More Talk, Less Chalk: Communicating Economics in the Modern Classroom
Communicating Economics is a first-year undergraduate course which explores the range of ways in which economics is communicated. Its second purpose is to impart core communication skills to new economists. I set out my approach to teaching this new course, focusing in on a sequence of lectures and small-group discussion classes which are all about “economics as literature”. Here I introduce students to the study of economists’ use of narrative storytelling to persuade others, and apply ideas from this literature to discuss the economic narratives that drive popular science fiction stories. This topic is meant to accompany, and contrast with, the “scientific lens” through which new university students are typically first exposed to economics.
There is something of a paradox in university-level economics teaching. Economics graduates continue to achieve extremely good labour market outcomes. But for over a decade now students and graduate employers have voiced concerns that the contents of economics degrees are “out of touch”. The mixture of transferable skills and quantitative methods taught in undergraduate economics programmes helps to explain the former. The dominance of de-contextualised mathematical economics teaching is no doubt one cause of the latter. Mathematics is a valuable skill that teaches students to construct logical arguments and think in abstract ways. But mathematics is just one of the many languages of economics; if economics students wish to persuade their audiences and make a useful contribution, then they must also learn to communicate their ideas in words.
Course outlines and programme specifications typically list “communication skills” among the expected learning outcomes of economics degrees. But these skills are almost never addressed formally. Rather, students are expected to gain them by participating in formative classroom activities, or completing their summative assessments. I think students additionally benefit from taking a dedicated communication course. At Queen’s University Belfast I had the opportunity to create just such a course as part of a restructuring of our first-year undergraduate curriculum. My course, titled Communicating Economics, now sits alongside Principles of Economics and Mathematics for Economists as a compulsory component of the first semester of our three-year single-honours BSc Economics degree.
My aim was to design a course that would transforms students into “well-rounded” economists by helping them to better articulate their ideas in words. I wished to intervene early, right at the start of their academic journey, rather than bolt on communication skills to the end of their third year of study. The way I teach economic communication is by stimulating students to think about what economics as a discipline is trying to achieve, and exposing them to the myriad ways in which economists attempt to persuade. This requires me to discuss more conceptual material from economic methodology, philosophy, and rhetoric. Students learn how the communication of economic ideas is driven by context. The “real-world” applications I use give students a chance to “use” economics in problem-solving contexts – something absent from the first year of a traditional UK economics degree. I hope my selection of economics topics also exposes students to some important, controversial societal questions where economics, when communicated well, can prove useful.
My Communicating Economics course has five interlinked units, each of which approaches economics through a different lens. Each unit comes in two parts: a more conceptual treatment of the topic; and an applied class where I make use if these concepts to explain some economic phenomena – here they learn some new economics along the way. My five units are: (1) economics as science; (2) economics as literature; (3) economics as politics; (4) economics as history; and (5) economics as philosophy. I introduce each below, before sketching the second topic in more detail in the sections that follow.
- Economics is science in that it deals in causal relationships, relies on measurement and metrics, and purports to be inherently falsifiable. Like other sciences, economists move between abstract theory and real-world evidence to build their analyses and prescribe their policy initiatives. Scientific language is integral to the way economists communicate. The “scientific lens” is typically the sole perspective through which economics is presented in principles textbooks. This unit introduces students to how economists use scientific language when they attempt to persuade their audiences, and lays the foundations for subsequent comparisons with other approaches to economic communication. My application is to the economics of climate change, where we focus on the societal function of climate modelling.
- Economics is literature in that it can have intrinsic artistic or intellectual value aside from its intended practical function of understanding the economy. But more fundamentally, economists share the art of storytelling with novelists, playwrights and scriptwriters as a method of communicating their ideas. The aim of this unit is to introduce to students the idea of economics as storytelling, to equip them with the skills to identify and reflect upon popular recurring economic stories, and then to encourage them to write their own versions of these economic stories. I apply these ideas to look at the economics of science fiction, which builds on economic ideas and contexts from fields such as business economics, environmental economics and political economy.
- Economics is politics in that it is used to inform government policy decisions and justify partisan communications. Economists have fostered a schism, and developed an associated language, to keep positive (“what is”) and normative (“what should be”) economic insights distinct and separate. But this distinction does not always work very well, which provides great material for classroom discussion. This unit concerns the ways politicians and public intellectuals use, but also abuse, economics to persuade their audiences. This unit allows me to re-consider the use of economics in the Brexit referendum campaign as my application.
