopt a new textbook in the middle of the term? I sort of assume most professors are like me in that even if they are considering switching textbooks (or they are prepping a new course for which they need to choose a text), they wait until summer to sit down and think about it. Which is probably why I've seen at least a couple blog posts on the subject lately - the Teaching Professor had a post about the role of the text in course planning, pointing out that many faculty design their courses around the text, which can lead to too much focus on content, and Lisa Lane has a post about her personal experience finding an exceptional text that has led her to re-think the focus of her course.

Like Lisa, I resist the idea of a textbook shaping my pedagogy. It has been years since I have taught to, or 'out of', a textbook; instead, I start with what and how I want to teach and I've generally just tried to find a book that matched what I wanted to do as closely as possible, though never with perfect success. I have learned that students don't like it if I assign a textbook and don't use it, or seem to be skipping around too much, so I've experimented with not requiring a textbook at all (though students still had an online text through Aplia). Students didn't seem to like that either so then I tried using a custom text; student complained that they couldn't sell it back to the bookstore but since the cost was so much lower in the first place, I don't have a ton of sympathy for that...

Anyway, I've spent the last several weeks looking at textbooks for the data and stats class. At first, I was mostly reading in order to re-acquaint myself with the content; now I'm starting to get serious about deciding on a specific book and I'm having a tough time (not to mention that my bookstore is not happy with me). Previous instructors haven't even used one text but simply pointed students to a few different books they might want to use to review stats and Excel, and I am beginning to understand that strategy; every book I've looked at has either been way more than needed for this course (and ridiculously expensive), or only covers one aspect (either stats, Excel or data) and not the others. It's feeling like it's going to be a long summer...