June 06, 2002

PEIS--Notes on Reform...

For my sins, I have wound up as chair of an interdisciplinary studies major, Political Economy of Industrial Societies, here at Berkeley. The major has lots of eager and enthusiastic students--those who want to do interdisciplinary work are, in my experience, the most eager and enthusiastic, and often very capable as well. The major has next to no money. Therefore we survive through exploitation: paying lecturers $7000 a pop to teach courses, thus taking advantage of the large excess supply of academics in history, political science, and related disciplines that have--in an appalling failure of workforce planning--been pumped out of America's universities over the past decades.

I had coffee with one of my lecturers yesterday. Jesse Goldhammer, a guy who has just moved to Berkeley from Austin, a newly-minted Berkeley Ph.D. in political science, a political theorist, with a just-completed dissertation (and, hopefully, soon a book contract) on French political thinkers' conceptions of violence as both foundation-making and foundation-breaking for political regimes. We have him slotted to teach one course--PEIS 101, Modern Theories of Political Economy--this summer, and two courses next spring. He is--as are all of our lecturers--smart, enthusiastic, a very good teacher, intellectually curious, and convinced at some level that ideas can change the world. Students will have a very good time.

I do, however, have less confidence in the quality of the education--not, let me hasten to add, because my (underpaid) lecturers aren't trying as hard as they can, but because of the past history of this program that I have inherited.

Consider the course that Jesse Goldhammer is teaching this summer: PEIS 101, Modern Theories of Political Economy. As I see it, the course has three objectives:

  • To teach students that the classical theoretical traditions in social theory or political economy--chiefly those of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, but also those of Marx and Weber--still have life and power.
  • To teach students the main other, more modern, currents of theory and analysis derived from or constructed in reaction to the classical theoretical traditions.
  • To survey what is going on in the world today.

Now any one of these three objectives would be enough for a full semester course. Trying to cram all three of these missions into one single semester-long course is asking for trouble. The problem is that we already have a substantial number of requirements for the major, cannot realistically add more, and could not pay for people to teach anything more even if we did add requirements. So we are trying to do too much in a small number of courses. But we don't have the budget or the resources to offer more. And don't get me started on the state of our anemic undergraduate thesis program.

And there's more. You see, I regard the best interdisciplinary work in "political economy" as resulting from the more-or-less equal mixture of political science, history, and economics, with dabs of sociology and anthropology thrown in. We have no trouble--even in our anemic, underfunded state--finding people to teach the political science, the history, the sociology and anthropology. We can find people to teach the economic theory. But we have difficulty finding people to teach the applied economics part of the mix. And they can't get the economics they need from the Economics Department, because its courses are invariably oversubscribed.

Fortunately, there may be a breakthrough. I think I am about to get permission from the Budget Committee to search jointly with the Economics Department for two economists, half of each of whose teaching will be earmarked for PEIS...

Posted by DeLong at June 6, 2002 10:54 AM | TrackBack


PEIS 101 was one of the best classes I took at UC Berkeley. I didn't take the course from Goldhammer but I did take it during the summer and the addition of international students in the summer classes added a unique flavor to topics on modern theories of political economy. Unfortunately, my instructor was unfamiliar with the solow growth model (when presenting topics on growth), but it didn't hurt the discussions. My advice would be for PEIS majors to take more applied economics as part of their emphasis. We should leave PEIS 101 as it is: an introduction to questions in political economy, and leave the interdisciplinary emphasis courses as a process of finding solutions.

Posted by: teddy wong on August 6, 2002 01:58 AM
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