- Economics is history in two distinct ways: economic evidence is historical by definition and benefits from historical methods to assess its reliability and relevance; and historical events and processes help to explain many present-day economic phenomena. This topic focuses on the ways in which the discipline of economic history can have a useful influence on economics and economists. The contrasting ways in which economists and historians communicate their views is a particular focus; to put it crudely, economists are typically concerned with averages and aggregates, while historians with contingency and outliers. My application for this unit is to put Covid-19 public health policy in historical context, and think about learning from past pandemics.
- Finally, then, economics is philosophy in that it deals with fundamental questions of existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language. This topic links together some of the key insights from across the course with more formal ideas from the philosophy of science to better understand economic rhetoric. I also discuss some core assumptions made in mainstream economic modelling in light of ideas from moral philosophy. Indeed, as the application in this unit I get students to read and translate extracts from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) about the concept of natural justice.
Narrative Storytelling in Economics
The “Economics as Literature” unit, like the others in my Communicating Economics course, comes in two parts: a more conceptual treatment of the topic; and an applied class where I make use of these concepts to describe and explain a set of economic phenomena. My conceptual lecture focuses mainly on introducing students to the ideas of four “Big Thinkers” who have engaged with economic storytelling in their own work, but in quite different ways: Deirdre McCloskey, Mary Morgan, Avner Greif and Robert Shiller. The application class, which follows immediately in the sequence, applies these ideas to the science fiction literary genre, focusing on the economic stories of some famous – and some less famous – futuristic fiction franchises.
The unit is then accompanied by two small-group discussion classes across two consecutive weeks, in which students prepare activities that reinforce their learning. Here I force students to identify and retell economic stories by completing two activities: composing haiku, a short form of poetry from Japan (following Ziliak, 2009), and narrating old episodes of The Simpsons, a popular animated sitcom from the US (following Hall, 2014). Finally, the assessment of this part of the course relies on keeping a regular reflective reading journal, where students re-tell and criticise major current economic stories that they read across different media outlets. I explain all these teaching settings in what follows, starting with the conceptual lecture.
Insights from the work of Deirdre McCloskey form the starting point of this unit. In a series of contributions on rhetoric – “the art of persuasion” – she argues that economics is as much a literary discipline as a scientific one. Paraphrasing McCloskey’s argument: like novelists, economists have two modes of explanation: we make use of stories and metaphors. She defines “stories” as backward-looking explanatory narratives, while “metaphors” are more like our forward-looking abstract predictive models. Economists use these modes in different contexts, for different purposes, and their use can come into conflict. Making a distinction like McCloskey’s is important because it helps students to understand how economists systematise and rationalise the world around them, and then how they attempt to communicate their knowledge to others. I am convinced making students more self-aware helps them to better communicate their own ideas.
The stories/metaphors dichotomy should then help students to make deeper realisations about the nature of economic knowledge: understanding why economists disagree about practically everything. Because points of disagreement are, according to McCloskey, not necessarily down to the things that economists usually ascribe them to, like differences in modelling assumptions or adherence to different schools of thought. Rather, they are down to the ways in which economics is communicated between economists. This involves introducing students to a richer “theory of reading” that involves reading economic texts as if they are literary prose full of complications and hidden meanings; where the compression of knowledge into prose means crucial things are left out; and where the reader is not always capable of assuming the point of view of the author.
I then apply this logic to a topic close to McCloskey’s own research agenda: understanding the causes of the Industrial Revolution. We discuss the competing explanations that are advanced in the literature to explain why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Britain in the late-eighteenth century. I present a brief historiography – a history of the history-writing – to show how the explanations have changed over time. I include McCloskey’s own explanations for the phenomenon and show how they have developed over the past few decades, culminating in her current explanation, which stresses the essential role of language and rhetoric in developing liberal bourgeois ideas and values. Because the Industrial Revolution occurred only once, I make the point that modelling it is very difficult – but not for want of trying. Instead, economists typically make use of their storytelling-mode of explanation, which stresses context, contingency and nuance.
