Guest Post from Jadrian Wooten of Penn State on Using Pop Culture to Teach Economics

Jadrain Wooten is an associate teaching professor of economics at Penn State. Jadrian created the Economics Media Library. Clips to the site are included in Jadrian’s essay below.

Last September, we interviewed Jadrian on our podcast. That podcast episode can be found HERE.

What follows is an essay from Jadrian on ideas for teaching economics using examples from pop culture.

Using Pop Culture to Teach Economics

My favorite courses as an undergraduate student weren’t always economics courses. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my intermediate microeconomics so much that I immediately dropped my summer internship so I could add economics as a second major (thanks Ed!). The principles courses, however, weren’t that interesting. We drew graphs, talked about efficiency, and then left for the day. The first class I remember that heavily used media as a teaching tool was Mark Frank’s Business and Government class.

Instead of a traditional textbook, we read The Art of Strategy, When Genius Failed, and The Regulators. Instead of straight lecture, Mark ran experiments and showed a particular episode from ABC Primetime that I still show my students today, over 14 years later. It was the last semester of my undergraduate degree, but his course confirmed that I wanted to get a PhD in economics, and that I wanted to teach my courses like he had taught that course.

I had other amazing professors who used media in the classroom (thanks Darren!), and I landed in a graduate program that trusted me to teach my how I saw fit. For me, that meant a heavy dose of television and movie clips in order to avoid the Ferris Bueller treatment of economics. One of the best parts of teaching today compared to a decade ago is just how much media is available online (shameless plug for Economics Media Library). Thanks in part to cheap hosting services, economics educators have created entire websites specific to economic content found in television shows (Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Seinfeld, Shark Tank, and Superstore), Broadway musicals, and country music.

Many of these educators have also arranged lesson plans and projects associated with various topics as specific as marginal revenue product and the Coase Theorem. Lesson plans (1, 2, 3, 4) have been prepared that take scenes from different shows and detail how they can be integrated into a lesson. Many of the show-specific websites linked earlier also have a section detailing ways to integrate their clips. Most of this focus is at the principles level, but there are also some resources designed for upper-level courses.

Pop culture isn’t just limited to television and film clips! One of the teaching methods I adopted from my undergraduate experience was assigning trade books. Student in my Principles of Microeconomics course read Think Like a Freak and The Why Axis. My Labor Economics students go through “New Geography of Jobs” and We Wanted Workers, while Economics of Crime students read Narconomics, and my Natural Resource Economics students read Endangered Economies. For almost every course out there, there is likely a trade book that presents current research in a digestible manner. Assessing students on readings can be as varied as creating random assignments for each student or using Monte Carlo Quizzes. Using trade books, in addition to the textbook, gives students another avenue for applying the concepts and theories.

Bridging the gap between books and television shows is the use of podcasts. Rebecca Moryl has put together a series of papers (1, 2, 3) as well as a website that categorizes podcasts that can be used to teach (my favorite is Planet Money). Similar to how I use trade books, my students are assigned podcasts along with readings and are assessed with a Monte Carlo Quiz or on their midterm exams. Short podcasts can be played during class to spark a discussion on upcoming topics or as a review of previous material. I love Planet Money’s “A Mall With Two Minimum Wages” for the labor markets chapter.

The number of available resources will only grow as educators continue to develop creative ways to use media in the classroom. What’s my general advice to instructors interested in using media in the classroom? Start small. Play some music before class starts, but link that song to the lesson. Play Brad Paisley’s “American Saturday Night” before you start your lesson on trade and see how your students respond. We teach our students about marginal analysis, so take the same approach to using media!

If the pre-class music video goes well, consider adding a short clip to introduce a topic. Before teaching about liquidity, show this scene from Modern Family where Luke confuses the meaning of “frozen assets.” Need an example for comparative advantage? Try this scene from King of the Hill where Hank and his neighbor debate the best products from the United States and Canada. Just play the clip and then transition straight to your lesson. Let your students know you’ll cover those concepts in class that day, then refer back to the scene when you get to the relevant section.

Ready to go a bit further and really integrate media into your lessons? Play this interview from The Colbert Report and ask students to draw the market for cashmere, including the externality. Have students calculate consumer and producer surplus after watching this scene from Just Go With It. See if students can identify the type of unemployment from this scene in Brooklyn 99. Check out Economics Media Library to see if there’s a clip that you can use in your next lesson. If all of that goes well, check out all of the great resources educators have put together to see what would work in your classroom for the next semester. Maybe one day you’ll teach an entire course on economics through film or one themed entirely on Parks and Recreation.

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