Infusing the Course with Current Events and Articles

Current events are woven into this course throughout the semester. In this section, Prof. McCants describes how she comes across relevant articles and how she integrates them into her course.

Every week, I come across something in the popular media that is completely relevant to what we're doing in class.

— Prof. McCants

I try to read pretty widely and regularly; it's my favorite form of procrastination! Rather than write a paper or review lecture notes, I will read the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and The New York Times. I like to broadly acquaint myself with what's going on in the world and what people are saying about different things.

Every week, I come across something in the popular media that is completely relevant to what we're doing in class. If you just procrastinate long enough, you will find something relevant to what you're doing in class! It's not because the articles are on topic, but rather because they speak to the kind of problem solving we're doing. I think that these tangents can really help students make the connections between institutions and people's behavior, whatever the case might be.

An Example: The Greek Economy

When the Greek economy was imploding every day on the pages of the Times, nearly every week I would bring in an example from the newspaper, about Greece, related to the impact of an economy on people's individual lives.

The world does't change that much, right? It does, but it also doesn't. One day there was an article in The New York Times about how the Greeks who were faring the best were the ones whose families still owned land somewhere, and the young had basically gone back to their families' property and were subsistence farming. I brought that to my class in a heartbeat.

MIT students really believe in progress. They come from a world in which subsistence farming is backwards and engaging in the markets is forwards. This was a great opportunity to feature a modern economy in which the people who were actually doing the best in terms of economic welfare factors were those who were subsistence farming because it protected them from the market.

I love examples like that, because then you can say, "A Medieval peasant who resisted the market—were they resisting the market because they were backwards and stupid? Or were they resisting the market because for them, the market didn't actually offer a better set of welfare outcomes?"

The whole financial collapse, basically from 2008 to the present, has given us fantastic opportunities to talk about how capital markets work. Hopefully some of the students will see that capital markets are great when power is distributed more evenly and so forth, but honestly, capital markets can be living hell if some people hold all the cards. There's not this kind of abstract thing called a market that is always good.

Embracing Our Interest in the World

I would encourage everyone to leave time for reading, thinking, and conversation.

— Prof. McCants

I have had students say to me, "Where do you find this stuff?" Well, I don't go looking for it; it's just there. The world is a complex and connected place, and if you just look at enough parts of the world, you are going to find examples.

Students and professors here—especially professors who are just starting out—tend to think you're supposed to be working all the time, but I would encourage everyone to leave time for reading, thinking, and conversation. Pick things up and read them—not because they're relevant or on topic, but because if you actually want to be a really creative researcher, the more random stuff you read, the more random ideas you're going to get, and the more parallels there will be. If you're a sociologist, don't just read sociology, because you're going to be a really boring—competent, but boring—sociologist. You should be reading in other fields too because they will give you ideas about how to do things or what to think about, and push you to make new connections. I try to convince my students to read for fun and to persuade them that not everything useful is obvious, and not everything that looks useless is in fact useless. So cut yourself some slack, don't work all the time, and read broadly.