Teaching economics to language and area studies students

Contact: Rodney Wilson
Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham
Published July 2003

Introduction

Since 1999 when I moved from the Department of Economics and Finance to the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies I have taught a second year undergraduate module on "The Middle East in the Global Economy" to a diverse group of language and area studies students. Although my move from the Department of Economics and Finance was prompted by a desire to focus more on research and the supervision of doctoral students, and reduce my considerable marking burden associated with economics undergraduate teaching, I wanted to contribute to the Institute's teaching at all levels, albeit to a limited extent.

The students

The Institute offers a wide range of specialist degree programmes. Most students take the four-year degree programme combining Arabic with a social science, usually politics, although there are one or two students each year taking the Arabic with Economics degree. Around two thirds of student time is spent mastering Arabic, a very challenging language. Students spend their second year abroad, usually in Damascus, Cairo or Alexandria, where they are enrolled in university Arabic classes. Students on the four-year degree can take the option on "The Middle East in the Global Economy" in their third year, after their return from Syria or Egypt.

A minority of students take a three-year degree in the Politics and History of the Middle East with Arabic, Turkish or Persian that is entirely Durham based, although students are expected to spend at least one long summer vacation in the country in whose language they specialise. For these students around one third of their time is spent getting to grips with the language. These students can take the option on "The Middle East in the Global Economy" in their second year.

Many of the students on our degree programme come from families who have worked in the Middle East, and some have spent their childhood in the region. There are also a significant number of Muslim students on the programmes, most of who have been born in the United Kingdom.

Around half the students have studied economics previously before taking the "The Middle East in the Global Economy" module, mostly in the sixth form at school as an "A" level. Around one third have taken the first year Elements of Economics module offered by the Department of Economics and Finance, and those on the Arabic with Economics degree take the first year quantitative methods module, also offered by the Department of Economics and Finance.

The Middle East in the Global Economy Module

The module is designed to provide an understanding of the external and internal contexts in which economic and business decisions are undertaken in the Middle East. It aims to be particularly useful for those interested in business careers in the Middle East or seeking employment with multinational companies involved in the region. No previous knowledge of economics or finance is required to undertake the module, but the first year module on the Politics, Society and Economy of the Middle East offered by the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is a useful pre-requisite.

Details of the module objectives, assessment, introductory reading, Web sources and the syllabus are provided below.

Around 6-10 students take the module each year, although due to some restructuring of the degree programmes numbers are expected to rise to around 15 for 2003-2004. There is a once weekly two-hour session, with the time being instructor led at the outset, but with increasing student participation as the year progresses.

The material is presented using Microsoft Power Point slides through computer projection, with students provided with handouts of the slides. Around 10-15 slides are covered each session, usually either as bullet point listings and tables and charts of illustrative data.

As the group is small students are encouraged to ask questions throughout, and from the middle of the first term onwards a student is designated to make a short ten-minute presentation in the second part of the session related to the topic being discussed. This is followed by discussion, which is informed by the factual material presented in the first hour of the session. There is a ten-minute break at the end of the first hour.

Challenges in teaching an economics module to language and area studies students

The theoretical underpinnings for the module come from international trade theory, international finance, the economics of the international monetary system and to a lesser extent development economics, the type of final year undergraduate modules offered by most Departments of Economics. Students taking such modules typically have devoted much of their time to economics, will have taken intermediate level microeconomics and macroeconomics and will have a strong background in mathematics for economists and econometrics. The students on "The Middle East in the Global Economy" module have none of these prerequisites.

As a consequence the emphasis has to be on understanding the implications of economic theories rather than rigorously demonstrating and proving the theories. The treatment avoids all mathematical formulation and few diagrams are used. Rather the emphasis is on application to the Middle East, and in using the wealth of economic and financial data available from the region to illustrate its position in the world economy. Regional differences are stressed, and the relevance of mainstream economic theories to the Middle East questioned.

My previous teaching involved being module leader on the International Economics and Development Economics modules to final year Economics undergraduates. The treatment with these students could be more theoretically rigorous, but on the other hand they often lacked the breadth of knowledge, and indeed the academic motivation, of students in the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. I also used to teach MBA students, and I find that experience especially relevant to the teaching of "The Middle East in the Global Economy" module.

An important part of the module is devoted to trying to impart an understanding of how international economic institutions work, including the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. The advantages and disadvantages of the countries of the Middle East belonging to such institutions are discussed. As many of the students taking the module are taking politics and international relations modules, they bring a different disciplinary perspective to their work.

Students are encouraged to refer to and read Arabic language material, but only a minority do so, largely because having just one or two years of the language, their reading ability with technical material is limited. This is an issue that we would like to do more to address, and the issues have been discussed with my colleagues who teach the languages. Those students who decide to write dissertations on economics topics in their final year make more use of Arabic, Turkish and Persian source material, as by then their language comprehension is greater.

Appendix: Course Syllabus, Objectives, Reading and Web Sources

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