Uncomfortable Conversations with an Economics Professor

Earlier this month, the Journal of Economics Teaching published their second issue related to teaching during the pandemic. Back in the Fall, the journal put out a call for papers and ended up with so many great submissions that they published two issues. In the winter issue, the journal published an article I submitted with Wayne Geerling and Nicola Thomas on hosting a social event for students to connect with each other over Zoom. While that paper was a lot of fun, I was more passionate about the second paper that I submitted with Abdullah Al-Bahrani:

Full transparency, I’m on the Board of Directors for the journal, but I wasn’t last fall when I submitted both papers. The idea for this paper started on Twitter last summer. I kept seeing a lot of posts online about examples educators were going to use in their classrooms in the upcoming term. Something didn’t sit right with me about it. It’s one thing to talk about how the pandemic has impacted various parts of life, but it felt wrong to use the pandemic in arbitrary examples. Economists love talking about how “economics is everywhere,” but this was an area I didn’t want to bring into class unless it actually related to our material:

The sentiment wasn’t universally supported. Some took my stance to mean that I was going to prohibit discussion in class. I teach a Labor Economics course every semester, and I can’t just ignore the impact that the pandemic has had on unemployment rates or inequality. When the pandemic first hit the US, I was teaching a natural resources economics course and there were a lot of early reports on the positive impact lockdowns had on air quality. I believe it’s important to talk about sensitive topics in class, but I don’t think sensitive topics should be added to a course just for the sake of talking about it.

I use Packback discussion boards in my classes, and students can talk about topics they’re interested in if they’re related to the class. I let most of the pandemic discussion happen there. A lot of educators online pointed out that students were choosing to write about the pandemic in their essays, but I think that echoed my intention of letting students choose what we talk about. After a few weeks in the early stage of the pandemic, one student in my upper-level class noticed I hadn’t brought up the pandemic in class and wondered why. A handful of other students responded and said they were glad we weren’t covering it. Here’s one of those responses (shared with the student’s permission):

I was confident I was making the right decision, but I questioned whether I was really doing what’s best for my students. I teach principles of microeconomics in the Fall and I needed to make a decision on how I would talk about the pandemic. That’s when people started posting on Twitter about how great the “toilet paper shortage” example would be in the fall or how testing positive for COVID could be used as their new example for Type I and Type II errors. Seeing those tweets made me uncomfortable and they came across privileged. I started talking to Abdullah about it and we had a similar takeaway.

Some professors and students may look back at the mad rush for hand sanitizer or toilet paper and laugh about it, but there were real people struggling to care for their families as the country faced record-high unemployment rates. Many of those families also showed up at grocery stores and weren’t able to get something as basic as toilet paper. That time period is over (thankfully), but do we need to remind students sitting in our Econ 101 course that “the market for toilet paper” was a good example of shortages because stores didn’t raise their prices. Will students understand the reference better because of the example? Is a bad experience worth it for a good example? I honestly doubt that example would make much of an impact. Likely, it will remind a few students that there was a period during the pandemic where their families were unemployed, they were waiting in long lines at food banks, and they also didn’t even have any toilet paper at home.

Maybe one example isn’t all that bad. I think what scared us most was seeing how many people intended to use examples from the pandemic every chance they could. It was almost like they were turning their courses into a “Principles of the Pandemic” course. The research community has provided a lot of early indicators on the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Of relevance to educators is the fact that young adults (18-24) are reporting much higher rates of anxiety and/or depressive disorders. This pandemic has really opened my eyes to the role of trauma-informed teaching.

All that’s to say, I don’t often shy away from uncomfortable topics in my classrooms. I know there are important topics that should be taught more often, but some instructors don’t cover them because they’re uncomfortable. I think it’s important to take a data-driven or empirical approach to topics that some students may be sensitive to talking about. I want my lessons and examples to be rooted in some sort of observable data. Even with statistics and figures ready, I get very uncomfortable in class. I actually think that makes me a better teacher because it shows students that not only am I a normal person, but I think the topics are important enough to cover that I’m willing to be nervous talking about them.

You may look at some of the topics I present below and not find them all that uncomfortable to talk about. I like to call some of them the “Thanksgiving dinner” topics. For example, it means having an open discussion in my principles class about the impact of international trade. I hate that the topic is delivered in textbooks mostly as “society is better off” without being honest about what that entails. The sum of society is better off when we allow people to trade, but that doesn’t mean every person is better off. We have the same talk in my labor economics course when it comes to immigration. Allowing people to move increases the productivity of an economy, but some people may be worse off. I don’t think it means we should avoid policies that are good for the population as a whole, but I do think it’s important that politicians consider policies to help those impacted.

As a quick aside, I recently subscribed to a newsletter (The Flip Side) that presents headlines and summaries about major current events from both sides of the political aisle. It has really pushed me to think about topics from multiple angles rather than my own preference

My Economics of Crime course this past semester was a weekly walk through sensitive topics. I am thankful to have taught this course at this time because it covered topics like racial bias in the justice system, the death penalty, drug usage, terrorism, and hate crimes. Each week is a chance to remind myself and my students that there are real people impacted by the policies we’re discussing and the topics we’re covering. One of the last topics we cover in the course is sex work, and it is the hardest lecture I ever give. I uncomfortably stand in front of my students and provide a short overview of the economics of prostitution. It’s 50 minutes of me with pink cheeks. To save me the embarrassment, you can read about most of what I cover thanks to the Urban Institute.

Talking about tough sensitive subjects is hard, but it’s worth it. I don’t want to be the professor who only covers what’s in the book and then ends the semester with students thinking that’s the only thing my subject is about. I’m passionate about teaching students to be better critical thinkers and that starts with me being willing to approach topics that I think are important. I do think the pandemic is important, but it should be treated in the same way we treat other sensitive topics. I don’t think it should be the go-to example just to show “economics is everywhere.”

I’ve decided to set aside this section to highlight just a few facts and figures related to some of the uncomfortable conversations we have in class:

  • Manufacturing output has increased 300% since 1960, but manufacturing employment has decreased by millions [Urban Institute]

  • The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has been decreasing since 2007 [Pew Research Center]

  • High school dropout rates have been falling for the past few decades, but Hispanic students (8%) are almost twice as likely as white students (4.2%) to drop out [Department of Education]

  • Researchers estimate that 12.8% of adult men have a felony conviction, but 33% of African American men have a felony [Shannon et al., 2017]

  • Terrorism accounts for around 0.05% of deaths, but around 33% of media coverage [Our World in Data]

  • It costs approximately $31,977 per year to incarcerate someone in federal prison [Federal Register]

  • Since 1973, there have been 185 people exonerated of all charges related to the convictions that had put them on death row [Death Penalty Information Center]

We have finished Week 17 of 2021 and I’ve checked in 23 books so far. Last week was the last week of normal classes so it required a bit more attention to wrapping up my courses. I finished a nonfiction book, Concrete Roses, which is the prequel to The Hate U Give. Overall, it was a good book, but I really liked The Hate U Give more.

I wanted to take this section, however, and highlight where the theme for this edition came from. Back in November, I read Emmanuel Acho’s Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, which is based on his YouTube channel. I think I may have read this book in just a day or two because it was so well written:

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