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The Death of the Chicago Style Seminar
If you give a paper at a university — most universities — you spend most of an hour and a half on an oral presentation of the paper. Any remaining time can be spent answering questions from people most of whom have just heard your ideas for the first time.
Many years ago, someone at the University of Chicago came up with a different model. At a Chicago style workshop everyone was expected to read the paper in advance. The author got fifteen minutes to half an hour — the time increased the farther you were from Chicago — to say whatever he wanted about his paper. After that it was open season, with members of the audience pointing out errors, raising questions, suggesting ways in which the paper might be expanded or improved. Great fun for all and the nearest thing I have observed to real time thinking by a group brain.
Some years ago I observed a striking demonstration of one advantage of the Chicago workshop. I was attending one, not at Chicago. Reading the paper, I noticed a mistake in the brief theoretical section that was supposed to motivate the conjecture tested in the statistical analysis that was the core of the paper. The authors had left a term out of an equation, had assumed, in effect, that when A sues B and wins, B pays damages but A does not receive them. Correcting that mistake reversed the conclusion of the theoretical section, implied that the conjecture they were testing was false rather than true. To restore the conclusion it was necessary to make additional changes, dropping one or another of the simplifying assumptions that had gone into the model.
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Before the talk started I mentioned the existence of the mistake to one of the authors. Shortly thereafter, another professor came in and also described the mistake to him. A few minutes after the talk started a third member of the audience, a very distinguished senior member of our profession, raised his hand and pointed out the same error.
What struck me was not the existence of a careless error in an unpublished draft of a scholarly article — we all make mistakes. What struck me was that this was not the first university the paper had been presented at. My guess is that none of the others followed the Chicago model; if your first contact with a paper is an oral presentation you are unlikely to check the details of the equations. Apparently nobody at those talks had.1
Maintaining a Chicago style seminar is difficult, requires a serious commitment by whoever is running it to stop the speaker when time runs out, which feels rude — it’s easier to let the speaker run a little over, the next speaker a little more. It requires a commitment by audience members as well, a commitment to read the paper before the seminar instead of just glancing over it. The two commitments are linked, since the more of the paper is going to be presented by the author the less the incentive to read it in advance.
I left Chicago more than twenty years ago, so after writing a draft of this essay I decided to look into the current status of the institution by corresponding with economists at Chicago, especially ones involved in running workshops. The result was depressing. I am not sure that what I have described still exists at Chicago. If it does, it is the exception not the rule.
One explanation offered for its demise was that economics has become more specialized, with the result that few of a speaker’s colleagues are interested in his work or competent to critique it. Another was that speakers were no longer willing to offer a work in progress, making a presentation a lecture on completed work by someone with little interest in improving it. A further exchange suggested that the equivalent of the workshop’s function, critiquing and improving a work in progress, was now done by interaction among coauthors: “The authors themselves can have a candid workshop among themselves while feeling that they are better controlling their reputations.”
When my daughter transferred from Oberlin to Chicago she was seriously considering majoring in economics, which she had enjoyed at Oberlin. She took one intermediate level econ course at Chicago and decided on her alternate major — because she was interested in economics, not in mathematics, and the course was mainly about the latter. I corresponded with a faculty member I knew who also had a daughter in the College and he agreed.
The difference between Oberlin and Chicago, as best I could tell, was that at Oberlin they were teaching economics, at Chicago, in the intermediate and presumably the advanced courses, they were preparing students for graduate school.2 That was the explanation my daughter got when she commented to her professor on the degree to which the course was about mathematics not economics. One of my correspondents suggested that “Very little of contemporary economics is actually economics. But the chief culprit, I think, is not preoccupation with math; it is preoccupation with statistics.”
Economics, as I knew and practiced it, was the universal can opener, a way of understanding human behavior that applied the same logic to a wide range of questions. My first economics journal article was a theory of the size and shape of nations, my most recent on Ronald Coase’s account of how China went capitalist, others on home heating, optimal law enforcement, the theory of the Just Price. On one occasion I discovered an article on patent law based on the same argument, the same logic, as an article of mine on criminal punishment.3
Viewing economics in that way it seemed natural to me to be interested in the application of economics to almost any topic, to participate in an econ workshop on any interesting paper whether or not in my own field. That no longer works if the important feature of a paper is not the economic logic but the details of the mathematics, statistics, or anything else that requires something other than economics to make sense of.
The model I have been discussing originated in the economics department of the University of Chicago, the people I have been asking about it are mostly Chicago economists. Does it exist, or has it existed, in other fields? If so, is there a pattern, are there common features of fields where it works or doesn’t work?
I don’t know but perhaps some of my readers do.
P.S. It appears, from comments to this post, that while the model may have been abandoned by economics departments it survives in law schools, at least at George Mason and the University of Chicago. Both have, or recently had, workshops in the economic analysis of law run along those lines.
The author told me that the error had been mentioned to him, although not explained, on one earlier occasion, but not by someone whose first exposure to the work was at a university talk.
The introductory economics course at Chicago, which my younger son took, was about economics, presumably because it was intended for students most of whom would not go on to do graduate work in the field.