by Maya Moritz
Featured Image: Dr. Peter Duersch
Microeconomics and Wikipedia
Students in Mannheim’s M.Sc. in Economics program have a plethora of classes to choose from in their elective phase. Aside from traditional offerings in the fields of economic history, trade, and labor economics, students can join courses from the sociology, management, political science, and business mathematics departments.
But adventurous pupils don’t have to stray so far to find innovative courses with a fiscal focus. One exciting option this semester is Dr. Peter Duersch’s “Microeconomics and Wikipedia,” a block seminar that promises an output far removed from the sterile essays students are accustomed to.
I sat down with Dr. Duersch, who serves as an interim professor (Lehrstuhlvertreter) at Universität Mannheim and Heidelberg, to discuss his teaching philosophy, the state of economics education, and the great PR problem in economics.
Something of Value
“I wanted to do a seminar which was different from most seminars, which I did not like when I was a student myself,” Dr. Duersch laments. In most seminars students “work alone, write about a topic, and the only person who will ever read about it is the professor grading [it]. Then, the student forgets about the topic, the professor forgets about the topic and the whole work is wasted.”
He continues, “If the grade is all that matters and everything else is secondary or doesn’t matter at all, I didn’t like that. I wanted to have a topic where you would write to a broader audience, and I also wanted to kind of have students produce something of value to society.”
Dr. Duersch’s solution is to have students choose a topic in the field of microeconomics and author a Wikipedia entry on the subject.
“I think Wikipedia is one of the examples where you don’t have to be a professor to edit, so students can easily do that. I guess most Wikipedia editors are not more educated than students doing their master’s or bachelor’s, so I thought that you can combine that.”
Dr. Duersch himself has contributed to Wikipedia for some time, drawn to its “collaborative and kind of altruistic aspect.” The commitment is also nostalgic.
“I think these days Wikipedia is a holdover from the early days of a non-commercialized internet when people did stuff on the internet not to earn money but to do whatever they enjoyed or do something that others might enjoy. There’s not a lot of that left… so that’s something I have a very big spot in my heart for.”
The Broadest Reach
This seminar format is tried and tested, with past offerings in Konstanz and Heidelberg. He admits that finding a topic that students wish to write about and that he can grade becomes more arduous each year, as participants winnow down the missing pages of microeconomics Wikipedia.
“I like to check up from time to time on the pages my students previously wrote,” Dr. Duersch says. “You can find many of those pages almost unchanged on Wikipedia except for some small technical edits… If I compare all the Wikipedia pages read to everything else that my students or I did, it’s easily the seminar that has the broadest reach.”
Dr. Duersch has found that his students’ pages are read by dozens monthly, adding up to tens of thousands benefitting from their work. “I think that’s a pretty big impact on society, definitely compared to all the seminar papers that my students have ever written.”
One of his favorite entries from the class covers correlated equilibrium, which he describes as a non-trivial concept he was initially skeptical about for a Wikipedia entry by a master’s student. Now, he uses the page as an example for other course participants.
Believing In It
Dr. Duersch’s teaching philosophy is derived from his own educational experiences. “I think my favorite teachers are the ones who most enjoyed teaching and enjoyed the topics they were teaching.”
He cites his PhD supervisor, Prof. Jörg Oechssler of Universität Heidelberg, and Prof. Armin Falk of Universität Bonn as his favorite lecturers, especially their classes on experimental economics. “You realize when people really like teaching. You realize when people really believe in the topics they’re talking about. If they’re really just doing their job- well, you sit there and you learn but you’re not really enjoying it.”
He says choosing which courses one teaches is rarely optimal, with lecturers often forced to touch on topics far from their research expertise, “but of course somebody has to teach the basic courses as well.” He specifies production as a topic that holds less interest for him. “As long as you teach the stuff you like most of the time, it’s fine.”
“I personally like teaching,” he clarifies, “so I hope students realize that.”
Constraints of the System
With experience in both the teaching and learning of economics, Dr. Duersch sees many advantages to the current pedagogy of economics.
“I guess what we get right is putting a proper emphasis on how to use models to understand reality. I think that’s really important to know where models can help you to understand reality, why you need models, how you can use the predictions of models.”
He wishes for students to understand the boundaries and limitations of models, how to constrain the system, and what that implies for a model’s conclusions. “I think that’s very well-conveyed in economics and probably better conveyed than in many other fields where you may learn facts instead of modeling, which I feel is by far inferior.”
The main disadvantage, he says, is the disconnect between research and industry training. “There is a very large spread in economics between learning for academia and learning for a non-academic job… Obviously, those people who teach typically are researchers so [they] maybe put an emphasis on that. You can also teach something that has more real-life applications, but it’s hard to do both and I guess that in most fields or econ departments, the second part is not valued a lot.”
The PR Problem
This spread may be related to the field’s other big problem: its image. “The PR of economics as a field is terrible. I mean astrophysics, with no disrespect to astrophysicists, is not really important in everyday life, but as a field they manage to get a lot of people interested in and knowledgeable about astrophysics. So plenty of people know what a planet is and that Pluto is no longer a planet and how black holes work, which I personally find interesting as well, but it’s something like a hobby and I doubt that many people have economics as their hobby.”
In Dr. Duersch’s view, this may translate to a lack of economic and financial literacy in the general public, with the “broad populace” lacking knowledge of “even very, very basic economic concepts.”
Such concerns are illustrated in work by William Walstad of the National Center for Research in Economic Education. Not only do young adult respondents in America answer less than half of questions in tests of basic economic concepts correctly, but they report acute awareness of their knowledge deficiency. 87% of high school seniors (around age 17-18) and 83% of the general public rate their understanding of economic ideas and issues as fair or poor.
The consequences of this dearth can be significant, with basic economic knowledge allowing people to confidently make financial decisions. Without this understanding, monumental choices such as which investments to make, whether to buy a home, or how to vote become less certain.
An Unclear Path
Finally, Dr. Duersch harkens back to his own economic journey to highlight how the PR problem may discourage potential learners. “I guess a large number of students who start economics don’t really know what they’re going to be studying. And that even includes myself. I started economics partially because I thought that it is more hands-on than politics and history, so I’ll find an easier job. It turned out to be the correct decision for me, but not for the reason I thought.”
He points out that the difference between business (BWL) and economics (VWL) is not commonly understood or appreciated, but says it is incumbent upon the field of economics to change that.
“It partially has to be the fault of the field in not going out and talking to people about what we actually do. For example, I’m in microeconomics and I would assume that if you just talk to someone on the street who didn’t go to university, many people wouldn’t even know that most economics professors are in microeconomics. They probably even think that it’s just macroeconomics if they know something about economics. The fact that the bigger of the two fields is completely unknown, that’s definitely a fault of the field for a long time.”
This semester promises a spate of new microeconomics entries on Wikipedia, providing a challenge for Dr. Duersch’s students and a valuable resource for internet readers. Eager students can join the seminar in coming semesters, though they will face a tougher fight for a topic.
Part 2 of my interview with Dr. Duersch will look at the real-world applications of microeconomics research, the hurdles of academia, and some important considerations for potential PhD candidates.