Sunday, September 17, 2023

What to say to first year students on the first day?

There is only one opportunity for the first time. In my first (and perhaps a little bit of the second) class on Introductory Economics of the degree on History, Politics and Economics, I have the privilege of almost full attention by almost all of my students (after the first class, attention and attendance tend to gradually diminish).

Applying my experience as student and teacher, it is important to start before the first class, perhaps sending a message, or going to the reception meeting, or asking a colleague for 5 minutes of her class if hers is some days before mine, and telling them to do something before the first class, such as reading some brief article or having a look at the textbook (in our case, a free e-book, The Economy).

In the first class, I try to give a taste of the contents, by summarizing the ingredients of the full course but also by showing some graph with data about an important topic (such as global inequality as in Unit 1 of The Economy).

I tell students that teaching or learning is a cooperative task, as most things are in human life. I introduce the concept of “Externalities” by telling them that asking questions in class generates positive externalities, and looking at the smartphone or talking to the neighbour generates negative externalities.

I don’t shy from giving them advice that is rooted in what you need to be a good student (I think they appreciate this, although I’m not sure that anyone has given me this advice explicitly): 

-Be modest and ambitious at the same time: be aware of the constraints, but try to satisfy your preferences, especially when these can be enjoyed with others and not against others.

-Develop critical thinking, especially with yourself and your tribe, without falling into paralysis or nihilism.

-Ask questions, seek help, never miss an opportunity to learn or have fun.

The first days are a good opportunity to understand what do the students care about: CORE’s Word cloud is a good tool. I show them the Word cloud from the previous 2 years, reflecting that Covid and Inflation have been sudden presences, but that Inequality and Climate change look more permanent.

On methodology, I try to convince them of the complementarity between theoretical models and empirical evidence, and about the usefulness of using good definitions, although these are more ambiguous in social sciences than in natural sciences. This I can illustrate with the definitions of economics and capitalism in Unit 1 of The Economy

Economics is not about shopping, but about understanding the world (on this, The Economy is superior to traditional textbooks) and changing the world, as Wendy Carlin once said. I will not teach them how to be rich, but how is wealth distributed. Although institutions give me disproportionate power in the classroom, courses are always a process of collective learning. I tell them “I also learn from you and you can and should learn from each other (if you talk to each other)”.

Finally, I emphasize the importance of the multidisciplinary nature of their degree in History, Politics and Economics. This gives them a great opportunity to be more realistic, because things are not separated in the real world, as they are in academic disciplines. But there are risks to be avoided. For example, multidisciplinarity should not be superficiality, but selective depth on some of the key issues of the subdisciplines. And the opportunity must be seized to develop a truly multidisciplinar perspective on some topics. This is what will give them an advantage relative to those that only get the deep perspective of one of the subdisciplines.

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