What Should I Teach First-years?

Posted by {"login"=>"dvollrath", "email"=>"[email protected]", "display_name"=>"dvollrath", "first_name"=>"", "last_name"=>""} on December 17, 2014 · 2 mins read

I'm doing a little post-mortem on this semesters first-year graduate macro class. I'm thinking about what I should be teaching in this course. The big meta-question is what is the right kind of material to be teaching? I see two perspectives here:

  • Teach the big questions. They need to understand the open issues for macroeconomics, and then can be introduced in 2nd/3rd year to models/techniques that are suited to talking about those issues. A course like this would emphasize intellectual history more than specific mathematical techniques. The problem is that we don't necessarily screen out people who cannot do the math at a sufficiently advanced level to try and *answer* any interesting questions.
  • Teach the techniques. My course, and most 1st-year courses, lean heavily this way. Once they have some of the "language" down, then we can talk coherently about the big questions with them in the 2nd/3rd year. The problem with this course is that we don't necessarily screen out people who cannot understand what it means to ask an interesting question. The danger is we get optimization robots, not researchers.

Maybe I should just trust that PhD programs have evolved towards the right solution, and focus on techniques. The cost of having someone incapable of using techniques is so high later on that it must be avoided at all costs. But there is a part of me that feels like techniques are always something that can be learned by force of effort later on. Screening out people who can't think without being given a specific math problem to do might be more useful.

Of course, if one does want to teach "big questions" to first-years, what are they?

For people who've done PhD's, or are doing them now. What do you *wish* you had learned in first-year macro. What would have been useful?

I am far too lazy to try and think of this all by myself, so I'm posting it here in the hopes that smart people will offer up some suggestions either way. Any ideas are appreciated, will be stolen without shame, and will probably sit unused for years as a scribbled note to myself under a pile of other things on my desk.