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A New Meaning for Political Economics

Chang She

Imagine yourself taking 14.02 [Principles of Macroeconomics] this semester. I know, I know; you’re already taking enough classes. Please just bear with me. OK, now close your eyes again and imagine. For the first few weeks of the term, you follow course policy, attending several of the recitations in order to try them out before you decide to stay in a particular section. Finally you find a TA that you really like. She is always prepared, very articulate, and she gives out comprehensive yet concise handouts on the material covered in every session. Thus, you decide to stay in her section because your family is paying various limbs to MIT every year so you can have the best possible learning experience.

The problem is about a third of the class also feels the same way you do. So now your TA is teaching a recitation of 60 students in a room that was intended for 30 people. Every session, many of the students are either sitting on the floor or standing at the back of the room for the entire hour. This is not only detrimental to the students’ learning experience, it is also very punishing on your TA. She is doing three times the work she is being paid for, helping many more students than she needs to. In addition, about 20 people are showing up to her office hours every week, and in general less than half of them are actually from her own section. Meanwhile, there are other recitations with about five people, and one recitation is even cancelled because no one has shown up for two weeks. In short, many students are being cheated of their opportunity to receive the level of interaction and personal attention that recitations are intended to have.

Unfortunately, this scenario is hardly restricted to imagination, but instead serves as a reality. Many 14.02 students have tried to voice their discontent and to find a solution. They have tried to bring up the matter with the professor as well as the head TA. However, almost three weeks have passed and there is still no way out in sight. The head TA has said that no additional sections can be given to the popular TA because of departmental constraints that cannot be divulged. Moreover, the large section is not even allowed to get a bigger room so that everyone can have a chair.

The administrators of this course are clearly not interested in providing a good educational experience for their students. When faced with a choice of departmental politics and a good undergraduate program, the administrators have unambiguously shown that they chose to give higher priority to departmental politics. It is this choice that has led to an almost paradoxical result. While we have the world’s number one economics program for graduate studies, we also have an undergraduate economics program with courses in a mind-bogglingly sorry state of disarray. It is this choice that drove me away from majoring in economics after my freshman year and it is this choice that is currently compromising the MIT experience for several of my friends enrolled in the aforementioned class.

This fiasco called 14.02 is an affront to MIT students. Professor Ricardo Caballero, the course’s current instructor, as well as the entire Department of Economics, must be called upon to rectify this problem immediately. TAs that have overflowing recitations should be given additional sections and must be paid accordingly. In the long term, the entire TA system for the economics department must be dramatically improved to guarantee a good educational experience for students. In the current system, there is such wide discrepancy in teaching quality that students crowd the sections of good TAs, rewarding those TAs with much more work than they are getting paid for. Thus, the department has created a perverse incentive problem, which is lowering the general quality of teaching because TAs are driven by normal self-interest to teach worse so that their recitations are not flooded with students fleeing other sections. This deeper problem must be corrected. Teaching quality needs to be monitored and good TAs must be rewarded. The department must help TAs with poor performance, improve their teaching skills, or else find other sources of financial support.

We must not allow departmental politics and policy to continue to undermine the undergraduate economics program, and we must not allow the current system to perpetuate a nasty incentive problem that drives TA quality down. It is simply not the conduct of a world-class department at a world-class institution.

Chang She is a member of the class of 2005. He took 14.02 in a previous semester.