Writing in the Major

The field of Economics explores complex economic systems through a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning. Early economists attempted to communicate this reasoning and results of their analyses using words alone. This resulted in long, often convoluted books that were prone to error. Over the years, economists developed mathematical models and statistical tools, which facilitated analysis, reduced error and enabled far greater transparency and brevity in the expression of results. These techniques can be difficult for undergraduates to grasp at first, which is why they are the focus of most of our teaching effort. Yet, as we teach students to build, solve, test and present economic models, we are in effect teaching them to “write” economics.

Of course, models have not entirely displaced words. Students still must learn to explain the motivation, logic and conclusions of their work verbally. This skill is especially vital for communicating with non-economists. To that end, the economics programs (ECON and IECO) integrate writing in three principal ways:

  1. Explaining rationale
    Tests and homework assignments require students to give short written explanations of the reasoning behind their answers, usually in one or two paragraphs. While not the norm in the first-year Principles sequence due to large class size, it is common in the 100 and 200-level core courses and universal in the 400-level advanced courses.
  2. Writing short papers
    Short papers require students to develop arguments, explain theories or present evidence based on research. Such essays help students learn to organize their thinking and writing.  Example assignments include writing short essays that discuss the causes and possible solutions to poverty, drafting policy memos in response to case studies, and writing summaries of academic literature. Most 400-level courses require short papers in addition to exams.
  3. Producing a senior thesis
    The senior thesis in economics provides students with the opportunity to develop the skills and techniques needed for carrying out a substantive original research project in economics. To achieve this purpose, the course focuses on the writing and presentation of a thesis. Students may choose from a wide variety of topics. Along the way, students learn how to evaluate scholarly literature, formulate and model a hypothesis, locate data and test the hypothesis, write an elegant paper and give a convincing presentation. This course marks the culmination of the economics and international economics majors and an introduction to the world of scholarly research.
    Each student is responsible for writing an article-length paper, approximately 20-25 pages in length. In the paper, students are expected to evaluate, critique, test, and build upon a current debate of their choosing in the field of economics. Students should develop competing hypotheses, model them formally, and test them using quantitative methods. The papers are written as if they were being presented at a professional conference or submitted to a scholarly journal. The thesis is written in a series of steps, each of which is marked by the completion of a short paper or class presentation. The senior thesis course is open to all ECON and IECO majors. It is a requirement for honors in IECO and is taken by many ECON majors.