Review: #EconTEAching Seminar 18: Diversifying Economics Curriculum, by Vandita Garg and Baoyang Yu

On the 13th October 2021, we hosted a chat with Ingrid Kvangraven (KCL) and Carolina Alves (Cambridge) to talk about “Diversifying Economics Curriculum.” In recent times, the discipline has been under scrutiny due to the lack of diversity and inclusive culture, and as academic economists we have been asked to provide solutions to these problems. The seminar’s discussion focused on the various aspects that may influence the lack of diversity in Economics and what we need to consider when thinking of these solutions. We need to attract more economists from under-represented groups, but we also need broader perspectives and more geographical representation.

Personally, I have heard from a lot of like-minded colleagues from CTaLE and other networks on how a lack of diversity affects Economics, and we need to work together to support the change. However, it is also fascinating hearing students’ perspectives on how they see these issues. Below there are two great summaries from students who attended the seminar. Reading through these has filled me (Steffie) with a bit of happiness to know that students are receptive of these changes and has provided further reason to keep working on these issues. Hope you enjoy reading these too!


Vandita Garg

The talk of diversity is not new. However, even though the acceleration wave of globalisation hit in the 1970s, the discipline of Economics has only just woken up to the debate. Diversifying and decolonising the pedagogy of Economics as a discipline is not a straightforward concept, and one might have to break it down into manageable components such as diversifying the curriculum, diversifying the way Economics is taught and diversifying the way it is assessed. These components are undoubtedly interdependent, but it is part of a much longer discussion, and all cannot be corrected in a single conversation. Nevertheless, we must start somewhere!

In this spirit, CTaLE recently invited guest speakers from two highly-reputed UK universities, Ingrid Kvangraven and Carolina Alves, who are the co-founders of the Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) initiative, for a discussion on Diversifying Economics Curriculum. In my opinion, there could not have been a better mix of speakers, whose own research interests in such a wide mix of subjects such as development economics, history of economic thought and political economy of finance, exemplifies their commitment to the discipline and its diversity.

This is not at all to say that the other components are any less important; they are being discussed in parallel forums. In fact, in November 2019, I had the incredible opportunity to co-present with my professors Dr. Ramin Nassehi and Wendy Carlin in a speaker series aimed at discussing the initiatives which had been taken by the Social and Historical Sciences faculties at UCL to decolonise their disciplines. We spoke at length about the innovative teaching and assessment methods which CTaLE has been employing as it evolves as a department, from organising a UCL Economics Walk around London to setting up the First Year Challenge assessments. So, following from that, it was amazing to be a part of this dynamic seminar chaired by Dr. Nassehi on the need to diversify the Economics curriculum.

The seminar kicked off with an imperative question from the chair on understanding where it is that Economics lacks in diversity and more importantly, why we should even care. In recent times, and as Carolina rightly pointed out, especially with the pandemic, aspiring economists have repeatedly had to realise that some crises cannot be modelled as temporary shocks, and a multi-disciplinary and diverse approach is needed to study the complexity of economies. Ingrid and Carolina’s seminar, therefore, was a deep-dive into studying this lack of diversity under a few different parameters, which I summarise below –

Perspective

  • Curiously, or rather unfortunately, the narrative of economic theories taught in institutions has become narrower with time.
  • This means that we are missing out; as Ingrid noted, many students of Economics are not being given the encouragement to learn competing theories and points of view on the same issues, which at times will have majorly different policy considerations.
  • These mainstream settings not only restrict the perspectives on an issue, but also lead to exclusion of certain important topics from the mainstream, ranging from but not limited to structural racism and colonialism to the loss of biodiversity, explained Carolina.

Authorship

  • As a student myself, I agree with Ingrid and Carolina that what we are taught and who we are taught by, shapes our idea of who we think is valuable as a scholar in the field of Economics.
  • The fact that most textbooks in the field are written by professors at elite US universities and that there are still not many women, persons of colour, or people from developing countries in the mainstream is a warning sign for the US and Europe-centric future Economics might have as a discipline if nothing changes.

Geography

  • The speakers elaborated on their shared experiences of finding very little representation of scholarship from the Global South in Economics. When a student looks at who authors the papers they read for class, can they relate to any of them? Or does it give them an impression of academia being inaccessible, unless they belong to a particular identity of European/American white men?
  • Something to keep in mind when aiming for diversity is to prevent tokenizing the marginalised scholarship. As Carolina and Ingrid clarified, some authors from the Global South may not actually bring a different outlook on an issue because they have been trained in a Global North institute.
  • When talking about the relatively lesser amount of research into and by developing countries, one of the audience members pointed out a legitimate concern of the lack of good data. Combatting this has, in part, been geared towards own data collection by researchers, however, Ingrid argued that the power of qualitative studies of these economies can also not be underestimated so lack of data is not entirely to blame.

