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Hoisted from Comments: Political Economy Major "Concentrations" at Berkeley

The highly-intelligent and industrious David Guarino writes:

Hoisted from Comments: David Guarino: Berkeley Political Economy "Concentrations": A few practical constraints from an "on the ground" perspective worth noting:

  1. The fleeting accuracy of course names: While the content of Econ 100B will rarely fluctuate beyond the relative weight given to short/medium-term and long-term/growth models, this is exceedingly the exception in PEIS spectrum. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, "Rhetoric of Social Science" the semester I took it turned out to be more a genealogy of Marxist approaches to economics since the school's namesake than anything else. This means the average PEIS student can rarely predict what combination of Dept names and 3-digit numbers fit within his or her thematic constraints in a given semester. This is to say nothing of the regularity (or lack thereof) of the offered classes.

  2. The shadow of regimes past: The advising staff has traditionally not accepted geographic concentrations, and many of the examples you've given appear to me to be just that. Not to say that I disagree with the notion; indeed, it may be the best "narrowing" mechanism to eventually lead to a thesis topic. BUT, you must recognize this would represent an implicit regime shift among the advising staff and likely for many of the major's stakeholders (at the very least whoever pushed for geography being insufficient in the first place).

  3. The frantic irrationality of a first-week student: Let's admit it, the vast majority of undergrads choose classes based on a few main considerations: to what degree the major forces one to take it, one's first impression of a professor, what time it's at, and how interesting the material seems. In my experience, most also select in this order. It's a simple iterated optimization game for people, with the major imposing most of the constraints.

My major point (no pun) is that most students just improvise their way through it all, and to a large degree this is what PEIS is about: lower bureaucratic constraints so that intellectual utility might be more fully optimized; the flexibility to take that one Agricultural Econ class that won't ever be offered again and not have to stay a ninth semester because they let you work it into your concentration. The primary problem is this leads to thoroughly confused students - even exceedingly dedicated ones - come senior year.

All this is to say concentrations in PEIS really cannot be planned. They arise from the strange iterated game mentioned already. And that fact must be recognized, if not actively encouraged as the norm. The major should be an exploration, with each stage (lower div's, core methods, concentration, thesis) progressively narrowing in scope. Perhaps more focus ought to be given to how each stage really contributes to the student's own ability to further narrow, through increasing exposure to the methodologies he or she is interested in applying to a specific problem.

(End rant)

As a comment on my:

The "Concentration" requirement in Berkeley's Political Economy major is meant to give students the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the nature of the relationship between politics and economics as it relates to a particular issue. You are graduating with a Political Economy degree. That means you know a little about each of history, sociology, political science, economics, possibly philosophy, rhetoric, anthropology, geography or other disciplines as well. You should know a lot about something. the Concentration requirement forces you to define that something.

Each student chooses an existing or potential issue or problem in political economy, and takes four courses bearing on that issue or problem. The courses need to inform the student's study of the Concentration topic. In a better world than this, the Concentration requirement would also include a senior honors thesis on some aspect of the Concentration topic.

The key to the Concentration requirement is that it is your own: the Concentration is self-defined. You must develop a topic that is an existing or potential issue or problem in political economy. You then choose four courses to inform inform your view and increase your knowledge. Select courses from different departments. Note that courses listed in the PEIS Student Handbook will automatically be approved for appropriate concentration topics--but courses not listed in the handbook can be taken for the concentration: all you have to do is make the case that it is appropriate for the concentration. And, of course, no double dipping: courses taken for your concentration cannot be double-counted towards another major requirement.

Here are fifteen sample recent concentrations. Note that these are not the best possible courses offered at some Platonic Ideal of Berkeley for this concentration--these are real-world courses that students can actually get into and take...