TeachECONference2022: Reflections on the Purpose of Economics Education

On Wednesday 29th June, CTaLE together with Cornell University held the final round of seminars for TeachECONference2022 – an annual worldwide virtual conference inviting professors, students, and companies to discuss their research and insights on teaching economics. UCL Economics student Suraj Sridhar gives his thoughts on the closing panel.

TeachECONference 2022 Closing Panel

As anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari points out in his seminal book Sapiens, humans are keen on gossip, perhaps to a fault. Nothing captures our attention like a story, to the extent that nearly all popular communication is centred around storytelling, be it the news, music, cinema, video games, or novels. Yet, lost in a slew of datasets, STATA commands, and differential equations, today’s undergraduate economist can be forgiven for concluding that theirs is indeed the “dismal science,” that their job is to perpetually fiddle with the buttons of pricing, policy, or production to ensure the rest of the world can continue having fun. The final seminar at TeachECONference2022 offered a glimmer of hope, with a panel of three speakers from industry sharing their experiences telling stories with data.

Professor Douglas McKee, Senior Lecturer at Cornell University and chair for the discussion, set the problem in stone from the outset: “in our classes, we’re trying to prepare our students for a post-college life”, he began. Though they had no shortage of tools, he attested that “what we don’t spend time on is teaching students how to communicate their findings to a broader audience.” Sticking to the academic spirit, Professor McKee praised the panel for teaching through their novel experiences, foreshadowing that today, the teachers would become the students.

Everyone’s best friend: FRED

Ah, FRED. Be it used for last-minute macro homework, or just for a late-night deep dive into 60 years of time series data on 10-year US Treasury bonds, the Federal Reserve Economic Database is a household name in economics departments everywhere. So it was met with much acclaim when Diego Mendez-Carbajo of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis announced that the Bank would be launching a new online course on data literacy using the FRED database. Data representation is the very first step towards communication – you may be the next Michael Burry, but to convince your clients that your short position is solid, you must be able to translate between data and words. What’s more, the course is built for librarians, thus emphasising rigour above all else.

Add this to your network: Econometrics at LinkedIn

To nobody’s surprise, LinkedIn handles heaps of user data. But Rose Tan takes us behind the scenes, beyond data presentation and even beyond forecasting techniques involving machine learning. In fact, LinkedIn has a unique position within the labour market that most economists could only dream of: a platform to conduct experiments. For example, by offering a new feature to one set of members and not another, they can assess the causal effect of the feature on a variety of variables such as profile views, connections, and career development. Yet the crucial work is done in the final stage – in sharing findings with product managers and partners. For this, Rose offered two tips: to remain faithful to the methodology and its shortcomings; and to present findings using analogies to aid understanding. Her work generated much interest – both Professor McKee and Professor Parama Chaudhury chimed in via chat to express that this is exactly what they believe students need to prepare for a “post-college world.”

For the people: The ultimate stakeholders of the Bank of England

After all this debate, Professor McKee’s fundamental question still remained standing: why and how are we to teach communication of economic ideas? It was Thomas Viegas from the Bank of England to the rescue. “Part of the job of an economist is to put some order and structure around what we see,” he remarked. With such a monumental responsibility to the people, it was self-evident why the Bank would seek to make the communication of their actions accessible. The Bank, playing multiple roles in the economy from promoting monetary stability to maintaining gold reserves, must not only justify each decision with a narrative, but also ensure they are congruent with whatever overall narrative it employs. Thomas concluded with a rule of thumb – any good economics narrative is Coherent, Consistent, and Concise (the latter sparked a strange competition in the chat over which university gives their first years the lowest word limit for their research project – obviously our 400-word IWA takes the cake).

The Q&A touched upon graver matters. Professor Joel Clovis from the University of East Anglia posed a brilliant question: will data science soon be the only game in town? In one camp, Thomas, Rose, and Professor McKee all agreed that it is diversity in teams and background that brings quality to communication. In the other stood Diego with a striking argument. He posited that since any economist wanting to work with original datasets will be tied to a data scientist, “the moment the data scientist gets some basic economic tools, the odds of such professionals taking over the economist’s job become pretty high.” When asked about the importance of teamwork, Diego gave a personal lesson – once he became an employee, he never sent an email with just one recipient ever again.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the discussions that day was a window into the priorities of our professors. Whether it was Professor Chaudhury’s idea for a course designed around social media data analysis, or Professor McKee’s call to prepare students for a “world that’s not college,” it became clear that today, our educators envision their institutions as pipelines into a much wider world. In this wider world, characterised by a cutthroat high-skilled labour market, the need for constant innovation, and ever-thinning patience, economics education cannot afford to exist simply for its own sake. Rather, only by keeping pace with the needs of the surrounding labour market can it hope to survive.

It seems that economic principles are coming back to haunt the study of economics itself. Isn’t it ironic?

Watch the full session

This blogpost is part of CTaLE project on “Enhancing research-education synergy” which is funded by UCL Social & Historical Sciences (SHS).

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