Assignment No. 1 (and No. 3)

Vidya Mahambare has a fun assignment for her students, and I fully intend to copy it this upcoming semester.

Roughly one-third into her microeconomics course at the Great Lakes Institute in Chennai, she asks her students to go take selfies. Not just any old selfie, note. She asks her students to go out into the world, and take a photograph of something that reminds them of a topic they’ve learnt in class.

Maybe a photograph of a coffee seller right outside college. Maybe differential rates of admissions at a tourist site ( x rupees for Indians, 10x for foreigners). Maybe a rickshaw driver whose rickshaw doesn’t have an operational meter. Each of these selfies should have something in the background that is related to a topic they’ve learnt in class.

And, of course, they’re supposed to write a little bit about it. The student who selected the coffee seller outside college might hypothesize that the seller is a monopolist, for example. The differential rates of admission could be price discrimination at work. And maybe the rickshaw driver with the non-existent meter is an example of information asymmetry.

Don’t worry just yet about whether these are good examples of the topic being discussed. This assignment is more about learning to see the world as an economist – or least, that’s how I understand it. Now that you’ve learnt how to think like a microeconomist, are you able to relate what you’ve learnt to the world around you? Show me!

And then, at the end of the semester, the assignment is repeated. Repeated doesn’t mean that students go out and take another selfie. It simply means that they get to look at the same photograph, but now with the benefit of a better knowledge of microeconomics.

Now that you know more about microeconomics, how does your understanding of (and therefore description of) that photograph change? Is the coffee seller really a monopolist? Is the permanently broken meter really an example of information asymmetry? Whatever your answer now, why has it changed? Or why has it not changed?

This is the first slide of my presentation with which I begin my principles of economics class, and you can see why I like Vidya’s idea so much. I give my students a similar assignment, and recently wrote one up myself. I look forward to writing one again this year, complete with a selfie.

I do have one question for you, and I haven’t asked Vidya this yet.

What is your best guess for making it a selfie with the topic in the background, and not just a photo of the topic itself?