Learning Economics Through Poetry

That’s just one of the projects funded in the latest round of the Tufts Innovates program
illustration of book and many icons of learning
This year marks the fifth round of awards for the Tufts Innovates program. So far, 34 projects have been funded, all with the goal of sparking creativity in the classroom. Illustration: Ingimage
May 8, 2015

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Poetry is often about the expression of feelings, while economics is more concerned with calculations than emotions, so it would seem the twain would never meet. Not so, says Mary E. Davis, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. Rhyme, meter, form and expression may help students better understand and remember such complex concepts as marginal utility or consumer equilibrium.

Davis, who used poetry to elucidate difficult economic theories in a class she taught last year to UEP graduate students, will now try and apply proof points to her poetry. Hers is one of four projects awarded a seed grant from Tufts Innovates, a program aimed at developing imaginative ideas to enhance learning and teaching across the university. The grants, sponsored by the Office of the Provost, are for the 2015-16 academic year. This year marks the fifth round of awards; 34 projects have been funded by the program, all with the goal of sparking creativity in the classroom.

“Tufts Innovates is an important program that continues to support faculty who are able to develop creative ideas and translate them into projects and courses,” says Provost David R. Harris.

Next spring, Davis will teach economics to one control group of students the traditional way and use poetry as a methodology with another experimental group in the same class. She’s convinced of the power of poetry. When she piloted her idea last year, she wrote poems about economic concepts and discovered that many students were better able to grasp concepts in that form. Some students also wrote their own poems.

The students, she says, performed better than those in any class she’s taught at Tufts since 2008. Some studies have shown that poetry activates areas of the brain that help with memory, she notes.

Of course, it’s not all poetry all the time; there were plenty of graphs and charts to support the ideas expressed in verse.

Davis wrote this poem, titled “The One and Only,” about monopolies:

It makes me crazy how you take me for granted.
An addict to your charms your Tyranny rules my Bazaar.
I am a camel in the desert, You, my only oasis
Demand that floats on scarce affections, buoyed by your denial.
Each breath more shallow than the last, as you draw greedy surplus from my lungs.
But let’s be honest, there is just no substitute for you.

She paired the poem with a graph showing the economic welfare impact of monopolies.

She has enlisted an eclectic team for her project: Jill McDonough, a poet who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Brian Roach, a senior researcher with Tufts’ Global Development and Environment Institute; and Ayanna Thomas, an associate professor of psychology whose research focuses on memory.

Davis still marvels at the poetic economics class. Students were receptive, inquisitive and creative. “It really was a special class—one you get once or twice in a career.” You can read more economics poetry at http://sites.tufts.edu/MaryDavis/poetry/.

The other Tufts Innovates projects funded for the next academic year are:

Using Problem-based Learning and Interactive Technology (WebEx) to Provide an Immersive Experiential Learning Environment in One Health. The principal investigator is Janetrix Hellen Amuguni, a research professor at Cummings School. The project will develop interdisciplinary, web-based cases for use in Tufts’ veterinary, medical and dental schools.

Teaching Democracy: A Curriculum for Popular and Community-based Education. The principal investigator is Penn Loh, the director of the master’s in public policy and community practice in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. The goal is to create a curriculum for students, faculty and community partners in community-based education methods that are effective in culturally and economically diverse communities.

The Science and Engineering of Music: Development of a New Course. Chris Rogers, a mechanical engineering professor and co-director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, is the principal investigator. He will create a course for science and engineering majors and for music students, who will learn about the engineering behind sound generation, the physics of sound and the art of composing. Classes will be built around teams of students with different expertise.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.