Columbia professors use slumping economy as teaching example

Thursday, December 4, 2008 | 6:19 p.m. CST; updated 10:46 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

COLUMBIA — Professors in finance, marketing and political science at colleges in Columbia say the economic crisis on Wall Street provides rich material for their lectures.

Tying current events to classroom material is nothing new, but the country’s recent financial turbulence is a real-world example that can be translated into a broad variety of topics in the classroom, the professors say.

The recent economic bailout plan is “a good example of some of the concepts we are discussing in class,” said Lael Keiser, a political science professor at MU.

Caroline Erickson, a student in Keiser's Issues in Public Bureaucracy class, said the class discussed the economy at least once or twice a week when the bailout surfaced.

Congress has struggled with a $700 billion bailout plan, and the stock market has continued to rise and fall erratically. It is now more difficult for people to keep their jobs, take out loans and mortgages and sell their homes.

Discussing current events "makes what we're learning relevant," said Erickson, a political science major.

"It's a bureaucracy class, so we learn about how the federal government makes decisions," she said. "We talk about how people who are in charge of government organizations might be influencing the president."

The class also talked about how Congress makes decisions, and how agencies and the president supply information to it to make those decisions.

Professors aren’t the only ones raising questions about the economy. Keiser said a number of her students have been asking about the insurance corporation AIG and the authority of the Federal Reserve.

“They have the same concerns the American people have,” she said.

The current state of the economy has even affected the accuracy of textbooks used in class.

“I tell students the textbooks are already outdated,” said Joann Wayman, a marketing professor at Columbia College. “Anything that’s going on gives a much better explanation than any textbook because its more current.”

Wayman spends at least five minutes at the beginning of each class discussing the U.S. economic situation. She teaches consumer behavior, and the class has discussed consumer confidence and spending. Credit issues with cars and homes also touch on the economic crisis.

Both Keiser and Wayman use news accounts to explain concepts in class. Recently, Wayman used an information graphic from MSNBC about gasoline prices in the U.S. to illustrate a drop in the average price of gas and the distribution of gas prices in each state.

Wayman adds that many of her in-class discussions relate to her students’ personal lives. Because many students grew up in comfortable circumstances, many will face difficult financial choices.

“Twenty  years from now, my students will remember this the same way I remember 1987,” said W.D. Allen, a finance professor at MU.

Allen, who teaches corporate finance, also tries to connect current events to textbook material. He explained that some books were correct when published, but “some institutional concepts are outdated.”

There have been no true textbook errors in class so far,  Allen said, but he said he believes he  may need to alter material that conflicts with reality.

Investment banks, for example, have merged with bank holding companies or have gone out of business, he said.

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