Mary Morgan looks at the way scientists explain with statistics, models, measurements, experiments and observations. Looking at Morgan’s (2017) work on “narrative science” is for me a logical next step in building students’ ability to reflect on what economists attempt to achieve in their communications. Morgan describes building narratives as a process of “ordering material”, which scientists achieve in a variety of different ways besides written prose – including through diagrams, flowcharts, maps and equations. She contrasts “chronicles” with “narratives”, with the former being about ordering events chronologically through time, while the latter goes further by implying relationships between events. Narratives, she argues, have a question-answer or problem-solving nature. Scientific narratives differ from those written by historians in that they are less interested in the particulars, and more interested categories, concepts and theories. They may lack the time dimension of historical narratives, focusing instead on some other configuring logic. While narratives can only explain in the particular context of their usage, Morgan argues scientific narratives can “travel beyond the case” and be repeatedly reused.
After these more “meta” approaches to classifying narratives, I continue with a more tangible use of the term originating from the field of economic history: we look at “analytic narratives” as a research methodology. Popularised by Avner Greif (1988) in his work on eleventh-century trade networks in the Mediterranean, this approach typically makes use of rational choice theories to fill in the gaps where the evidence is non-existent. Analytic narratives have been described by Boettke (2000) as “thick” descriptions with “dirty” data – which contrast with the “thin” descriptions provided by mathematical economics models and “clean” data used by econometricians. Applications have solved a range of economic puzzles, from describing the political economy of piracy in Leeson (2007), to explaining the spectacular failure of the DeLorean Motor Company in Brownlow (2015). This is a hybrid approach to storytelling which mixes economics’ literary and scientific lenses. Exposure to analytic narratives helps students reconcile the two, and brings them to something that is much closer to how policymakers actually analyse, narrate, and persuade.
I end my conceptual discussion by looking at an altogether different use of the term “narrative” by an economist. Robert Shiller (2017, 2019) coins the phrase “narrative economics” to describe how stories that offer an interpretation of economic events can themselves have the power to affect collective behaviour in the economy. Rather than looking at narratives from the perspective of a linguist, Shiller reserves the term “economic narratives” for stories that “do” something. Framing his idea using simple models from epidemiology, he argues that a small number of initial propagators can influence collective behaviour as their narratives can infect society like a virus. He identifies a set of “perennial narratives” that have recurred frequently in history: from bubble narratives that affect the stock market, to political narratives that affect election outcomes. Crucially, these narratives do not need to be true for them to have an economic impact; they can be self-fulfilling.
Shiller’s conceptualisation of narratives and their impact will sound familiar to social scientists who study memes. But I think his idea remains an original contribution because he is essentially presenting a theory that McCloskey’s stories (backward-looking explanatory narratives) sometimes have a dual purpose in also constituting metaphors (forward-looking abstract predictive models). He is also offering a specific mechanism that explains how Morgan’s scientific narratives are being repeatedly re-used in different contexts.
Introducing Shiller’s ideas in class also helps me to initiate a discussion about the way economic stories and metaphors can become “performative” – economic ideas taught in the classroom have the potential to affect how students subsequently behave. My aim here is that when my first-year students are learning about downward-sloping demand curves and efficient markets in their Principles course, they are equipped to reflect on the fact that these are “just” models of human behaviour. They are intended to reflect reality, but they are not “real” per se – unless students make them real by internalising the models and behaving according to their predictions, unless they become collective economic narratives. This discussion also provides students with the necessary scepticism when evaluating Greif’s use of rational choice theories in his analytic narratives.
Economics and Science Fiction
Science fiction deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts, such as advanced science and technology, time travel, parallel universes, space exploration, and extra-terrestrial life. The genre provides an entertaining criticism of our present-day society. Besides John Maynard Keynes’s (1930) optimistic vision of the future of society, or Paul Krugman’s (2010) tongue-in-cheek treatment of interstellar trade, science fiction is something not typically associated with economics. But science fiction is economics. On first glance, science fiction universes are all about the technology. Really, though, technology is just a side-show; the real focus is on socio-economic relations between protagonist, and the economic institutions that form the setting. I see science fiction universes as hypothetical counterfactuals; if you strip out the futuristic technologies, they are extreme scenarios where something drastic has changed the nature of society – typically the realisation of some catastrophic risk. They are a way through which stories about present-day economic problems can reach mass non-academic audiences.
