THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern
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William A. McEachern, Editor
From time to time in these pages, I discuss offbeat resources that might help students learn economics. Over the years, I've reviewed Cliffs Notes for Economics, Wiki Economics, Economics for Dummies, and The Cartoon Introduction to Economics. I turn now to the Cram101 Textbook Outlines published by Content Technologies. The Moorpark, California, company claims to have proprietary software that can "digest large amounts of content and distill it down to its essence." Using this software, Content Technologies has published thousands of Outlines for as many textbooks in various disciplines, including most of those used on your campus. Thus, the creator of these study guides is a computer program.
Here, from an opening page, is the publisher's guidance to students: "Cram101Textbook Outlines is a learning system. The notes in this book are the highlights of your textbook, you will never have to highlight a book again....Take this book to class, it is your notebook for the lecture. The notes and highlights on the left hand side of the pages follow the outline and order of the textbook. All you have to do is follow along while your instructor presents the lecture. Circle the items emphasized in class and add other important information on the right side. With Cram101 Textbook Outlines you'll spend less time writing and more time listening. Learning becomes more efficient."
What student wouldn't find that appealing? But does the product deliver? The textbook I know best is my own, so I'll assess Cram101 Outlines, Notes, and Highlights for: Economics: A Contemporary Introduction by William A. McEachern , 9th Edition (Content Technologies, 2012). Available on Amazon.com for $29.95, this study guide offers eight chapters in 370 pages. Thus, my 34 chapters are covered in eight chapters, one for each of my major groupings of chapters (e.g., my first four chapters offer an "Introduction to Economics," which becomes the title of Cram101's first chapter). Wouldn't it be easier for a student to follow along during a lecture if each of my textbook chapters had its own chapter in this study guide? Half the pages in this study guide are left blank for students' notes. The remaining pages consist entirely of definitions, none as short as a line and some that fill a page.
To give you some sense of these definitions, I'll focus on those in the first chapter, which, again, is supposed to cover my four introductory chapters. This Cram101 study guide's first chapter consists of 129 defined terms. Some of these appear nowhere in my first four chapters, and others appear nowhere in my book. Some are just weird. For example, a full page defines "General Architecture for Text Engineering," whatever that is. Another full page offers 11 definitions of "enterprise" including "Enterprise Rent-A-Car" and "Enterprise Architecture," then lists 13 "watercraft" named "Enterprise" (p. 30).
Okay, so this proprietary software screws up sometimes in picking out key terms, but, otherwise, how well does it do identifying and explaining actual economic terms? In my first four chapters, I boldface in the text and define in the margin a total of 121 key terms. In Cram101's first chapter, only 55, or 43%, of my key terms are defined. And some of those are off base. For example, "monopoly" is defined only as a board game from Parker Brothers. Meanwhile, here are some key terms that Cram101 overlooks: economics, resources, labor, wages, profit, division of labor, efficiency, and supply.
Some words and terms from my chapters defined in this study guide really need no explanationcommon words such as "line" and "attitude." Worse yet, the definitions provided for these words will only confuse. For example, "line," gets four definitions, all of which are irrelevant at best and nonsense at worst. And here's how "attitude" is defined: "In heraldry, an attitude is the position in which an animal, fictional beast, mythical creature, human or human-like being is emblazoned as a charge, supporter or crest." (p. 29).
Where do the Cram101 definitions come from? To find out, I Googled the first 20 definitions and found most on Wikipedia, pretty much verbatim. For example, look up "enterprise" on Wikipedia and you will find the odd list I just described, including the 13 "watercraft" named "Enterprise." The same goes for "attitude." I found other Cram101 definitions on a variety of other sites, ranging from chacha.com to the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because the exact wording of definitions in my textbook (or any textbook) is protected by copyright, Content Technologies had to come up with alternatives. Apparently, the software first searched my text for key terms, then searched the Internet for definitions, and finally copied those definitions into the Cram101 Outline. I doubt that a single human at Content Technologies ever read the search results that form this study guide. Still, that doesn't explain why the study guide lists some terms that are not in my textbook.
My quarrel is not with Wikipedia, though explanations there can be clunky, wordy, and far removed from any economic meaning, as we saw with "enterprise." Even when Wikipedia offers the relevant context, some of its definitions could still be wrong. For example, Wikipedia (and, as a result, the Cram101 study guide) claims that if one party has no absolute advantage in anything, then "according to the theory of absolute advantage, no trade will occur with the other party." But, of course, trade is based not on absolute advantage but comparative advantage.
This study guide provides no outlines of my chapters or sections, so I'm not sure why "Outlines" is in the title. And the only "notes" in the book would be any that the student adds. Nothing knits the definitions together, unless repetition counts as continuity. For no good reason, more than 100 of the 815 definitions in this study guide repeat verbatim those listed in earlier chapters. At least a half-dozen definitions mistakenly show up in every one of the eight chapters; such repeats include "De Beers" and "Deutsche Bank," each of which appears in only one of my 34 chapters.
I have spent years crafting my margin definitions so they are short, to the point, can stand alone, and don't read like dictionary entries. Any student who wants to focus on the key terms in my chapters can simply read my definitions. My glossary lists all 559 defined terms in 14 double-columned pages. The Cram101 Outline lists 815 definitions, including repeats, in 185 single-columned pages of print (I'm not counting the blank pages). For my textbook at least, this study guide is worse than useless because it will cost students time and money but will only confuse anyone who tries to use it.