Teaching Political Economy: Some personal reflections
I am a new lecturer, currently in my second year of teaching. I work in an institution that has traditionally created space for the discussion of different approaches to international development, but with standard mainstream economics (micro/macro/econometrics etc) taught in all other modules. Whilst I do not face the institutional challenges that many colleagues do in terms of censorship over the introduction of different economic theories into my teaching, the current design of the curriculum posed some challenges over how exactly to go about doing so. Further, the students themselves had not before been exposed to alternative economic theories and, indeed, the vast majority were not even aware that they were studying a variant of economics called neoclassical economics. In this context, I decided to use a second year undergraduate module I was teaching on the History of Economic Thought as a way of introducing the students to different theorists (as is required). I also turned this into a critical reflection on neoclassical economics, and debated different economists’ approaches to a range of economic questions, rather than focusing on the chronological development of ideas over time. This approach was broadly successful, with some positive student engagement.
However, there were some challenges I encountered. In particular, the initial broaching of the issue was difficult. I used material from the Manchester post-crash society as a way of stimulating some discussion, alongside a clip from the film ‘Inside Job’ that criticises the economics discipline, to get students thinking about how useful the economics they were studying in other modules was in terms of explaining the most important economic event in their lifetime (the financial crisis). When we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t very useful, the reaction from students was mixed – for some, a moment of realisation and clarity, for others demoralisation and questioning why they had been studying economics at all. I compounded this issue by feeling I needed to be transparent with them, and so perhaps a little too forcefully told them what I thought about neoclassical economics. This was the first time I had ever done this, and I hope to deal with this in a more nuanced way in future. However, in the face of the onslaught of neoclassical economics in all other areas of their education, I felt that I needed to counter this, and to make it clear to students that this is a politicised issue.
A second and related issue is that without other colleagues teaching from a heterodox perspective, there is a danger that students perceive me as the radical ‘crazy’, which will detract from the serious economic debates that I am trying to promote. This year there are some students already anticipating the point in time that I tell them neoclassical economics is rubbish – I am not convinced this is a good thing. Whilst attempting to incorporate heterodox teaching into mainstream institutions is absolutely necessary, if done so in isolated circumstances, this may not always have the desired impact.
The IIPPE in Brief editorial team are interested in running a regular feature on personal experiences of those teaching political economy in. We welcome contributions from educators, young and old. We hope that in sharing our experiences we can identify common challenges and creative approaches to teaching political economy today.