If science fiction is economics, then economics is in some sense also science fiction. Indeed, this is the proposition of Ha-Joon Chang in his contribution to an excellent book of essays edited by William Davies (2018). According to Chang, the mainstream idea that economics does not involve ethical and political judgement is “downright wrong”; the positive-normative distinction “scientific” economists cling onto is artificial – it is a “science fiction”. Chang also believes economics is science fiction because of a belief he thinks underpins mainstream economics: that scientific progress will solve all societal problems – essentially, we are all actors in a Whig history.
The two-way economics-science fiction relationship is the focus of my application lecture because it gets students thinking about the nature of economics, the way it is communicated to non-economists, and the influence it has on our behaviour. Talking about science fiction is also fun – at least, it is for me. There exist a limited number of recurring science fiction stories that we can treat as economic narratives. My lecture takes students through three such narratives: (1) the disruptive nature of automation; (2) the problems with the corporation as a legal form for organising business; and (3) the tendencies and ways in which the state can abuse its power over citizens. I illustrate each with examples from science fiction. In choosing these settings, I introduce students to some important economic ideas and then give them a context in which to apply these ideas. Throughout the discussion, I get them to categorise my chosen works of science fiction using the taxonomies of McCloskey, Morgan, Greif, and Shiller. Besides contributions to Davies (2018), two excellent books that have helped me plan and frame this lesson are: Saadia (2016) and Sanchez-Pages (2021).
(1) Automation is one of Shiller’s perennial economic narratives, and one that is once again being actively discussed in the media. After defining some core terms and introducing students to the Beverage Curve, I discuss an article by Caprettini and Voth (2020) that looks at the Swing riots in England during the 1830s. These riots were a response to new labour-saving technologies introduced to rural society during the Industrial Revolution. This sets us up for a discussion of James Cameron’s movie The Terminator (1984) and its sequels. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin character is very literally about machines taking over and replacing humans. The future universe from which this cyborg time travels to the present has been ravaged by machines, who have enslaved mankind. This movie also helps me to talk about the use of counterfactuals in economic argumentation.
(2) Presenting the powerful idea of the corporation as constituting a nexus of contracts that can take transactions outside of the market and into hierarchies of control is the starting point for my second science fiction backdrop. After giving them some historical context on the emergence of the corporation as a legal form for enterprise in the Dutch Republic, I go through the core characteristics that define the modern corporation – including separate legal personality and the separation of ownership from control. The latter allows me to introduce students to the principal-agent problem. My science fiction application is Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner (1982), itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). This noir fiction has at its centre a police investigation by Harrison Ford’s android hunter Rick Deckard character. The dystopian world he inhabits is dominated by monopolistic mega-corporations, the most powerful among which is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for manufacturing the androids exploited for manual labour in space colonies. The Tyrell Corporation, like the Dutch East India Company, suffers from crippling corporate governance conflicts which ultimately lead to its demise. The questions left intentionally unanswered by the movie – is Deckard himself a replicant? – provide examples of McCloskey’s theory of reading.
(3) Political economy is not something that is typically taught to first-year economics students. But I think it should be. After all, it deals with important normative economic questions: who gets what, who gets to be what, and who gets to do what. After introducing students to the contractarian relationship between the individual and the state that is typically central to mainstream economics, we discuss what makes a democratic state democratic. Already familiar with the concept of market failure, we then build on this and discuss government failure: administrative infeasibility and special interests. My science fiction application is Richard Fleischer’ movie Soylent Green (1973), an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), in which Charlton Heston’s NYPD detective character Frank Thorn finds out that the state is converting people into foodstuff. The context here is an overpopulated world ravaged by climate catastrophe. In this story, New York’s citizens have no agency; their status is dictated by the state. A wealthy elite have disproportionate access to society’s remaining resources. And the populace is kept under control by making it dependent on the state for all its necessities. Soylent Green allows me to contrast the historical narrative that focuses on the individual actors in the story, with the economic one about the configuration of the post-apocalyptic society.
Communicating Economics has run for three cycles here at Queen’s. The second time I delivered it online because of the pandemic. Overall, students find this a challenging course, but seem to enjoy it nonetheless. They are not used to thinking about the material I present; students typically have a quite narrow view of what constitutes economics when they start out, their lens is closest to my “economics as science” unit. But after some initial hesitancy, I think I convince them that economics is a more varied and interesting discipline – that it is more than just applied mathematics.
