April 5, 1999
Volume 51, No. 26
Curriculum, creative teaching make economics popular major
Economics is the hot new major at Emory College, and like most economists, Hashem Dezhbakhsh, department co-chairman and director of undergraduate studies, has the statistics to prove it. The department has seen the number of majors grow from 153 in 1994-95 to more than 400 this spring, making it the fastest growing major at the school. Dezhbakhsh said the growth is counter to current national trends at similar universities, where the number of economics majors has been increasing at about 5 percent annually.
So why are Emory students flocking to a discipline that has Alan Greenspan as its hero and Louis Rukeyser as its media poster boy? For Dezhbakhsh the answer is as easy as the economic principle of supply and demand: faculty are supplying what students demand, including innovative teaching methods, a multi-track curriculum with an empirical emphasis and a commitment to connect abstract theory to real-world issues. As for the empirical emphasis, Dezhbakhsh said "students do not seem to mind the added quantitative rigor that entails."
Dezhbakhsh likens the process by which students select a major to a consumer choice: "A lot of students who take an introductory course want to understand the discipline; it's a search process for them," he said. To attract more students in this search, the department has filled its introductory courses with more experienced and better teachers. In Dezhbakhsh's words, "You need people with experience to show the exciting part of the discipline rather than the dry side."
The department also divided its curriculum into preprofessional career tracks, a natural at Emory, whose undergraduates often go to graduate and professional schools after completing their degrees. Rather than taking a random assortment of courses, students select one of several areas including a law and economics track for pre-law students, a financial track for pre-MBA students, a public policy track for those pursuing careers in government, an international track for those interested in global economic issues, and a mathematics/economics joint major for students interested in an eventual PhD.
Dezhbakhsh himself is committed to showing students how principles translate into highly charged action. To help them see how markets function, for example, he arranges for the 200 or so students in his introductory macroeconomics course to participate in experimental games demonstrating how markets function and how prices are set. Dezhbakhsh divides the class into groups of about a dozen students, who then elect representatives to participate in a double oral auction at the front of the class. Group leaders are assigned to be either buyers or sellers of a fictitious product; buyers try to pay the lowest price possible, while sellers try to get the highest profit. Within a few minutes the shouting among Dezhbakhsh's students resembles the boisterous futures traders in the pit at the Chicago Board of Trade.
"You notice how students get into it," he said after one of his 50-minute game sessions in the large lecture hall. "I could have gone into the classroom and explained equilibrium pricing (the price at which the quantity demanded equals the quantity supplied), but they wouldn't have been engaged by that. By playing the game they actually saw how the equilibrium price emerges. Now they are ready for the technical details of demand and supply analysis."
"I'm taking economics for practical reasons," said Will Claiborne, a junior political science major. "I want to understand what goes on in the real world right now." He has several friends in the course who, like him, are upperclassmen who "want to be able to understand markets and unemployment because we're going to be in the job market soon."
Claiborne is good at the simulation games; he won out over several rival teams' representatives in making the most profit. But what he really likes most is Dezhbakhsh's teaching style. "When we walk into class he's got CNBC on [the overhead TV projector]. We see the stocks and what the market is doing. And even though it's a large class, he takes questions, responds to students and invites follow up."
"Finally I have a teacher who has done something creative in the classroom," said sophomore Lauren Levy, a newly declared economics major. "I like the way Professor Dezhbakhsh doesn't rely so much on the textbook. He tells us what he thinks is important, not what the book tells him to teach." Levy had to get special permission to enroll in the class, which had a waiting list soon after registration. She plans to pursue an MBA and sees an economics degree as a good first step. "The discipline has so many areas," she said. "I'm sure one of them will get me there."