Platforms like D-Econ, as the speakers explained in response to queries from the audience, create awareness of the availability of plural branches of economic theory, aiming at breaking down the self-reinforcing cycle of the kind of scholarship we see in top journal editorial boards and the kind of research these journals not only condone, but encourage. An interesting concept was added to this discussion by Carolina, about how this is very practically relevant to the issue of underfunding certain research areas in Economics and tackling the issue of English-speaking as being the default criterion for entering into Economics. One important point noted by both speakers to bring up here, is that we need to realise that diversity does not come at the cost of academic rigour. Our definition of rigour is flawed if it equates to the conventional and the generally acceptable system of doing Economics.

Something that especially stood out to me was the point Ingrid and Carolina made about how economic thought has not progressed in a linear manner to the present day. The methodological pluralism in Economics has not been settled and the tools we use to understand the economy are not static or finalised, but constantly evolving. In that regard, there are many resources we can be encouraged to use to make that start into appreciating this diversity and evolution, including the growing network of Reteaching Economics and the Union of Radical Political Economics introduced by some audience members, alongside the initiatives which have been brought into the limelight by this discussion here.

There is no one way to diversify! The main thing I am taking away from this seminar, as I am sure other audience members also did, is that we need to challenge our own assumptions of why we think the Economics discipline should be taught or studied in the specific way we have been teaching or learning it.


Baoyang Yu

When I was studying in high school in China, my teacher shared a question to us: “Why are today’s economic theories mainly named after Western men? For example, Keynesian Model, Fisher equations, Malthusian theory, etc. I am waiting the day when there’s some famous theory or equation named after you guys, think about Wang Theory, or Yu’s equation!”

Are our Economics textbooks mainly written by European or American white man? Are today’s economics research mainly done by developed countries? If you also think so, it is time to think about lack of diversity in our Economics curriculum.

On a sunny afternoon of 13th October, Ingrid Kvangraven (King’s College London) and Carolina Alves (University of Cambridge) joined CTaLE’s EconTEAching seminar “Diversifying Economics Curriculum” chaired by Ramin Nassehi (University College London).

Ingrid and Carolina are co-founder of Diversifying and decolonizing Economics initiative which aims to promote inclusiveness in economics, both in terms of academic content and in its institutional structures. They are working to promote an economics field free of discrimination, including sexism, racism, and discrimination based on approach and geography.

When talking about “diversifying”, there must be “lack of diversity”. The lack of diversity in curriculum is in two key ways. The most standard curricula are very narrow in perspectives, as well as theoretical & methodological approach.

Ingrid explained that perspectives use to be open, having competing theoretical perspectives like Marx, Harvard, etc. Now it’s exclusive and hierarchical: no Marx now in mainstream curriculum, and those in developed countries defines the knowledge……
In terms of authors, most textbooks are written by those in elite US universities The curricula narrowly “define” who have knowledge, while those in marginalised identities could probably see worlds differently than those in the mainstream.

Lack of topics is also worth mentioning. The mainstream curriculum view Economics as a linear evolution of theories, new ones are more advanced than new ones. But that’s not the case. It ignores the development of those ‘outdated’ theories like Marx’s theories, which were treated like they only existed in 19th century. It creates a misinformation for students learning Economics. They are symptoms, Ingrid mentioned, and the deeper problem is the lack of perspectives.

It is a Euro-centric situation, Carolina pointed out; in terms of publishing, although there is a wave of globalization since 1980s, journals are mainly focused on US and Europe developed countries’ research. One audience asked question: “If most discipline are most Anglo-American, how to convince them to change?” Well, it’s a problem of hierarchy, political issue, and we cannot actually “convince”. Ingrid showed an example of the hierarchy – Americanisation in the last century: American thoughts spread around the world with textbooks. It is a symbol of power, and it is difficult to interfere.

What’s worse is that those lacks reinforce each other, causing a vicious circle. Scholars and researchers from the global south, the developing countries, tend to go to developed countries to do research, maybe because of better funding, sources of data, reputation, or facilities. And this results in more lack of diversity and possible discrimination, while those trained by global north, the developed worlds, cannot really bring much different ideas or thoughts than the mainstream. For example, ‘the Chicago boys’, Latin American economists trained in University of Chicago went back to Chile to reform, but their idea and methodologies were still mainstream ones.

To solve the lack of scholars from global south, we could build a database for scholars from global south and other marginalised groups, who are researching which specific topic. Teachers and lecturers can go there to view their research and communicate different ideas from different perspectives. Some already exists like https://d-econ.org/about-the-d-econ-database/d-econ-database-2/. Holding Events and creating networks of scholars connecting people from different backgrounds can also create an environment for better flowing of diversified ideas.

In my view, to diversify Economics, we also need to show students different approaches do exist, and are developing now. Students need to know there are currently debates of ideas, which may sparkle more new thoughts.

Thanks to Ingrid, Carolina, and Ramin for the informative seminar!


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