Thursday, January 20, 2011

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics: why it matters

Part one

So, yes, there's a big conflict between economics and the humanities. I think that literature becomes a major face of the humanities in that conflict, and so does art -- there are more stories about flaky artists and poets than there are about flaky historians and philosophers. But that's not really important. What's more important is that the conflict is also between economics and everyone else. That's a grammatically crude way of putting it, I know, but it's also a crude, rough conflict, messy because it can be fought on the grounds of knowledge or on the grounds of wealth. Both knowledge and wealth are forms of power, but they're not quite the same, are they? Or are they? Is one superior to the other, and why? There's no universal answer; and attempting to find one gets into even more unanswerable questions and sensitive subjects, such as the unpleasant question of whether I'm genuinely smart, or just lucky.

One consequence of the baggage surrounding economics is that it ends up buried in layers of mystification, political partisanship, and probably just general caution. Discussing it is like bringing up religion at a dinner party -- a risky idea. But the consequences of our reluctance to attempt to make finance a more public subject* is that financial illiteracy is a huge concern.

My ideas for classes aren't going to solve these problems. It'd be foolish of me to claim anything more definite than that I think they might help, rather than aggravate further. I think my point, my reason for bringing this up, is that it's really difficult to develop an effective interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics without at least some consideration of these issues. What you get, most likely, is the same dull round of literary authors critiquing the market, and an arc that's meant to develop the realization that their thoughts regarding the market were actually more complex.

Let me be perfectly fair and direct: unless you are willing to develop a more interdisciplinary pedagogy, you cannot escape that same dull round. Therefore, it's not the fault of the instructors who teach such classes that they're stuck here; and I do not intend these posts or my ideas as a critique of their work. Institutional support is often low or nonexistent for any interdisciplinary work,** and the combination of literature and economics is not exactly an intuitive combination.

I should also note that the conflict between literature and economics isn't one that's only important to the practitioners and students of literary studies, or to the general population at risk for financial illiteracy. It's also important for economics, as Richard Bronk explains here, in a brief essay about his book, The Romantic Economist:

My starting point for The Romantic Economist was an observation made during seventeen years working in the world of finance. I was struck by an important mismatch between the way economists usually model economies and the way markets often work in practice. Economists normally rely on essentially static equilibrium models to make predictions about markets, and they assume that economic actors optimise their trading possibilities on the basis of rational expectations. Yet, as we are daily reminded, markets are dynamic and creative processes characterized by relentless innovation, self-reinforcing emotional spasms and massive uncertainty. And, in this uncertain world, individuals are driven as much by emotion, sentiment, intuition and imagination as by rational calculation and probability forecasts of future utility.
Bronk, whose book I haven't finished in entirety yet, but which I recommend, is a very rare creature indeed, which is to say, someone approaching the two discourses from a background with more experience in finance than in academic studies of literature. He's not the only one to remark on the importance of emotions and sentiment -- the topic of behavioral finance and its implications for the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), is being considered by others as well.
And it would be interesting to have a class looking specifically at sentiment in the markets, and sentiment in the novel. But I'm not proposing that, at least, not quite yet.

*And no, I know that this wouldn't be easy, that there are myriad issues of embarrassment and self-consciousness and dangers of ostracization and so forth.

**I am lucky to be at an institution where the support for interdisciplinary pedagogy is pretty damn good.


  1. Totally off topic, but as far as pedagogy goes, it might be interesting to distinguish amongst different kinds of economics and the kinds of problems they are likely to illuminate, e.g.

    behavioral economics - What does it mean that Lily Bart keep screwing up her chances at a "good" marriage, or that Undine Spragg doesn't?
    economic history - How do the actions of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett look when confronted with economic context?
    econometrics - genre definition, how does literary history get made (Graphs, Maps, Trees...)
    statistical economics and complexity theory - literary theory as emergent phenomena

    As usual, I have to rush off somewhere so this comment likely makes no sense to anyone but me.

  2. No, not off topic at all -- it's just that I haven't gotten to that post yet -- it's the next one in the series. It's possible that I'm being pedantic in trying to lay out all this background support; or that not readers will need it.

    I would adore taking a class on complexity theory and literary theory as emergent phenomena. I wrote a paper on that once, sort of, taking the Hisperica Famina (a very early Irish riddle text) and trying to use it as a discussion of the concept of difficulty. I say sort of because I was trying to do it, but I was more or less making it up as I went, and not having much luck finding useful secondary crit. That was way back in my 2nd year of the MA/PhD program.

    Your comment about Lily Bart and Undine Spragg reminds me that in order to really make this work, I need to go back and read more than I have from the American Realism canon, because I know Howells and James in the novel, but Wharton only in short stories. Your ideas on Moretti and the Bennetts are right in line with what I'm thinking of.

    Thank you for commenting, by the way. I'm posting these to help me articulate stuff, and it's nice to be able to talk with someone else about it...

  3. And in terms of genre definition, there's a lot of interesting stuff that could be done with Google ngrams, obviously. I was playing around the other day with searches for steampunk compared to other variants on sci-fi.