Essentially, my course has two main aims: (1) to get students to reflect on the impact economic communication has on what economists have to say about the economy; but also (2) to improve their written and oral economics communication skills. It has so far proved difficult to assess whether this early intervention in their first year of study has an overall impact on student achievement later in their degree programmes; there have been many other changes these past few years making an evaluation very difficult.
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About the Author
Chris Colvin is Senior Lecturer in Economics at Queen’s University Belfast, where he co-directs the university’s Centre for Economic History. He teaches Communicating Economics to first-year undergraduate students on the university’s BSc Economics degree pathway. He is an Associate of the Economics Network, an academic organisation supporting the teaching and learning of economics in universities in the UK.
 I thank Duncan McVicar for support in establishing this course, Graham Brownlow and members of the Queen’s Management School Teaching and Learning Forum for acting as a sounding board for ideas, and Rachel Griffith for sharing teaching material from her course at the University of Manchester.
 This teaching case study is distributed by the Economics Network as a preprint working paper. The full paper will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book as: Colvin, Christopher. L., ‘More talk, less chalk: Communicating economics in the modern classroom’, in: Macknight, Vicki, and Medvecky, Fabien (eds), Making Economics Public (London: Routledge, forthcoming).
 See, e.g., Belfield et al. (2018), where these graduate outcomes are measured in terms of earning premia.
 See contributions by graduate employers to Coyle (2012), and discussion of a curriculum survey in Earle et al. (2017).
 Similar courses exist at the universities of Bristol and Manchester, but are pitched as optional modules for more advanced students later in their degree. Conversations with Rachel Griffith, who teaches the course at Manchester, were particularly useful when I was designing my own course. Together with Maeve Cohen, Bob Denham and Romesh Vaitilingam, she runs an excellent pedagogical website on economics communication: https://communicatingeconomics.com/.
 McCloskey’s writings on rhetoric are extensive. I suggest readers start with McCloskey (1990; 1994), and then move on to McCloskey (1998).
 Besides being an economic historian myself, I chose this application because some of the relevant economics appears in the Principles textbook we use here at Queen’s: the CORE project’s The Economy. This is an open-source online textbook, available at: https://www.core-econ.org/the-economy/. Units 1 and 2 concern the Industrial Revolution, and present Robert Allen’s modelling thereof.
 For a popular treatment of McCloskey’s thesis, see McCloskey and Carden (2020).
 See Koyama (2018) for an accessible review of this approach.
 For a classic scientific study of memes, see Blackmore (1999). For a sceptical discussion about the possible emergence of a “narrative turn” in economics, see Sacco (2020).
 Performativity in economics is normally attributed to Callon (1998). MacKenzie (2006) provides an accessible application to financial economics. Unfortunately, the meaning of the term performative in popular discourse is the precise opposite of the meaning it has here.
 There is an active discussion about the dangers of teaching Principles courses without addressing performativity – what the economics blogger Noah Smith (2016) calls “101ism”. There is also a literature on whether economists behave differently from others – principally, whether economists are more selfish and less trusting of others (Gerlach, 2017).
 Unit 16 of The Economy covers automation; unit 6 covers the corporation; and unit 22 covers the state.
 An accessible summary is available on the VoxEU website: https://voxeu.org/article/rage-against-machines-new-technology-and-violent-unrest.
 There are many other science fiction works besides The Terminator that have this same theme, including, of course, some of the stories in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).
 See Gelderblom et al. (2013) for how these characteristics first emerged in the Dutch East India Company.
 Another great science fiction application of the corporation is the profit-driven corporate culture of the alien Ferengi Alliance in the Star Trek universe, designed as a counterfactual to the post-capitalist utopian Federation of Planets. I like to show students an extract of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Rules Of Acquisition (S2 E7, 1996).
 Other relevant science fiction applications include George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, the first instalment of which (retroactively titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) appeared in 1977, at the height of the cold war. It presents a conflict between good and evil, democracy and dictatorship. Contractarianism is central to the plot; free libertarian utopia with minimal state intervention is the goal of (some of) the movie’s protagonists.