Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to allow me to post some comments that he made on senior theses in economics, a topic we touched on here.

We will post, or post a link to, all those theses whose student authors agree to have them posted.

Again, kudos to Bradburd, Sheppard and the entire Economics Department. Note that other departments do not do nearly as good a job of advertising the work of their students. The only information that I can find about Political Science theses is here. Pretty pathetic. Why is it that Economics does so much better at this than other departments?

The college archives does this automatically. (There may be very good reasons for students to choose not to post their theses immediately. For example, some of our students have assembled original datasets through field interviews or archival research; we encourage such students to try to publish articles based on their theses, and making their data available via the web immediately might permit someone else to exploit the fruits of their efforts before they can do so.)

This is highly implausible, at least in economics. First, just because the thesis itself is on the web, the student does not have to supply the actual data. Second, even if a student did supply the data, the odds someone using this to “exploit” her work are vanishingly low. I’d wager that Bradburd can not provide a single example of such exploitation occuring in all of economics, much less in the context of an undergraduate thesis. I have never heard of one.

Third, this is exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of the economics profession believe. Check out the pages of the professors in the economics department (e.g., Lucie Schmidt, Jon Bakija, Robert Gazzale, and others.) Why do these professors put their unpublished working papers on the web, vulnerable to exploitation by evil economists around the world, if there is any real danger in doing so?

The answer, of course, is that there is no danger. In fact, the central difficulty in academia is getting noticed, getting other people to read what you write and take it seriously. For any economics student considering going further in the profession, the more widely read her undergraduate thesis, the better off she is.

I would oppose any suggestion that faculty comments be posted. This is so for several reasons. First, we often make our comments orally or in comments written on the drafts of papers. It is not reasonable to ask faculty to spend what would be by necessity a very significant amount of time typing up comments so that a very small number of alumni might read them.

This is a reasonable concern. Typing up the comments would take more time. But the real issue is not the actual typing time, it is the fact that, if the comments were to be placed on the web forever professors would feel compelled to take much more time in preparing them. And, to my mind, that would be a good thing. The intellectual environment at Williams should be made more serious. One small way of doing so is to have professor comments be published.

Second, sometimes our comments have to be quite critical; I don’t think that it would be appropriate for such comments to be disseminated for all to see.

Really? What was the most critical thing said last week? I found it hard to believe that it was very harsh. I find it almost impossible to believe that it wasn’t professional. At worst, it might have been something like, “You have interpreted the regression results incorrectlty; they actually demonstrate that your thesis is false.” As long as the comments are consistent with what professors would say at any professional forum — say if they were commenting on a panel at a meeting — then I don’t see a problem.

Indeed, the very fact that such comments might be disseminated would almost certainly alter the candor with which criticism was offered.

Why? Is this because economics professors think that thesis students — 22 years old and about to step out into the world — are thin-skinned little babies who can’t take accurate criticism? I don’t think that this is true. And, even if it is, refraining from criticism is the worst thing that you can do for such students. The real world will not be so kind. To the extent that Williams students haven’t learned how to deal with constructive, if trenchant, criticism, the College has failed them.

Third, all of our honors presentations are advertised in the college calendar and we welcome attendance at our presentations. (We even provide free coffee, tea, water, and cookies!) The best way to see what our students are accomplishing is to attend those presentations.

Again, I have always thought that the economics department did a fine job of this. Alas, many of the people who would be interested in knowing what, for example, Gordon Winston had to say about Lindsey Taylor’s thesis are unable to make it to Williamstown in person.

The more “public” that intellectual discourse is at Williams, the more seriously it will be taken by all concerned.

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