Reading an economics op ed in writing class

One frustration I have, teaching freshman composition, has to do with the essays that appear in readers.

Almost universally, they are about one subject and one subject alone: identity. That’s it. Hispanic identity, Asian identity, black identity, female identity, gay identity, disability identity, on and on.

And everything is personal. First person, no research, no footnotes.

Which would be fine if my students were going to be writing 1st-person, no-research papers in the future. But they’re not.

The reader my department uses is better than most in that it contains the Declaration of Independence and a few other classic texts, including Frederick Douglass’s account of teaching himself to read and write, which I always use and which is one of the highlights of the class.

Unfortunately, the new edition has dropped Malcolm X’s story of teaching himself to read and write in prison, a work that pairs beautifully with Douglass’s account of teaching himself as an enslaved child 100 years before.

I still use Malcolm X, but that means creating a handout and printing it myself, a time-consuming task adjuncts who are teaching multiple courses at multiple institutions don’t have time to do.

Anyway, the reader’s classic texts are few and far between, and it has virtually no “academic” or subject-matter writing of any kind.

It’s not easy finding suitable texts on my own, either.

So last week my class read Stephanie Kelton’s “Learn to Love Trillion-Dollar Deficits” in class, and it went very well.

I say it went well because when I asked students what would happen if people embraced Kelton’s understanding of the federal budget deficit, one student said “There could be inflation,” and another said “People wouldn’t want to pay taxes” (bingo to that one!)

Kelton and other modern monetary theorists have an answer for the inflation issue, but that’s not the point. The point is that both modern monetary theorists and their critics see inflation as a central question, and my students got that.


Students don’t have the vocabulary to read opinion pieces in The New York Times

To read a text fluently, you need to know 98% of its word families. My students don’t come close to that with college-level prose, and the same is true of students elsewhere.

When schools stopped having students memorize math facts, they cast out memorization of “vocabulary words,” too. And when it comes to reading comprehension, there’s no substitute for a large vocabulary stored in long-term memory, not even a fake substitute like calculators in math.

Where reading is concerned, there is no calculator to get you through.

“Learn to Love Trillion-Dollar Deficits” with vocabulary, questions, and information-packaging exercise

4 thoughts on “Reading an economics op ed in writing class

  1. Can’t the kids just whip out their phones and ask “Hey Google, what does deficit mean?” /sarc

    But I guess that means being able to decode well enough to pronounce the words so Google/Siri/Alexa can understand what you’re asking for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would submit that “dictionary” is to writing as “calculator” is to math. In both cases, you can use the tool to solve the instant problem, but the effort and current memory required makes that task unreasonable when dealing with real questions.

    Almost anyone who has studied a language other than his native language has run across exactly this problem, in that in many ways understanding how to build a sentence is decoupled from knowing what words to use without extensive research. And trying to read anything complex in a foreign language (or translate anything complex from a native language into a non-native target language) is a nearly insuperable challenge unless you’re quite fluent.


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