[OPE-L:5638] [HANS] Email class about *Capital*

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Sun, 26 Oct 1997 16:18:54 -0500 (EST)

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Repo[r]t about my Email Class about Marx's *Capital*, by Hans Ehrbar.

I have taught classes about Marx's *Capital* at the University of Utah
for about ten years now. These classes were always fairly well
attendend. In 1994, when the administration of the University
encouraged their faculty to design courses which use high technology,
I jumped on the bandwagon and converted the course into an email
course. The course has the following format:

Every week, the students must answer specific study questions about
the assigned readings in *Capital*. These answers are sent to all
class participants in an email list which does not disclose the true
identity of the student but in which every student is represented by a
pseudonym. I make careful comments about these answers, and send
those to all class participants as well. The students are also
encouraged to comment on each other's homeworks.

I will first give my reasons for teaching *Capital* today, and then
argue why an email class is a good venue for this, and then describe
my experiences with the current class format.

*Capital* is a notoriously difficult text for anybody who is used to
the methodological individualism and positivism in modern social
sciences. Someone brought up in this tradition has a very hard time
understanding how Marx is arguing if one reads it on one's own. It
must be explained to you. But why is it worth the trouble? Because
the obstacles to understanding *Capital* are also obstacles to
understanding capitalism. Modern capitalist ideology is extremely
effective because it does not only rely on feeding distorted facts to
the masses, but it systematically deprives the masses of the
scientific categories which would enable them to learn from their own
experiences and to understand the society they live in. A careful
reading of *Capital*, which pays as much attention to Marx's method as
to what he says, gives the reader these missing castegories.

An excellent way of teaching *Capital* is to have the students first
read Marx's text and then give written reports about what they think
they have read. There are, of necessity, many misunderstandings,
because Marx's way of thinking about society are so different from the
methods in common use nowadays. If I carefully correct these
misunderstandings the students will not only understand Marx but also
develop the tools enabing them to understand their own exoeriences in
capitalist society. But such a close interaction between student and
teacher raises the issue: how can I as a teacher use my time most
effectively? Going through the students' reports and figuring out
what is right and what is wrong in them takes a lot of my time. If I
were to do this only on an individual basis, it would simply not be
feasible; I might spend hours on a student's submissions and perhaps
this particular student would not even read my comments. But in an
email setting each student gets to read each other's homework and my
comments on everybody's homework. Therefore instead of one student
reading my comments, several students do. Also the students can help
each other by commenting on each other's homeworks. Therefore an
email class allows me to give a much more thorough feedback to the
students' homeworks than the usual classroom setting.

Instead of me lecturing in class I am writing detailed Annotations
which take the reader through the most important chapters in Marx's
*Capital* paragraph by paragraph. I am refining and updating these
Annotations continuously, and the feedback of the students gives me
valuable input here. I know how much time and thought is put into the
usual textbook about Principles of Economics. Having a carefully
written text guiding the reader through Marx's *Capital* is in my view
a worth while project, and I am planning to eventually publish my
Annotations. I am also getting a very good sense of my students'
spontaneous understanding of capitalism.

The convenience of taking the course by email on one's own schedule
makes this course available to those students who are working etc.,
which leads to an increase in enrollment for the course. Recently the
course has always been fully booked (enrollment is capped at 50
students, since otherwise the email traffic for every student would
become too heavy, not to speak of my own time.) I have also always
invited outside observers who can listen in and participate in the
discussion from around the world. This makes a more interesting
discussion with more diverse points of view.

Now here are some experiences gained by teaching the course.

One of the basic "tricks" in this course is that I am using the
new and interesting email format with lots of individual feedback as
an incentive to get more people to read Marx. This basic trick has
worked as expected; I am getting students to read Marx who would
otherwise not have done it. Some of those are from the business
school (one student wrote me afterwards he was going to be a fairer
capitalist since he took my course), and many others are members of
the working class who take classes in their spare time.

At the beginning the course was very leniently graded, it was easy to
get an A. I was trying to give positive feedback and I discovered and
encouraged several very smart but poorly schooled working class
intellectuals in the process. However the good grades raised eyebrows
in the Adminstration and now I am required to grade at such a level
that the average grade is comparable to other Economics courses, i.e.,
is around a B. Although I consider this a violation of my academic
freedom, I went along with it. The flexibility of the email format
leads many students to underestimate the amount of time it takes to do
the course assignments. Often I get homework submissions where I have
the impression that the student has barely read the assigned readings,
and has picked a question which he thinks is easy to answer. Since I
have to deliver a low grade point average to the Administration, I am
on the lookout for those and I am trying to make sure that someone who
does not read the text also does not get good grades. To some extent
I have become a grade hunter. This is a bad situation to be in
because one is notoriously too suspicious of the students, and I am
trying to remind myself of this. On the other hand it has also
beneficial effects. If I allow some students to get by without
working, this makes those doing the work resentful. The overall level
of the class has improved since I started to grade more strictly.

In my responses to the students I am often very critical. Sometimes a
wrong way to think about the issues shows up in the students'
submissions only in subtle details. I have learned to pick up on such
details. I am trying to give feedback from which the students can
learn without having to feel defensive. I often reassure the students
that they should not feel offended if I am so critical, I do not mean
it personally. it is really not their fault, they are the victims
of a pervasive and very effective propaganda.

One big challenge is to encourage the students to interact more with
each other. There is a very strong implicit interaction. Students
learn a lot from each other's homeworks, but unfortunately the things
that are picked up most readily are the errors and misinterpretations
of Marx. I have to remind the class participants again and again that
that what other participants write is not necessarily reliable. I
also tell them that they should not try to guess what I want them to
write, but they should think through the problematic on their own
terms, even if the results they come up with are not "politically
correct." I am trying to grade accordingly. And I tell them that
risk taking is more rewarded than a too cautious attitude.

I wrote the software handling the mailing list myself and it is
tailor-mode for the class. It insists that the homework answers are
submitted on time, and answers to a question which is not currently
assigned are automatically rejected. I am trying to get a coherent
discussion on the internet, and this is not possible if late
submissions to Chapter 1, for instance, interrupt a discussion about
Chapter 4. I usually have a Monday midnight deadline for the answers
assigned in the previous week, and most of the answers are sent in on
Monday evenings. In order to get a better dispersion of the
submissions over the week, I require that on the average the students
have to make their submissions one day early. The computer also
automatically presents the Questions to me for grading and writing
replies, and at the end of the Semester it automatically tallies the
grades. In this way it takes many administrative chores away from me
and enables me to use my time for that what counts, namely, my
feedback to the homework submissions.

If you are interested in listening to the class discussion as
an observer, email me at ehrbar@econ.utah.edu, and I will
take you down for the class that starts in January.

Hans G. Ehrbar                                    ehrbar@econ.utah.edu
Economics Department                              (801) 581 7797
1645 E. Central Campus Dr. Front                  (801) 581 7481
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-9300                   (801) 585 5649 (FAX)