Adapting the Course from Year to Year

Prof. McCants has taught some version of this course nearly 30 times. In this section, she describes how she adapts the course from year to year.

I have taught some version of this class for about two decades now. I have colleagues who say that you should update a third of your course every year so that in the space of three years, the class is completely updated. I don't do that; much of what we do works well for the course, and there's no need to change it just for the sake of change.

The course does change from year to year, though. The primary difference is in the current events and recent articles that I weave into the course. I also may adapt the course when there's a change in the student demographic or when students consistently give some particular suggestion.

Some materials for the course just really work well, and they stay in the course year after year. ... Not every group of students should have to be a guinea pig every year.

— Prof. McCants

Keeping What Works

Some materials for the course just really work well, and they stay in the course year after year.

Two examples are

  • The Standard of Living, two fantastic lectures by Amartya Sen in the Tanner series. I've used those two lectures every semester since I started teaching this class. I just think they're the best combination of the brilliant, humane, probing, and obtrusive.
  • "Economic Growth before and after the Industrial Revolution: a Modest Proposal," an exquisite reading that was written by my own thesis advisor, Jan de Vries. It's so fantastic and brilliant that it stays there because I like reading it once a year.

There are some topics that just need to be covered, such as the early medieval period, Marxism, and neoclassical economics. Some of the readings are a little pedestrian, but honestly, the students desperately need it.

Finally, there's good reason to continue using texts I've used in past years. I know what to do with them: how to teach them, how to order them, what they work well with, and what problems the students are going to have with them. I typically have similar kinds of students from one year to the next, so I don't need to reinvent the wheel all the time. Not every group of students should have to be a guinea pig every year. It's a different set of students each year so they actually don't care if I've changed it or not from the past year.

Infusing the Course with Current Events and Recent Articles

What does change every year is all the news and articles that I come across during the semester and bring into the course. That happens to be a pretty important part of the course even though it's not on the syllabus, not advertised, not tested, and not in the readings. It's nowhere where anybody could document it, but it ends up being a really important part of the course and that changes every semester because what's going on in the world changes every semester. That's part of why I don't worry about changing the syllabus all that much from year to year.

Responding to Changes in the Student Population

If I know I have a completely different kind of student coming for some reason, changing to anticipate their needs is perfectly sensible. For example, when the course got approved to satisfy MIT's communication intensive requirement, I expected a slightly different kind of student and changed the course accordingly.

Adapting the Course Based on Student Feedback

I get student input and feedback through the beginning-of-term survey, informal exchanges, and an end-of-term student evaluation.

Student feedback tends to be an exercise in frustration because inevitably, for any aspect of the course, students have divergent opinions. Some students love to write and others hate to write. Some students think a particular reading is the best one in the course, while others think it's the worst. So, the feedback helps me understand the students and their impressions of the course, but it usually doesn't change the way I teach. My class already reflects the diverse group of students that I get every year.

On those rare occasions when something clearly had flopped for everybody, I take it to heart and try to fix whatever it was.

In general, I try to take feedback seriously, but I can't say it's hugely influential, just because there is so much white noise that it's hard to know what to do with it.