What is the context for this course?
“Beyond Price: Markets, Cultures, Values” is a Complex Problems course offered by the Core Renewal Program. The course was jointly designed and jointly taught by Professors Can Erbil (Economics) and Kalpana Seshadri (English). It enrolls 75 first year students, and has three logistical components: the Lecture session led by the two professors, the Lab sessions led by the teaching assistants, and a weekly reflection session led by the professors. Students work through the semester on the final creative assignment during the Lab sessions. The final group assignment is to create a multimedia project that seeks to inform and argue a well-thought-out position on a topic of critical relevance to the subject of the course, namely, the relation between markets and values.
Our course raises a series of questions about the economy, human values, and the power of the market over all aspects of contemporary social, moral, and political life.
Sample questions we explore are: how does the economy shape our lives and our capabilities in ways we don’t always recognize? How do market forces affect our power to choose where we go to school, what career paths to pursue, where we live, and how we live? What are the consequences of global economic inequality? How does the current economic system affect our environment, and the health of the planet? How are these issues represented in literary fiction, and how do economic discourses and vocabularies of the market enter the fabric of our culture through literary and other media? What resources do the humanities—particularly literature and narrative analysis, and the discipline of economics offer for an understanding of human nature and social responsibility, and how can we assess the limits and strengths of their conflicting definitions, ways of conceptualizing problems, and the solutions they offer?
Why did you choose to use a creative assignment?
Our course is structured as an interdisciplinary endeavor to raise critical awareness about the escalating power that economic actions have to shape political, environmental, cultural, moral, and personal aspects of our lives. As our course focuses largely on contemporary life, we designed this assignment to prompt students working in groups to engage critically and creatively with a variety of concrete problems, questions, and situations. Students were encouraged to deploy their understanding of basic economic concepts in researching their topic, while providing narrative analysis of real life or fictional stories of the particular issue in terms of how people are impacted and the consequences it has for our society’s moral values. The goal of the final creative assignment is to promote reflection on what we mean by the ‘pursuit of the good life.’
How did you introduce the assignment to students?
On the first day of class, we described the interdisciplinary nature of the course and explained our expectation that the students will integrate material from both our lectures, reading material, and other shorter assignments and quizzes. We used Canvas to provide more detailed instructions to the students, below:
At the beginning of the semester, students will be divided into small groups (7 students each). Each group will attend the same lab and work on one project with multi-modal components throughout the semester.
The projects will be developed during the lab session with the help of the Teach Assistants (TAs) and each group will present their product twice (mid-semester and end of the semester).
There will be a calendar to guide you through the project and meet expectations. TAs will be available to meet individually with groups during office hours.
Throughout this course, you will be looking at the world through the lens of economics, literature and culture to examine how economic considerations shapes our lives and our capabilities in ways we don’t always recognize.
This project gives you a chance to apply this lens to one focused issue over the course of the semester and to share your discoveries and new found understanding with the rest of the class. Working in a group, you will use the multi-media tools available through Google Sites to develop a thoughtful and educational website that not only provides your audience with the necessary information about the topic, but also presents a clearly thought through perspective for understanding the meaning and importance of the topic. In other words, your project must present a coherent point of view, a narrative that helps your audience make sense of the issues at stake.
The goal is to present a Multi-Media Essay that informs and persuades your audience. Thus, it is important to develop a narrative perspective that is based on research, debate, and analysis. The project should also make a good use of the power of stories and real-life examples to help your audience engage more deeply with the topic.
How did you scaffold the assignment for students?
We created a project calendar for the groups to use to mark a pathway for their research and progress and broke the assignment down into five parts (below)
How did you assess student work?
We used a rubric to grade student work and asked students to engage in a peer review process. Here’s the information we shared with students about the assessment process.
How did the students do?
The websites that the students created were sophisticated, thoughtful, and deeply informative. The presentations were polished and professional. Since we had made the stakes of the grading process high by including peer reviews in addition to the final assessment by the instructors, the groups worked to hone their presentations by rehearsing with the TAs. Thus, in addition to the research itself, students said they appreciated working on their presentation and public speaking skills.
What lessons did you learn?
Fall 2022 was the third time teaching this course, so we have learned a few lessons on the way. The first time we gave them the option of choosing their own topics, but soon realized that as first year students they have not as yet acquired the discernment to choose appropriately sized research subjects or craft research questions. Thus, giving them a list of topics to choose from was helpful. We also learned to encourage completion at each check point by asking for feedback and giving them constant feedback.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Some of the student feedback from our course evaluation is below. They do a better job describing their experience than we ever could.
- “This course gave me the opportunity to make connections to real world problems and listen to my classmates’ opinions which not only helped me make connections with what we were learning but it made me question my own opinions. This course was very interesting and intrigued me. Making connections with our lectures and real-world examples created an environment that was very interesting.”
- “Challenges you to go beyond preconceived notions and explore opinions, views and methods that you may not have otherwise considered. Very engaging teaching style.”
- “It incorporated so much of the outside world and tied together so many intricate aspects that were so interesting and engaging, and the group projects really allowed us to practice research in the world around us.”
- “It is INCREDIBLY inter–disciplinary. Professor Erbil and Seshadri are highly devoted to their students and seeing them succeed. This was definitely my hardest class by far, but the one I enjoy the most. The professors made sure I really cared about the subject matter.”
- “Intellectually stimulating, exposes students to multiple perspectives and experiences.”
- “It is an amazing life–changing course.”