'Dim Sum for the Mind': Economics Blogs Engage Policy Wonks and Students

January 08, 2012

In an age of sophisticated social media and rapidly evolving technologies, blogs would seem to be about as sexy as a pair of sensible shoes. Yet as simple as they may be, blogs have also proven to be valuable to economists debating principles and policy, and to faculty looking to breathe life into the teaching of their discipline, speakers said here on Saturday.

"The virtue of blogs is that they're living, real-time, and they respond to what's happening in the real world," said Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who is co-author of the book Freakonomics and of a blog of the same name. He was one of several scholars who joined a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association on the topic of using blogs to teach undergraduate economics.

The role of economics blogs started changing noticeably around 2008, said Alex Tabarrok, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University. Before then, blogs were expected to be clever and entertaining, and little else.

But the financial crisis demanded a response from economists. It sparked debate among scholars about which principles should be applied and to what extent, and which should be re-examined or scuttled. Familiar intellectual forums, like disciplinary meetings and the back-and-forth of scholarly publications, proved too slow to keep up, the speakers said.

Since then, economics blogs have become spaces for heated debates about monetary policy, taxation, and regulation, among other issues. Among the most influential are those of N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, Paul Krugman of Princeton University, Scott B. Sumner of Bentley University, and J. Bradford DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley.

Now debates that once took place in conferences or classrooms are carried out publicly and can be preserved and indexed. And, because of the conventions of blogging, economists' thoughts are expressed in far more accessible prose than is typically found in scholarly journals. "I find it amazing," said Gail Hoyt of the University of Kentucky, "that I can get the unfiltered views of some of our most important thinkers."

This informality can be a liability, said Mr. Levitt. Blogs are not always well-written, carefully reasoned, or fleshed out.

But even morsels of thought can still add up to something intellectually valuable, said Mr. Tabarrok, because readers can follow an ongoing dialogue and deepen their understanding through repeated visits. Economics blogs are, he said, "dim sum for the mind."

Blogs as Teaching Tools

The unvarnished and spirited discussions on blogs can also serve a pedagogical purpose, several speakers said, by allowing faculty to enliven their teaching beyond textbooks. Students can see firsthand that the discipline is relevant, hotly contested, and far from intellectually monolithic.

Still, Jodi N. Beggs, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, cautioned against plopping students from introductory-level courses into the middle of ongoing debates without guidance or context. "You want to curate the content you provide to your students," she said. Ms. Beggs is one of the creators of the blog Economists Do It With Models.

Mr. Levitt argued that blogs would be even more valuable as educational tools if they were used in tandem with textbooks. For example, authors of widely-used textbooks could maintain blogs that connect issues unfolding in the real world with the economic principles in their books.

"That would be something that is tremendously useful for teachers," he said, "something that lives and breathes as the economy evolves."

He cited a precedent from the analog era: Milton Friedman was known to bring a copy of the day's New York Times to classes he taught at the University of Chicago. Instead of using a textbook, he would explain to his students how the news illuminated economic principles.

More of that kind of connection is needed to engage students, Mr. Levitt said. Economics courses often focus too narrowly on theoretical models instead of helping students understand and appreciate how economists think through issues.

"We teach in sterile ways with sterile models that are not well connected to the real world," he said. "That leads directly to students who aren't very good at applying those ideas to the real world."

Some panelists use their blogs to exchange ideas about teaching, an area of professional life for which they are often ill-prepared, said Jennifer Y. Imazeki, professor of economics at San Diego State University and producer of the blog Economics for Teachers.

"We're mostly left to figure it out on our own," she said, adding that she uses her blog to reflect on and learn from what she does in the classroom. "It helps us pull out of the isolated bubble we all tend to teach in."

Ms. Imazeki also assigns students to write blogs. Even though she does not grade them, students know they have to post their thoughts publicly, which motivates them to take the assignment seriously, she said.

The assignments also allow her to get a sense of what students know at different points throughout the semester. "By reading what they write, you get a sense of what they're thinking," she said, "or if they're thinking."