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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do you have your students read economics blogs?

Now that you've seen what I said in Chicago, let me talk a little about the rest of the panel... First, I have to say that I was fairly anxious about it beforehand, largely because my blog is very different from the other blogs represented and I had no idea what the other panelists were going to say. I knew I was going to speak first and figured that either would be a very good thing or a very bad thing; I think it turned out to be good (I felt a bit bad for Jodi Beggs, who went last and had the tough job of trying not to repeat too much of what the other panelists said but I thought she did a very nice job with that). Of the other panelists, Jodi was probably the most concretely useful as she talked a bit about nuts and bolts things like using RSS readers to keep up with multiple blogs, as well as the pros and cons of using blogs in teaching economics.

That balance ended up being particularly nice because Steve Levitt and Alex Tabarrok presented two very different sides of using blogs. I thought it was a bit odd that the first thing Levitt said was, "I had never thought about using blogs to teach economics until I was asked to be a part of this panel" - on the one hand, I suppose that might be the position many audience members were in (i.e., they were at the session in part to find out more) but on the other hand, it immediately raised the question (at least in my head): then why was he there (other than to draw people in with the big name)? Another thing that seemed a bit odd was when he said that he thought requiring students to read economics blogs is "misguided" because so much of what gets published on blogs is not "right". That is, bloggers often write off the top of their head and so at least some of what they write ends up being incorrect. That could be confusing for students and it would be better to have them read more developed ideas, such as peer-reviewed work.

While I understand his point, I really don't agree at all. Fortunately, Alex addressed this a bit when it was his turn, pointing out that the open nature of blogs means that mistakes don't last long, and the back and forth among economics bloggers is modeling exactly the kind of economic thinking that we want our students to see. Jodi further added that it is important to structure assignments well - you don't want to just tell your students 'go read some blogs' without any discussion of what they are reading. Jodi also talked a little about reading (and having students read) a variety of blogs, by writers with different viewpoints and backgrounds.

Levitt also mentioned that in the course of writing his textbook, he went back through the archives of the Freakonomics blog, expecting to find lots of posts he could use to highlight various concepts. But what he found is that there weren't that many posts that were useful for talking about cost curves or any of the other abstract models that are so common in intermediate micro texts. One might think this would lead to some questioning about the relevance of those models but instead, he seemed to see that as another reason not to have students read blogs; i.e., if blogs aren't really connected to what students are learning in class, students don't need to be reading them. It didn't seem to occur to him that the problem might be with what students are learning in class... (Peter Dorman, who offers a less flattering view of the panel, notes the oddity of this as well)

Since I don't teach a lot of the typical models in my classes, I haven't had much of a problem finding blog posts that are related to what we discuss in class. But the way I typically have students read economics blogs is also highly directed - I have students read specific posts that I have found, that bear some relevance to specific concepts. That means I sometimes use posts that are not incredibly recent but although I send students to one specific post in a blog's archives, I've noticed that at least some students (usually those with an inherent interest in economics in the first place) will start looking around that blog and reading on their own. It is not uncommon for students to come in a few days or weeks later and ask me about something that they just read on the Freakonomics or Marginal Revolution blog, blogs they started reading regularly after the original assignment.

Do you have students read economics blogs for your classes? Feel free to explain how you do it in the comments...


  1. I have been exploring using blogs in my intro macro classes for about a year. I write my own blog that my students are required to read and comment on. They write their comments within a private package - aplia. I write two posts a week and each post follows the same format: I provide background information on a current event relevant to what we are doing in class, a link to a news article, and I embed a short video on the topic. Sometimes I include graphs. Students get to choose to write on whichever of the two topics interests them most. Students can read each others discussion comments and interact with each other. In class, students are required to be prepared to discuss the article and video (1.what was the author's main point, 2. how did they support it, 3. did they address alternative views .....). So far students like it. I am investigating ways to improve the process and would love feedback. My blog can be found at

    Thanks for providing information on your blog for others like me who are trying to figure out how to optimally use new tools.
    Renya Wasson (Villanova University) rwasson@villanova.edu

  2. Thanks Renya! This sounds like a great exercise for your students! I noticed that a lot of your posts refer to WSJ articles - do you use their service that highlights articles each week or do you find them on your own? Is that really time-consuming? Thanks for letting everyone know about what you're doing!

  3. Our students are given WSJ electronic subscriptions and the WSJ is handed out for free in our building - so it is an easy resource for the students to access.

    I find the articles on my own. It does take a bit of time reading the WSJ, Sunday NYT, the Economist every week. However, reading is my hobby so it gives me an excuse to do something I enjoy.


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